The Tradeshow, Reinvented


Toy Fair Everywhere and ASTRA Camp debut as virtual alternatives

by Tina Manzer

The Toy Association has cancelled Toy Fair Dallas 2020, scheduled for October 6 through 8. What’s more, it has postponed Toy Fair in February 2021, based on feedback from exhibitors and retail buyers, plus the latest facts related to the pandemic and business travel. “We are developing with our members a Toy Fair offering in the spring of 2021 and, of course, the always anticipated Toy Fair New York in the expanded Javits Center in February 2022,” said a letter from association President Steve Pasierb.

A successful web-based backup

But connecting industry professionals virtually became a Toy Association reality this summer with the launch of Toy Fair Everywhere (TFE). Successful online markets in July, August and September were designed to meet long-lead and fourth-quarter buying/selling needs.

More than 570 brands and nearly 30,000 products were showcased during the three market weeks. With unlimited virtual booth space, exhibiting companies leveraged the online platform to book meetings, upload product catalogs, and access real-time analytics to tailor their buyer outreach.

Unlike other trade groups, The Toy Association’s online option was ready when in-person meetings were shut down indefinitely in March. “We’ve been working on a virtual experience for the last seven years,” revealed Kim Carcone, the group’s vice president, market events. “Little did we know how essential it would become in 2020.”

“We leveraged years of development and the deep talents of our technology partners to make it more than a stopgap response to the limitations of the pandemic,” said Steve Passierb. “Instead, it paves the way toward a year-round business-generating solution for the toy community, even when normal travel meetings and trade shows resume.”

Dmitriy Zverev and Keiko Webb from UKidz LLC, distributor of the UGears brand of wooden automated models, exhibited at TFE’s three markets. “We will not lie – putting the booth together was a lot of work. The format – banner size, description length, etc. – was different from other platforms we use so it took us a good month-and-a-half to complete.”

But among the benefits of the platform was the ability to upload multiple images of each product, including lifestyle images, to give buyers a better idea of playability and functionality, short of experiencing it in person.

“The flexible schedule was another advantage,” they told me. “Retailers all over the world could log in any time to check out the showroom.”

Traffic during the first market week was lighter than they would have liked; possibly due to unexpected issues with the brand-new platform that prevented buyers from logging on at first. The bugs were quickly ironed out, however, and The Toy Association tacked extra days onto the schedule to compensate. 

“We also feel that a lot of retailers and reps were unsure of what ‘virtual show’ meant. The unfamiliar format may have discouraged them from participating,” Dmitriy added.

However, the two believe that virtual experiences like TFE are effective as a supplement to physical shows, “for return customers and others who are not afraid to try new items. Still, buyers may be hesitant to invest in new products they see only online. Feel and touch will still be essential in our industry.”

Ukidz launched multiple new products and four new brands at TFE and at ASTRA’s virtual markets in August. In addition to UGears, Ukidz now distributes PIXIO magnetic blocks, Babai wooden toys and games, and MATADOR and Unit Bricks construction sets. 

ASTRA members came together at Camp

As an online alternative to its annual June tradeshow, ASTRA Camp was developed by the team at the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association. The virtual experience was available August 4 through 6 and 11 through 13. Among its features were exhibits with live Q&As and videos, educational sessions, and “a full schedule of online social events and programs, ranging from a Lip Sync Battle to campfire singalongs,” reports Dee Marsden, the association’s marketing & communications manager. “As of Wednesday, August 12, 1,097 ASTRA Camp attendees had taken part in this adventure with us. The exhibitors’ Camper Huddles – live Q&A and presentation sessions – had strong attendance. During the first week, numbers nearly doubled from the Tuesday start to the Thursday finish.”

Attendance was high for education sessions and evening social events, too. There were also many engaged participants in a Facebook group for ASTRA Camp attendees, Dee adds. “Community and connection have been key elements of ASTRA Camp from the very beginning. We are hearing that connecting with industry friends in this way has been incredibly important and meaningful for attendees. It’s been fun for us to see memories made in a whole new way.”

ASTRA’s Game & Kit Night, a popular live event at Marketplace, was creatively presented through videos of kids testing products. In between the segments, ASTRA Camp participants had a chance to play the games for prizes.

“There are elements of ASTRA Camp that may continue forward, even when a live Marketplace & Academy is available,” Dee concludes. “The world out there is not what it was six months ago. Just like many of our members who have to shift and reinvent themselves in this new industry landscape, so must we.”

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