Trade Event Report
Who Plays With Toys, Anyway? - The 2004 TIA Toy Fair, + + +
By Al Berrios (contact Al Berrios)

(Sunday, Feb 15-Wednesday, Feb 18)

Young men were missing. They were found playing video games. Along with their little brothers and sisters. How this bodes for the toy industry isn't yet known, but if tradeshow attendance is any indication, the industry is steadily, though in small increments, changing.

Last year, I attended the show and was granted press access after some, what I would call, irresistible charm by yours truly. It was a magical experience for me and one that has facilitated my access to countless executives since last year. Even more magical has been that after writing about so many topics, including toys, (a consumer products category my firm doesn't yet serve), public relations officials actually seek to offer me access to their clients' events. Life just doesn't get any better than this for a consultant.

But honestly, I wouldn't do this if you didn't read it. And since you seem to enjoy hearing about my thrilling escapades across elite business circles, the interesting people I meet, and the serious management advice offered in these reports, I might as well keep letting myself get access to $1000-conferences and fed for free.

Back at Javits, rather than pick up countless press kits and magazines (it took dozens of these things before I realized it made more sense to get 70-lbs of materials at the end of my visit, rather than before I started walking around) or walk around the still-enormous trade show floor in New York (or the ultra-secret 23rd and Broadway show floor where intellectual property is guarded like a corporate network by tech guys), I decided to find the "experienced" attendees and chat with them.

I met with a rep from one of the top magazines in the industry who had attended the show for the last 11 years; she expressed concern over the diminishing size of the show. When she first started coming, it was THE show to be at, if you could afford it. (Although the TIA Toy Fair is for both specialty and mass-market toys, there are shows all over the world that cater to both segments separately.) She noted how the show had decreased in relevance to many manufacturers.

I then visited another massive section of the show where manufacturers from Asia had their own area full of tchotchkes, other "toys" were merely balloons or signs, and model-train and other hobby toys were dominating the floor. Amongst this group, I encountered an elderly couple, both wearing matching red sweaters and thick-rimmed black glasses. I couldn't help but stop and ask them what they were doing here, not really interacting with anyone, and very much doing their own thing, unconcerned with the activity around them.

The Rainers have been in the toy business 44 years and have attended every Toy Fair since. Originally from California, the Rainers have seen the show since before Javits Center was built. And if you think that's amazing, they've been married 59 years! Bill, a youthful 73(?) had arrived from WWII and didn't enjoy working for corporate America (I unfortunately wasn't taking notes, and I believe this was the story). So, after about 15 years, he and his wife started Crestline Education & School Supplies, an importer/exporter, although Bill actually designs his ideas for educational toys at a rate of at least one per year (which he still does). Anyway, after all these years, The Rainers have seen it all. The industry has had its ups and downs, but the Rainers fully believe things to get better, just like it always does. Sure the show's attendance hasn't been the great in years, but it used to be worse.

So, what's the problem?

Has the show lost its prestige? Has it really lost its relevance to toy manufacturers? I believe it's the other way around. Manufacturers have lost their prestige and relevance to the show. They failed to adapt to changing times and got left behind. One manufacturer I interviewed the year before wasn't even there this year, even though they were listed in the directory. When I asked the manufacturer in its place, it was the same girl as last year, just wearing a different name badge. Turns out her former company was having liquidity issues and offered their lease on the show floor to a European competitor. It was more evident to me now why Mattel and Hasbro dominate the industry. There are practically no barriers to entry in the toy business, and deals were done with so many fly-by-nights, that retailers often stuck to the big names they can trust.

My assessment last year - that the industry in its current state will indeed survive - remains true today. But not because of the explosion of innovation. Because that is the nature of a business with these economic characteristics. It's very much a part of the entertainment business, and just like the entertainment business, where anyone can entertain, and there will always be a customer for that entertainment, it'll never disappear. Just like all other choices that consumers have, non-video-game-toys offer an alternative they enjoy. And as long as toy manufacturers continue to adapt to changing consumer habits with their products, they will remain in business for as long as the Rainers have.

Conspicuously, I didn't notice a single vide-game company there.

Overall, this event merits 3 pluses (+ + +).


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