Newcomers might be surprised to find that large portions of the upcoming New York Toy Fair are roped off and off limits. A curtain, stanchion, booth wall, or “booth babe” acts as barrier to prevent entry into top secret showrooms that are invite only. Many manufacturers opt to exhibit in off-site showrooms, as if they merely happened to be displaying product in Manhattan over the course of the same week that Toy Fair hits the city. Woe be the fool who tries to gain admittance into these exclusive areas without their name present on a pre-approved list.
Of course, those of us who are not first-timers know people, and know people that know people, so we can usually finagle entrance by reaching out in advance or tagging along with a friend. Inventors, vendors, agencies and media can, with careful planning, push aside Toy Fair’s barriers. Competitive manufacturers need not even try.
But there is one sure-fire way of viewing those top-secret, mysterious showrooms: go on the internet. Manufacturer-sanctioned images and descriptions will have made their way online to industry and public news outlets. Some of it will even be on the evening news. Yep, by the time Toy Fair opens its doors next week, virtually every single product shown in a closed-door showroom will have been premiered to the media, collectors and various other parties. Those secret showrooms feature few to no surprises to anyone with a laptop, tablet or smartphone.
So why all the secrecy? Conventional wisdom says manufacturers are concerned about competition, particularly from the various copycat manufacturers out there, ripping off products and tossing cheapened versions into the market before U.S. manufacturers can get their products out. But copycats can use the vast array of photos and descriptions available online.
Another probable explanation is that manufacturers don’t want their showrooms clogged up with unwanted guests while product is showcased for retail buyers. But is mid-February really still the time for buyers to view products? Most major- and mid-sized manufacturers hold elaborate private showings and demonstrations quarterly. Walling off Toy Fair isn’t protecting intellectual properties or even enabling buyers.
I’m not sure why manufacturers exhibit so secretly at Toy Fair. I don’t see a whole lot of reason for the curtains, stanchions, and walls. Come to think of it, I’m not sure why our industry is so secretive in general. There will of course always be necessary restrictions between businesses competing for market share. Confidentiality is vital throughout development. But these dividers extend too far into our industry. Toy invention firms are relegated to battling over dwindling SKU counts; they close their doors and hide their ideas. Manufacturers plan elaborate, clandestine battles for space in an ever-shrinking action figure aisle. Doll makers compete for vital licenses. All the while, the industry stagnates and loses a bit of ground to other avenues of play like video games, smartphones, and entertainment. The toy industry is stuck in a turf war instead of expanding. These bindings are debilitating industry-wide innovation and thought-leadership. The tourniquet of secrecy is wrapped too tightly.
All indicators point to relatively flat toy sales in 2012. Expect further tightening of the tourniquet. Richard Gottlieb wrote that the very best thing Toy Fair (and so many other industry events) offers is the thought leadership of those assembled. I say, once a year, pull back the curtain and collaborate. As a group and as an industry, innovate the future of toys and play. Expand horizons beyond the ever-shrinking aisles and the increasingly similar line offerings.
What are we so afraid of?
In his roles as Strategy Director of Entertainment Brands at Manifest Digital, Co-Founder at toy invention studio Other Door Entertainment, and ChiTAG committee member, Brian Torney is an innovator in the toy industry, kids entertainment, and product/brand initiatives.