With no virtual alternative, Toy Fair 2021 really is cancelled – How does the industry feel?

There will be no virtual platform alternative to the 2021 London Toy Fair, the BTHA has confirmed, as it was announced this morning (Thursday, October 22nd) that next year’s London Olympia event has been called off, with plans to make its return in 2022.

The toy and hobby industry body has stated that it will be hosting an extended exhibitor listing on its own website with the opportunity to add company information, links, product photos and videos, a service which is being offered to all exhibitors.

News of the cancellation of the show has come as little shock to an industry that has watched the 2021 trade calendar dissipate over the course of the last few months. The London Toy Fair was the last in the traditional Toy Fair season of January and February to fold and confirm its plans to cancel.

Last month, both the New York Toy Fair and the Spielwarenmesse’s International Toy Fair held in Nuremberg detailed their own plans to postpone their shows, moving them from their usual January/February slots, to still-to-be-confirmed dates next summer.

The BTHA had kept the industry informed of its stance and that it was monitoring the ongoing pandemic crisis and the ever-changing safety restrictions put in place by the UK government. Over the course of that period, the organisation had urged exhibitors not to pay out for stand building operations until the final logistics of the event were confirmed.

“We have been working closely with Olympia London and we have together taken the decision that despite all best efforts and endeavours by both parties, regrettably the Toy Fair 2021 is unable to take place,” said the BTHA in an industry-wide statement.

“This conclusion is due to government restrictions now in place on large scale indoor events in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The wellbeing of our exhibitors, visitors, staff and contractors is paramount and currently the risks are considered too great to allow the show to go ahead as dictated by the government regulations.

“We empathise with the industry’s disappointment – this is the first year that Toy Fair will not take place in 66 years.”

The move has been met with a division of opinion over the decision to not offer a virtual alternative. It was recently that Brand Licensing Europe produced an all digital event under the four week long Festival of Licensing umbrella for the licensing industry, while earlier this year, the US’ Toy Association curated its digital Toy Fair Everywhere event. Both measured varying degrees of success.

Heather Welch, international brand manager at Edx Education was one of the British exhibitors to participate in Toy Fair Everywhere, who labelled the event a success, with the understandable teething problems along the way.

“It was a good experience for Edx Education as it provided a platform for business as usual for Q3 and Q4 for the USA toy industry,” she said. “However, we were very surprised by the international customers and exhibitors that came forward. There are teething issues with going to a virtual fair and limitations with software at times, however it improved each week.”

The BTHA told ToyNews that talks had taken place over whether to host a virtual event for London Toy Fair 2021, but that ‘it was decided that London Toy Fair is a face to face event,’ and thus the option was taken off the table.

But could a digital event for 2021 be what the industry needs to see it through what will now look like an uncertain first quarter of the new year? Already, toy firms are putting into place their own virtual alternatives. Gibsons recently detailed its plans for a virtual showcase for retailers in the wake of the traditional Toy Fair season for the New Year’s opening act, while Rubie’s just this week announced that its own digital showroom was now live with the team ready to take video bookings with customers.

The industry has also watched Asmodee enjoy such success of its virtual AsmoFair – curated in partnership with Coiledspring Games – that it launched a second run, tapping into an audience now coming to terms with what the digital showcase platform offers them.

Retailer, Duncan Conner of the Bus Stop Toy Shop situated in Largs on the West coast of Scotland, admits that he is a sporadic attendee of the London Toy Fair, but that technology and the virtual platforms available today would have made the process a lot easier this year. But at the same time, the move has been met with heartfelt support of the decision, labelled as ‘disappointing, but not surprising,’ across the industry, given the hardships that the hospitality sector has suffered at the hands of the pandemic.

Others, like Dr Gummer’s Good Play Guide’s own Dr Amanda Gummer, have even expressed a modicum of relief that a virtual alternative won’t be held for 2021, suggesting that Zoom fatigue has started to come into play for an industry so dependent on face to face meetings.

“I’m zoomed out so a bit relieved,” Gummer told ToyNews. “I’m sure there are things the BTHA can and will do to support the industry – I’m just not sure anyone is convinced of the value of the virtual shows.

“But I do feel sorry for the new guys who miss out on the chance to showcase their new products to the bigger retailers, and we’re looking at what we can do to support them as we need to maintain innovation within the industry.”

That’s a matter that does present concern for those still breaking into the toy space. London Toy Fair historically shines a media light across the breadth of the industry, often highlighting the innovation of some of the smaller companies working on a smaller budget and who are often hopeful of the media buzz that their products can get caught up in each year.

London Toy Fair has previously given rise to a number of award-winning independents – the likes of Paper Machine’s Independent Toy Award-winning Make Your Own brand included – who have gone on to have successful years, following media pick up from the show, while indie outfit, Junko enjoyed similar interest when it brought its eco-friendly focused construction kits to the table in 2018.

In fact, for many of the country’s independent toy shops, London Toy Fair has become a platform of discovery for the smaller business and the more unique product.

Whirligig Toys’ managing director, Peter Allinson, said: “We have established links with many suppliers who are reaching out in different ways and enabling us to research what they have to offer, sending samples where necessary and working around it.

“However, the new and tiny entrants to the Toy Market are well represented at Toy Fair and I would miss the opportunity to explore what they have to offer. Finding a way to help these people present their ideas and products to the independent market feel like something that the organisers of Toy Fair should think about.”

Peter Rope, the brains behind Junko, an example of one such company, is one of the many who will miss the opportunities to get his brand in front of buyers that Toy Fair presents next year, but is of the belief that a virtual event would not help the cause in any case.

“This may be my lack of vision, but I can’t see a format that would replicate the experience, buzz and theatre of the fair,” he told ToyNews. “I think there’s a fair chance a virtual experience would have be harmful to the brand and not deliver value for us exhibitors.”

Others aren’t quite so convinced. Consumer journalist, Peter Jenkinson, said: “While I understand that the show can’t go ahead next year in the usual slot, in these challenging times it is surely up to those who hold key dates in the calendar to offer some kind of digital alternative?”

Now with London Toy Fair 2021 joining the list of shows to be moved from their January/ February slots in the New Year, it leaves a sense of uncertainty as to what the year’s opening act will look like, bu the knowledge that 2021 is going to be a year in which the presence of the pandemic – know matter how virulent it may be by then – will still be felt across the toy industry.

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