A guide for first-time exhibitors looking to make the most of the toy industry’s biggest stage.
This article originally appeared on Medium.
I’m the CEO of a tech toy startup, and as such this article is for toy fair first-timers.
Yes, there are mega booths at Toy Fair and many of them are private, protected from the eyes of the everyday showgoer. But for most of us, we’re there to be seen and being seen is important.
This year, at Toy Fair New York 2016 we ran our first-ever booth at the show, a 10' x 10', the only size available to first time exhibitors. We were located on the main floor (of two) on the outer rim; part of the the ever-growing “Tech Alley”.
We attended toy fair last year, and were lucky enough to have a 2' x 2' space inside another companies booth (thanks Plus-Plus USA!) and despite the limited exposure and a 1-month old prototype of Bloxels, we managed to be honored with Best of Toy Fair 2015 from Popular Science. This year we were ready to do it on our own.
Truthfully, it was a nerve-wracking experience. However, lots of planning and attention to detail made it a huge success for us. It ultimately went much smoother than we expected, in large part thanks to the materials, seminars, and high-touch contacts provided by the Toy Industry Association (TIA).
In this in-depth article I wanted to share what we found worked for us, in hopes that your Toy Fair New York 2017 and beyond will be successful too.
Toy Fair New York is every year in Mid-February at the Javits Center. It’s always really cold, and always on Valentine’s Day (sorry, Ashley).
First Things First
Should you build it yourself?
If it’s your first year, first and foremost I recommend doing it yourself. The costs are ultimately going to add up quickly without involving a 3rd party and expensive materials.
We spent close to $10k doing it ourselves, including travel — more on budget later, and if it was all worth it.
First and foremost, assuming your product and message is in development while preparing for the show, it helps to have the flexibility to customize your booth and not be locked-in to concepts that can’t be changed late in the process.
Do you run the risk of the booth looking amateur? Possibly, but honestly most of the booths at Toy Fair among the smaller companies look amateur compared to the larger companies anyway. Also, it doesn’t take a huge budget to make it look well planned and consistent with your brand.
You can certainly spend a lot more, as I’m sure the guys did below (and I loved this booth), but you don’t have to go this far to stand out.
We’ll cover more on building and setup below.
Registering for Toy Fair
Registration is easy and we did not find it overly selective. You’ll pay 75% upfront in October and 25% in December leading up to the event mid-February. The cost for a 10’ x 10’ booth was $3,200 in 2016 for new exhibitors and included 1-year of TIA membership ($1,700 value) which does give you access to some great resources. Larger booths are not available for first-timers.
When you register, also make sure the product you are promoting is what is listed in the program. For us that meant our product name Bloxels instead of our company name Pixel Press. For most this won’t be an issue, just make sure people will be able to find you with the name that matters the most for the show.
Picking Your Spot
After you’ve made your down payment you’ll be contacted to setup a call to pick your booth location, which for us happened in September and was officially assigned to us on October 1st. This is important as you’ll need to know your booth’s relationship to other booths before you can start planning. For example, are you on a corner or are other booths on both sides?
The TIA is particular about you being available for a call during a certain time slot, but it’s pretty casual from there on. You’ll have a quick call and be able to see online what is available and you’ll be able to get helpful input on location. As a first-timer and therefore being at the end of the list, your pick will be slim. If you pick a corner it will be ~$200 more. I’d recommend grabbing anouter rim spot on Level 3. There are 2 levels, but this is the main one.
The 2 floors are huge. You can see where we were on Level 3 below(marked with the red dot ) in and we thought it was a great spot. You’ll hear that the veteran showgoers like to browse the outer rim because they know the scrappy companies are there and it’s the best place to find new, innovative products.
If you can get a corner spot, grab it, as it will give you more booth flexibility and an extra entry point to work with, but most likely you won’t have that luxury as a first-timer.
Now that you have your booth location you can start planning, but you won’t hear from the TIA for a bit.
Sometime in November you’ll be assigned an official representative from TIA to assist you along the way and I found ours to be very helpful. You’ll get access to a few rookie seminars on things like booth setup and garnering press at the show, and an invitation to the “Product Preview” on the Friday before the show to have your product screened and presented to the press. I found all of this very helpful and highly recommend taking advantage of the free resources that are offered.
Top Tips from a Pro
Because we attended without a booth the year before (something we highly recommend if you have the chance) we were not only able to get a lay of the land, but meet some veterans as well.
- Make sure you show the actual product and play experience, not just a big display. You need to help retailers visualize how it will appear in-store.
- Make sure you have enough storage for product samples, staff coats and bags, water etc. Hopefully you will be too busy to leave the stand.
- Make sure the brand name is clearly visible both close to the product on display and so that it can be seen by people searching for the booth.
All great advice! Of course every booth will be different based on the product experience, but try to be creative with the space and be unique to your brand.DON’T rent a table from the exhibitor company, jam it in the front of your booth, and create a less-than-engaging experience. You want people to feel welcome and engaged.
Planning Your Booth
Start Early & Build a Mock-up
We started buying a few materials for our booth in October, once we knew our spot, and began laying out it in our conference room in December — slowly assembling, evaluating the flow, and tweaking.
If you have the space, lay out tape of the 10' x 10' booth (it will be smaller than you think once stuff is in it) and start visualizing and building.
This is critical, because things like the design of your banners will be affected by the placement of your table space; the size of the TV (if you have one) will have an impact on your banners; where you store your jackets will ultimately matter a lot if you don’t want it to be cluttered; etc., etc.
Point is, planning is key.
Below is likely the diagram you will receive to give you guidelines for building your booth.
All in all getting everything ready was a lot of work, and everyone got involved. Kudos to Josh for helping with a lot of the logistics and to Daniel for his superb work on the booth graphics. Bottom line, the booth should be a team affair.
Hyping Your Booth
There is really only so much you can do to hype that you will be at Toy Fair, as it’s only relevant to a small section of your audience. However, we suggest you make a point to “drip” this information as you approach the event and amplify it as you get closer. Use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hash tag #TFNY and #TFNY17.
You’d be surprised how many people we met at our booth this year who knew about it beforehand, and if you can “wow” them once they get there, those will be the first people driving traffic to your booth while at the show. This was very helpful in generating buzz.
Did you just scroll directly to this section? Yes, I understand. On top of the $3,200 it will cost you to register your booth, you are going to have some major expenses to pull everything off.
A lot of it will depend on how many people go and from how far you are flying (if you have to fly). Here is a rough and incomplete outline of our budget, with notes below on how we saved money to keep everything to around $10k.
- Booth Registration $3,200
With the first-year exhibitor discount of ~$200.
- Booth Materials $4,000
Includes custom banners, cabinets from IKEA, carpet ($200 rented from exhibition company), electricity ($150). We brought the TV from our conference room.
- Giveaways $1,000
We already had this for the most part, but it does add up and it helps to have a lot. Make sure you have at least 400 double sided sell sheets targeting retailers and as many or more business cards. We gave away t-shirts, more in-depth pamphlets, and we had custom slap bracelets that people really enjoyed. You know, for the kids.
- Shipping of Materials to the Event
This can cost a lot if you are not careful. We estimated shipping materials there and back would have cost around $1,500 via UPS and that was with our shipping partners discount. We decided to drive our materials to the show (15 hours from St. Louis, ouch). It was a lot of work and tiring, but we saved a lot in this area and eliminated flights and material handling fees in the process.
- Material Handling ($150 per 100 lbs)
What is this material handling you speak of? Well, if you ship your items you’ll have to pay around $150 per 100 pounds for your materials to be stored, unloaded, and then reloaded at the end of the show. Considering one of our small cabinets weighed 75 lbs, this can really add up. Alternatively, you can bring everything yourself in an SUV or small van and move it in through the front entrance — again eliminating a ton of cost between flights, shipping and material handling. What are the rules? You have to be able to actually carry the item by hand, you can’t use dollies, just 2 wheeled hand carts, and someone has to stay at the car at all times. This work around is primarily meant for carrying in your product, not your entire booth, but we did it with everything and didn’t have any trouble meeting the requirements. This was a huge savings for us and probably was the difference maker for us to have a successful show and budget left over for other things like PR (more on that later). Assuming the TIA will be reading this, please don’t change this policy, please!
- Flights ($400-$600/person)
This cost will be eliminated if you drive as we suggest above, and of course how many people are going. If you book far enough in advance and are in the US you should be able to find flights round trip for $400.
- Hotels ($150/night, 5 nights per person)
Hotels are cheap in NY compared to San Francisco. You can book ahead and get a nice place for $150, or book 3 days out and get the same nice place for $175. Setup is on Friday and teardown is the end of the day Tuesday, so you’ll need 5 nights per person, unless you take off Tuesday night. Other ways to save cost here are of course to stay with friends, which a few of us did.
- Food $50 person/day
Food at the Javits is expensive and not always great (sorry!). Food in New York is also expensive but amazing (yep!). $50/day is probably on the low side, especially if you are planning a team dinner or two.
- Union Labor $200/hour
By rule, you aren’t supposed to use any tools to setup your booth, else you should be hiring union labor. We got some dirty looks from New York’s finest, but outside of that they have bigger fish to fry. These guys are primarily working with the larger companies, where the booths require heavy equipment and in some cases power tools.
- Internet $8/day or more
Internet is available over the air just as you would pay for it on an airplane each day, and it works about as well. If your demo depends on it you should upgrade to the dedicated line (~$3,500 for the entire show, wowzers!) or a cheaper route would be to add multiple tablet devices to your wireless plan. We had a few iPad’s connected to our AT&T wireless plan ($10/month) and that worked well. This may not be a good option if you are running a lot of PCs.
- The Extras
As you get closer to Toy Fair, you’ll get lots of emails both from the TIA and from those who got your email from lists. The only “extras” we paid for were to have our logo in the program ($250) and the online press room (VPO) which came along with the press release distribution we were paying for anyway; around $1000 total (and admittedly not budgeted above). If you have the cash, there are some really cool marketing opportunities. Anywhere from event program ads to lobby graphics and visuals, to costumed characters. But for us, staying focused on making the most of the 10' x 10' space we had direct control over was our priority.
Who should go?
This is always a challenge with events and travel, as there is a company culture impact for small teams.
Here are our tips:
- Bring those who have demonstrated skills in other smaller demonstration experiences. Some people thrive on long days and high touch points, some don’t. Those who excel in this area should be rewarded.
- Have enough people to simultaneously support effective demos, write retail orders (if applicable), take physical and mental breaks, and attend meetings. 4 people for us would have been too few, 5 would have been perfect, 6 may have been too many. But with 6 we had the luxury of a “scout” to check out the floor, record video interviews, and in some cases drive a few people to our booth just from a conversation. If you are taking meetings at the show, which will certainly pull you from the booth, only having 3 people will make the show hard for everyone.
- Bring a developer if you have a complex product — even if they aren't good at being a booth personality. It’s good for them to see your product in action with everyday showgoers and to get a chance to understand customer needs. And they may just end up letting some of that critical “customer empathy” rub off on the rest of the team.
The Friday Move-In
Move-in will be on Friday before the show officially starts on Saturday. If you took advantage of the material handling, you would have needed to coordinate shipping your items in during a scheduled day (Tues to Thur the week leading up to the show) and your items should be waiting for you at your booth. If this is you, congrats, it cost you but you are going to have a much easier Friday.
If you are hand carrying as we did, you’ll be doing that as early as 8 a.m. on Friday. For us it was around 10 a.m. It took us 5 hours to setup a relatively complex 10' x 10' booth (or about as complex as you can get away with and not pay union labor). That was with 4 people and it didn’t feel overly rushed. They say the floor closes at 6 p.m., but I’m told you can stick around much longer. Do yourself a favor though and get your team out of there by 6 p.m. so you can rest-up for the big day.
I spent a good amount of time taking notes along the way of things that I wanted to make sure the team understood while on the show floor. Anywhere from how to pitch, how to demo, how to respond to pricing questions, answering hard questions, answering “what’s next” questions and more.
We met for about an hour after setup on Friday to talk through what we called the Team Fact Sheet and collaboratively updated it both that day and each day of the show. Consistency is important, as is flexibility in the message. Communicate what is working and what is not with each other on a daily basis. By the end of the show you’ll all be pros at pitching.
If you have a complex product experience, spend a good amount of time on everyone understanding what you perceive to be the best demo. However, also be prepared to be flexible and adapt during the show, and share notes with each other. I keep mentioning that because it was key for us. Also consider setting up a group text. Everyone can better stay in communication and share exciting things, tips and more.
Recognize that this show also has different sub-audiences. Demos may need to vary based on who you are pitching.
For Toy Fair, the most prominent sub-audiences we found were:
- Specialty Toy Store Owners
- Medium and Large Retailers
- Toy Manufacturers / Exhibitors
- Toy Distributors
- Sales & Marketing Organizations
- Other Service Providers (Manufacturing, Legal, etc.)
Focus on the first three, and the others will be some form of that.
Lastly, we politely encouraged everyone to stay on their game the night before and not come in dragging. While the lure of the New York night is high, nothing can be worse than being hung-over at a trade show. Yes, growing up is lame sometimes, but at least there are toys!
What to Expect Each Day
The warm-up day and the big day(s).
This is likely not the rule, but our experience with the four days of the event are as follows:
- Saturday, warm-up day. Moderate traffic, a chance for everyone to get their pitch and demo down. Pack it with any pre-arranged partner and press meetings — but not the really big ones since your pitch isn’t perfected yet. Your goal should be to get your team in the flow on this generally slower day.
- Sunday, off-day. Advance schedule as many meetings as you can on this day as you’ll find more will pile up on Saturday and Monday as you get closer to the show.
- Monday, the first big day. We found most traffic happended on this day, and a lot of booth referrals (“Someone said I should come see this!”). This is your big day. Be ready!
- Tuesday, the second big day. It’s a short day (ends at 4 p.m, not 6 p.m) and will go by in a blur. Traffic will be nearly as high as Monday, and it may be busier if you have a lot of leads and partners coming by for a last look. For whatever reason our pre-scheduled meetings were very light this day, and that’s probably a good thing.
You will make sales, and you will talk to the press, but the highest volume action will be pitching, demoing and then collecting leads.
Here are our tips:
- Treat everyone the same. Yes, a demo to a patent attorney might be a relative waste of time compared to talking with a 100-store retail chain, but if you start cutting people short it will throw you off your game. The best way to combat this is to have enough help in your booth and prioritize who is demoing to who. It’s okay to politely switch people mid-demo; you’ll need to do it from time-to-time.
- Ask for the business card. It’s more or less expected, and you are wasting your time if you don’t get a card. You’ll have to remind your team of this constantly, and that’s okay. (Mark!)
- Take notes and have a system. We took notes after talking to each lead on a 4" x 6" note pad and taped the card to the sheet. This was super helpful later on. Next year we’ll have a system for pre-organizing these based on the sub-audiences outlined in a previous section, and also have a “hot” folder to be sure we don’t miss any at the show follow-ups or day after Toy Fair follow-ups.
- Be sure to put your initials on the notes so that whomever is breaking them down later can circle back if they have specific questions. If there are ACTIONS ITEMS, mark them very clearly.
- Larger retailer groups or organizations will have lots of team members on the floor. For example, a marketing group we talked to had 40 people at the show! If you have the chance, group your cards at the end of each day and let the team flip through the entire collection. Having that extra insight into who is coming by and being able to reference key names like CEOs — or even just that “someone from your company” had been by already — can help fuel the hype.
Speaking of Hype, that’s why you are here, right?
Garnering press coverage, building floor hype & more.
To make the show a success, hype is key. Creating a buzz on the floor will increase the volume of press, which in turn will lead to more traffic and more leads, and more on-floor sales.
It’s hard to describe the energy you’ll have when every other person coming by your booth is saying “I was told I have to come see this.” It’s a lot of fun and it’s a big opportunity to figure out what people really like about your product.Take notes.
To start the hype, we had an awesome article go live the morning of day 2, and that helped contribute to a lot of excitement among our team, attendees from the first day, and those who knew about us and were planning to visit us later in the week.
To get great press, launching a brand-new product at Toy Fair helps, which was the case for us with Bloxels, as it was just released a few weeks prior to the show. We saved our press outreach to coincide with this event and were lucky enough to attract the attention of a few people who had covered us before.
For the most part though, 30 days out from the show we were starting from scratch.
Building momentum with press along with prepping for the show and also running a business is a daunting proposition, so we decided to hire an independent PR representative.
We’ve found you can spend a lot of good money on PR, and we were fortunate enough to find someone with the right experience to maximize Toy Fair for us. We started working with Andrea about a month out and she used a combination of the TIA provided Toy Fair press list (which you can get for free with your registration) and our own press list to start building the conversation.
Andrea sent out a press alert 2 weeks out, then a distributed (paid) press release the Tuesday before the show launched on Saturday, and then a reminder to the initial contact list the day after the press release. That coordination, along with helping to schedule meetings, sending out digital press kits, and then timely follow-ups was a huge time savings for us and relieved a lot of stress — not to mention it was highly effective. If you can budget $2500 to $5000 (again, also not included in the budget above) for the month leading up to toy fair and the month after you should do it. Plan to cover at least a 2 month window as there is a good amount of pre-show prep and post-show follow up.
PR tip: Have something more worth talking about. Try to find a unique story (or more bluntly, a hook) that gives your story a bit more punch. Even a product launch can feel a bit too promotional for top press if you don’t have a story to go along with it. For us, we shared the details of an upcoming event to exclusive press, our “Kids as Video Game Makers” competition, which had a compelling storyline to tell in addition to our product launch. This helped us get into Forbes the next day.
Ultimately, a combination of press, a hook, and the uniqueness of our product brought a lot of hype to the show. This resulted in an absurd amount of cards, many resulting invery meaningful opportunities, and more importantly real sales.
Getting Your $ Worth
Let’s face it, you are here to sell, and there are plenty of buyers. While Toy Fair is not traditionally known as an order taking show we’re told, there are plenty of opportunities to write orders with specialty retailers. Further, you may only be a week or so away from a trial order with a mid-sized retailer that can lead to real sales.
Here are our tips:
- Have a process down for creating an email-able invoice on the floor and to take a credit card payment if offered. We use Quickbooks Online, which has a nice mobile app and card reader. We were able to write an order in a few minutes and even send off a PDF invoice immediately.
- Have a “show special.” For us it was free shipping on orders of $300 or more. Specialty retailers love free shipping, and ideally an order on a small quantity will lead to more orders in the future.
- For mid-sized retailers (and of course larger retailers) be in the mindset to pitch the concept of a trial order, 200–300 units that will spread across multiple stores. Be prepared to talk about “point of sale” tools like banners, sample display product, video displays and more. Point of sale is a separate topic all together, but the general strategy is spend as much as you can to make the trial launch successful in these stores to ensure follow on orders. Even if you don’t have it all figured out yet, have this mindset when talking with mid-sized retailers, you’ll come across like you know your game and be more likely to close.
- You will talk to mass retailers. Take the cards and follow up, but remember you need to find success at the lower levels before you go after mass. The general advice I’ve received is: Don’t try to get into mass if you don’t have a broad product awareness, which often means you’ve also spent a lot on marketing.
- Be humble, thankful, and ask for the referral! Many specialty retailers have friends and peers on the floor or friends back home watching on social media. If you build a good report or make a sale, don’t be afraid to ask them to share their interest in your product verbally with others at the show and on their social accounts.
Whoa, is it that time already? Are you tired yet? Yes you are. But if things went well you’ll also be running on adrenaline by this point.
Move-out is strictly set to after 4 p.m. on the last day of the show, Tuesday. With the task to tear down and hand carry in front of us, we suspected that it would be a nightmare. That was far from the case. We were packed up and in the car by 5:30 p.m., and leaving town by 6 p.m. We hope your experience is the same!
How to stand out, have fun, and why attending is important.
If you are going to Toy Fair New York, the goal is to stand out and build hype, so consider that your number one priority. Doing so will lead to more booth traffic, press leads, and ultimately more sales both at the show and after.
To stand out, you’ll need to be sure you are offering something unique and fresh. Last year drones were cool, this year every other booth was drones. Maybe some did something different, but at a show like this it all looked the same save a few smart exceptions.
This year there were a lot of companies doing educational gaming with toys, but no one was doing game creation with toys for the sake of game creation, and with a simple, nostalgic, pixelated twist. It stood out for us and we benefited because of it.
If you are building physical objects targeted towards kids, regardless of how much of it is a “toy” you should highly consider Toy Fair. It’s a major industry event. There are lots of buyers, and lots of opportunity to network with your first specialty toy store customers all the way up to the titans of the retail and manufacturing industry. The network you’ll build is a once-a-year opportunity.
Above all, have fun because it’s toys and it’s an awesome industry to be a part of. Don’t be afraid to be social both in-person and also online by sharing the toys you that catch your eye. Your fans are excited to be there and want to see what impresses you just as much as they want to see your product.
I’ll hope to see you there next year! If I can help in anyway please email me at robin [AT] projectpixelpress.com or on Twitter @robinrath.
If you enjoyed this article, please share and like, thank you!
So did we make our money back? Dollar for dollar at the show, yes, and lots more to come.