During the holidays we published our Raising Nerd Wish List, a shopping guide for parents looking for the best Nerd toys and books for their Nerds. Last month, Raising Nerd’s Imperfect Dad traveled to a place where those wishes come true: New York Toy Fair 2017.
For the past 114 years, the Toy Industry Association’s North American International Toy Fair has welcomed thousands of toy manufacturers, mass and specialty retailers, distributors, importers, and inventors from nearly 100 countries. The first Toy Fair in 1903 included fewer than 10 exhibitors, including Lionel Trains. This year’s event boasted more than 1,100 toy companies hawking wares to more than 10,000 retailers on three levels of New York’s enormous Jacob Javits Center. Those numbers aren’t surprising, considering the industry generates $25 billion in the U.S., annually.
After a quick Acela ride up from DC and cab ride from Penn Station to my hotel adjacent to Times Square, I met up with my Nerd colleague, Clueless Dad, to plot my strategy for covering a record 443,000 square feet of exhibit space in just two days (I had to hustle back home in time for my wife, Cool TechMom, to leave on her own business trip). I could’ve planned for weeks and still not hit my goals.
I’ve been to Networld + Interop, the giant data networking infrastructure tradeshow. I’ve been to Las Vegas for the Super Bowl. Heck, I just got back from a trip to Orlando, where my family and I did the Magic Kingdom one day and both Universal theme parks the next. None of that prepared me for the amount of sensory overload I encountered on the Toy Fair exhibit floor. The energy and creativity that enveloped me at the Javits Center was, at once, inspiring and exhausting.
But it was all awesome. My immediate, involuntary reaction was a whisper: “Whoa.”
When I was a kid, we rarely set foot inside a Toys R Us, or any toy store, for that matter. Toy shopping for me mainly consisted of a once-a-year trip to the late Juvenile Sales (RIP) on my birthday and thumbing through the Best Department Store (RIP) Christmas catalogue to build my (short) Santa list. I was lucky to find a few of those wishes fulfilled under the tree.
There’s a very good reason nobody under the age of 18 is allowed into this show. Entering my first Toy Fair, the 12-year-old kid inside me nearly soiled himself. Even though I thought I’d mapped out a basic strategy of attack, five minutes inside the doors and I was already off my game. I had no clue where to begin. (Yes, it might’ve been helpful for me to download the event’s free app, but I was mesmerized, I tell you!)
So, I did what any kid does in a toy store: I dove right in, letting my eyes lead me from shiny thing to shiny thing.
Thankfully, I remembered to pick up a locator guide so I could prioritize themed areas for creative STEM and educational toys along with my must-see vendors like LEGO, ThinkFun (based in Alexandria, VA, and local to me), Mindware, GoldieBlox, Creativity for Kids, Usborne Books, and Educational Insights/Learning Resources.
That was the theory going in.
But, man, even with vendors grouped in like areas, it was so easy to get diverted on my way from point A to point B. Did I mention: 443,000 square feet?!
Taking Care of Business
In addition to scoping out the cool toy releases for 2017 and taking a lot of photos, I was on a business mission to let industry people know who we are at Raising Nerd and what we’re all about. I also wanted to establish some good relationships so our humble blog and Nerding community could generate interest among toymakers and inventors to have their stories told through Nerd Profiles, among other RN features
On this front, I’d say I had moderate success on my whirlwind tour around the exhibit floor. I was out of business cards by the middle of the second day and had either lost or given away a dozen NerdBot stickers. When I say “lost,” I really mean I was so distracted and in a rush to move on from one booth and stockpile of cool Nerd toys to another, I often forgot to retrieve my Bot after setting him up in some of my photos. Oh well – Nerd branding!
Hitting the Highlights
I didn’t even come close to hitting all the STEM/STEAM toy manufacturers I’d intended to visit. But, for just a two-day effort, I think I got a pretty good cross-section. I promise to plan and do better next time!
Top 5 Things I’m Most Bummed About Missing:
- The majority of the Tech Toys exhibit area – I didn’t make it to this end of the show floor until the afternoon of my second day. I really wanted to check out Toy of the Year winner Code Gamer from Thames & Kosmos. But I spent most of my time in the tech area with GoldieBlox and watching an interactive demo from Steve Spangler. Of course, inventor and founder of GoldieBlox, Debbie Sterling, didn’t arrive until the day after I left!
- Elenco Electronics’ booth – these guys make the super cool Snap-Circuits and other must-have STEM kits, one of which was on our Mega Holiday Wish List.
- The Science Wiz booth – makers of a broad line of science activity kits
- Toy Trends Briefing – Happened Sunday afternoon after I’d departed. Sigh.
- A good slice of NY-style pizza – what I had from the onsite pizza place was limp and puddled with grease.
Top 5 Coolest Things I DID See During My First Toy Fair:
- A Preview of LEGO Boost. As if LEGO wasn’t cool enough, the company plans to introduce its 5-in-1 programmable robot set later this year. The set will enable younger LEGO enthusiasts to learn coding and use any kind of LEGO bricks to build onto the starter kit.
- Getting to meet actual toy inventors. I met and had the opportunity to chat with at least half a dozen creative entrepreneurs whose visions had become reality. Two of them, Adam Hocherman of Tinkineer and Laurel Wider of Wonder Crew, founded companies based on such innovative product ideas that they were quickly gobbled up by Play Monster. Expect to hear more about Adam and Laurel from Raising Nerd as I fully intend to reconnect with them both soon for Nerd Profiles.
- Eating liquid nitrogen-frozen popcorn given to me by the aforementioned Steve Spangler. This happened just before he put our NerdBot in a deep freeze, only to revive and give him back to me, safe and sound!
- STEM/STEAM-related stuff is trending! STEM/STEAM products were pervasive and cut across the majority of vendors I saw. Sure there were some manufacturers who seemed to consider STEM/STEAM as more “trendy” than long-term trend and simply an opportunity to cash in on a good thing. But most of the companies I visited were long-term committed and many, like ThinkFun (loved their music coding game/app Compose Yourself), TEDCO, GoldieBlox, and Educational Insights were all-in, boasting a wide range of engaging, creative, science-, tech-, and maker-based products for kids of all ages. One of my favorite creative STEAM games was Picassimo, a crazy jigsaw drawing game from HABA. It’s like Pictionary with a twist. Companies like these were the ones with whom I wanted Raising Nerd to establish a relationship. Not only to get cool stuff to review, but also to collaborate down the road somehow. It seemed we spoke the same language!
- What it’s like to be on the other side. I spent more than a dozen years working conferences and trade shows for clients as a PR agency guy. And I gotta tell you, it’s far better to attend a show as a member of the working press! I found that I had a much friendlier and more receptive audience at Toy Fair than I ever did pitching media as a PR consultant!
Bonus #1: One of the last booths I visited was the Mota Group, creators of the “world’s smallest drone” and 2017 Toy of the Year the JETJAT mini-drone. I spoke to one of their reps hoping to test drive one of the tiny aircraft and see how its onboard camera could sync-up with a smart phone. When he presented me with a drone, I expected him to prepare it for a demo. Instead, he told me to take it home and test it out with my kids. So generous and so awesome! Stay tuned for a future JETJAT product review (the mini-drone is charging up already)!
Bonus #2: On my way up the hotel entry escalator when I first arrived, I passed within mere inches of comedic actors Jerry O’Connell (the fat kid from Stand By Me and “Cush” from Jerry McGuire) and Jack McBrayer (Kenneth from 30 Rock!), who were on the down escalator. We locked eyes for 3 seconds. I coulda/shoulda high-fived one of them. Later on that evening, we saw them again in the hotel bar accompanied by Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch.
Imperfect Dad Comes Through
I knew my kids were going to envy me and, from time to time, a little guilt crept in knowing I was cruising Toy Central while they were in school. But my girls were happy to find out daddy didn’t come home with just stacks of 2017 toy catalogues.
For most of my time at Toy Fair, I bypassed exhibitors whose wares had very little or no connection to STEM. But I still made a point of visiting stuffed animal giant GUND’s booth before heading to the train station on Sunday afternoon. Lightning McQueen is a huge Pusheen fan, so I thought I’d blow her mind with this pic of me cradling the queen mother of them all.
A Gund marketing rep was kind enough to take that shot and then surprised me by offering two small Pusheen samples to take home to Lightning McQueen and RocketteGirl.
Oh, and I also got lucky when visiting the Sun-Staches booth where they generously were handing out samples (thankfully, they agreed to let me have one pair for each of my girls. Thanks again, Sun-Staches reps!):
I’m already looking forward to my next industry event, where I hope to stick around for the entire show. By then, I anticipate there’ll be even more exhibitors dedicated to STEM/STEAM. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll have the chance to see them all!