How Things Worked at the Toy Fairs.....
There existed two distinctly different trade shows that many of the companies
in the slot racing field participated:
The Hobby Industry Association of America ("HIAA") and The International Toy Fair (held by the Toy Manufacturers of America ("TMA")
The Hobby Show existed many years before I joined Tyco but during the time I participated it was held in January at the Sherman House Hotel, Chicago, IL. The show lasted 5 days, starting on Saturday. Tyco's display was modest, approximately 200 Ft2 with both train & race products. The display exhibited sets & accessories plus the all important parts that Hobby Shops like to deal in. One has to remember that these shops were our first line of defense for problems and defects, as they generally had the skills to correct things and keep the product from being returned. They also provided great feedback on problematical areas. When Tyco transitioned to the Toy business, we had to establish "repair centers", usually large hobby shops which we supplied replacement parts and paid a fee for the repairs - this was never a happy situation, and usually cost more than they saved Tyco.
For the 1971 Hobby Show, Milt Grey, Inc, Tyco's sales rep group at the time had TycoPro Tie Clips made. These were for the salesmen and key Tyco staff to wear at the Hobby Show (and the following Toy Fair) for emphasizing the new Logo. I have discovered that only 25 of these were made.
John Tyler, Tyco's founder used to tell me great stories of attending the hobby show "in the early days". Tyco had been in the hobby train business for over 50 years when I joined them and many times they could take their entire new product line in a briefcase - usually consisting of a new box car or something equally as small. His favorite story was when, one year (he didn't say which one) he traveled with Steve Shaffan (of Atlas Trains & Racing), and Tony Koveleski (Oscar's father and owner of one of the largest hobby shops in the East) in an open car of Tony's all the way from the East Coast to Chicago in January! According to John, they very nearly froze.
Downtown Chicago in January is miserable - they don't call it the "Windy City" in error. The Sherman House was steam heated, meaning that the relative humidity was somewhere near 0%. This caused all sorts of performance problems with the operating racing displays - static caused the ever present dust to cling to the track, surround any gear trains, etc., even causing mounted display adhesives to fail. You just haven't lived until a large display falls off the wall behind you as you are extolling the virtues of your new product to a key customer. It was so bad that you only had to get your finger within 1/4" of an elevator button to actuate it with a small bolt of lightning from your finger. The winter weather also caused problems in having the display booths delivered in time. Later, while at Matchbox, we shipped this by train, on some circuitous route to ensure it arrived in time.
After the first several years, Bob Kircher stood in for me, as I was traveling to the Nuremburg show and then onto HK to start the new year's products down the development path. He was also on hand when the show moved to the new McCormick Trade Center. According to Bob, conditions (excluding the weather) were improved there.
In approximately 1977, the HIAA decided to move the show to other areas of the US. The first stop was Houston, TX. Still January, but the weather was much better - inducing more people to take the opportunity to attend the show - and take a break from the cold north. The next year was in St Louis, MO. Although a great venue, St Louis suffered a severe cold snap (like 20 degrees). The following year - Anaheim, CA - now this was more like a convention should be. After this, the Hobby Show never moved North of the Mason-Dixon line while I was involved.
By the late 1970s, Tyco & Aurora scaled back their participation at the Hobby Shows, the majority of their business was now in the "mass merchandisers" - Sear, JC Penney, K Mart, etc, which left the hobby shops with a price disadvantage - they just couldn't purchase the large volume to qualify for the largest discounts (boy, were they angry when K Mart, etc. had the items for sale at lower retail prices that the Jobber's list prices). Eventually most of the large companies, kit manufacturers included, stopped attending this show, leaving it to the growing craft industry. A bit of a shame, as this was where my first meeting with Tyco happened, way back in 1968.
The HIAA's International Toy Fair also had a long history. There was even a Toy Building at 200 Fifth Ave (where Broadway and Fifth intersect at 23rd Street). My father was in the TV advertising business and had Toy clients - he attended this fair and painted great word pictures of the goings on there, little realizing that I would later be a part of this show and working out of that building!
The Toy Building was actually two buildings 1147 Broadway across 24th street and connected by a bridge on the 7th floors. The show became so large and important that there were showroom in several additional building in the immediate vicinity.
My first Toy Fair was in 1969 and Tyco's showroom was quite small, just a sales office that we crammed our products in. This was because Tyco was just entering the toy field. The space was so small that we could only display one small operating roadrace set. Everything else was just packages mounted on the walls. Even the train sets were what we referred to as "linears", A narrow shelf with enough straight sections of track to hold the complete train - Locomotive to caboose.
As the TycoPro line escalated in sales, the showroom was expanded (actually adding another, larger office down the hall) making it more than twice as large. Tyco had now really entered the toy business.
Toy Fair was a much more elaborate affair, much like a Broadway production. The entire staff was busy in the weeks before the show started. Model makers feverously building the many samples required. There were the all important "Looker/Workers" (samples that looked identical to and performed all of the functions of the production product, but entirely scratch-built) and the "lookers" which non functioning, but cosmetically correct (these were primarily used inside the comp packages. They usually built at least 3 looker/workers and 6 lookers. They frequently pulled several all-nighters to finish these up. The product managers were writing the copy for the catalog, data for the price sheets and the scripts for the demonstrators (we frequently employed professional stage actors for this). The final step was placing the products and signage in the showrooms and rehearsing the demonstrators. We usually kept the model makers company through the last few nights I should note that the new products and lines for all major customers were conducted by the product managers, the demonstrators handling the others.
I worked for Lesney Products & Co., Ltd (Matchbox) from the fall of 1976 through 1982 (or '83, I don't remember the exact date). The Matchbox sales office & showroom were also in the Toy Building.. This showroom was redecorated every year for the International Toy Fair in Feb. The layout of the car display contained a large cylindrical ("the Wheel") display which was divided into three identical sections - allowing three salesmen to present the line to their customers simultaneously, without interference with each other. The last job we product managers had (usually very early in the morning of opening day) was to stock this display and apply the labels to the shelf edges for every model. This required us to be on our knees for hours.
The Toy Fair was a 2 1/2 week affair (more like an endurance test). The first week was for major customers (or "heavy hitters" as we called them). These were the K Marts, Toys R Us, Sears & Penney's accounts. The adrenalin level was high, the Top management hovering over us and the operating samples checked, rechecked and tested again (they always seemed to act up minutes before the "big" meeting!) I distinctly remember having a very special car that was supposed to do several "tricks". I had only two of these "looker/worker" hand samples. Just before the Toys R Us (TRU) buyer and his boss were to arrive, one of the looker/worker stopped performing one of the "tricks". I grabbed the other, and it stopped performing the other "trick". Now I had two cars - one performing one feature, the other performing the other. Making matters worse, they were decorated in totally different colors! Then the TRU entourage arrived, right on schedule. I demonstrated the first feature with one car, stopped the car in front of me, and looking the buyer straight in the eye, I palmed the first and continued the demo with the second. He never noticed and we got the order - I think I aged a couple of years in those few moments!
The weekend between the first and second week was referred to as "Mom & Pop" days, as this was when the small store owners could attend the show. I always tried to give them as much time and attention as they needed (sales are sales, no matter how small). The only problem was that Mom & Pop brought in their kids who tried to pick up a hand sample (some of these looker/workers can cost $20,000) with candy covered fingers, grab a fistful of the expensive catalogs, and other assorted things that kids do when they are in what appears to be the ultimate toy store. Our salesmen would duck out for "coffee" and I was left holding down the fort. I quickly learned to either pocket the hand samples or otherwise hide them, Turn the power off on any operating sets, remove all but a few catalogs from the showroom. Really looked forward to the close of the show on Sunday.
Stating the second week were the rest of the appointments and walk-ins, smaller chains, freestanding stores, etc. This was a less stressful type of presentation, not that it wasn't important, but you didn't have your top management hanging over your shoulder.
The last week was actually only 2 1/2 days, consisting of those customers that missed appointments in the previous weeks and a few others. This was a much more fun period for me, as I could go visit other showrooms (either those of friends, or with some subterfuge, competitors. we also traded in-stock (not new!) samples and generally had a good time, which we felt we deserved after the stress of the previous weeks. Then we started packing up the new products for shipment to the regional Fairs - usually four, scattered about the US. The delicate hand samples were usually hand carried by either the product managers or he regional sales VP to these shows
As the business progressed into licensed products, the nature of the show changed. Companies would arrange to have characters and personalities in the showrooms and wandering around the entrance to the Toy building. I found myself "rubbing elbows" with such characters as Spiderman, the Hulk and Freddy Kruger and personalities such as FloJo (the Olympian) , Michael Jackson, and others that I can no longer remember. The area on the street in front of the 200 building was filled with race cars, monster Trucks, and the like. The anchors from the morning TV shows visited (Today, Good Morning, etc.) with camera crews, lighting and soundmen in tow. We even had Jay Leno in our showroom once.
This change in business also had its negatives - the nature of the toy business evolved into products that were "look at me" instead of "play with me" and were TV driven.
As the large retailers became larger and the smaller ones disappeared the presentation of new product was done at the retailer's site and the importance of the Toy Fair diminished. The New York fair has now been reduced to only 3 days at Javitts Center, and the Toy Center @ 200 5th Ave sold.