Takeaways from The Toy Association President and CEO Steve Pasierb:
- During the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s important for show organizers to offer constant updates — overcommunicate — and demonstrate empathy when communicating news about the event.
- Work with your vendors to help mitigate any loss of exhibitors and attendees.
Spread across more than 440,000 net square feet of exhibit space at New York City’s Javits Center, the 117th annual American International Toy Fair, Feb. 22–25, showcased hundreds of thousands of the latest gadgets, games, and playthings — from a Hot Wheels Tesla Cybertruck to a LEGO catamaran that floats on water to a crystal-covered Monopoly board. Produced by The Toy Association, the show is built for fun, but this year’s edition took place in the midst of serious concerns about coronavirus.
Nonetheless, COVID-19 didn’t overshadow the overall “upbeat” mood, Steve Pasierb, president & CEO of The Toy Association, told Convene. “The products were inventive and creative, and there were two main conversations — how excited everyone is for the future and how worried everyone is about what coronavirus is going to do to our manufacturers in China.”
To address the latter, Pasierb considered adding a town hall session but realized that such a program would be unable to offer any actionable guidance about COVID-19’s eventual impact. “What we heard from everyone is that nobody knows,” he said. “We all have the same worries, and no one knows the answer. It’s not like tariffs where everyone came together to fight a common enemy. If your factories can’t open, there’s not much you can do.”
According to a recent article inThe Wall Street Journal, 85 percent of the world’s toys are made in factories in China, a number of which have either closed or are operating at a fraction of capacity due to COVID-19.
‘Full Steam Ahead’ — With One Adjustment
While there has been a spate of other event cancellations in other industries, Pasierb said the plan was “always full steam ahead” with the Toy Fair, although the show’s China Pavilion had to be canceled. Pasierb said he started discussing the potential for changes with the China Toy & Juvenile Product Association — the organizers of the pavilion — when coronavirus cases were increasing in the middle of January. As news of the virus’ spread continued, he reminded them that they needed to make a decision or they might be on the hook to pay for the space.
“There was a lot of tension in those conversations,” he said, “but they came back to us and thanked us. It was a lot of back and forth to come to the right decision.”
In addition to the 40 exhibiting companies at the pavilion, there were seven additional Chinese companies that pulled out, along with approximately 350 individual attendees. However, Pasierb said that the organization was able to resell a large portion of the pavilion. Individual registrants secured refunds, thanks to the organization’s event insurance coverage that kicked in after the Trump Administration banned travelers from China. He also added that the show’s international registration numbers were “unusually up,” which he believes may be attributed to a number of attendees from Europe who were able to come due to other event cancellations.
The companies that help produce the show did their part to help mitigate the loss of the China Pavilion, as well. “Some of our vendors printed materials and offered to warehouse it for next year,” Pasierb said. “The vendor community in the meetings industry sometimes gets a bad rap for charging for every ounce of freight, but all the vendors we worked with were really great. We worked with [general service contractor] T3 Expo, and we were really impressed. All the other vendors involved in the China Pavilion stepped up and understood the problem.”
No Strangers to Sickness
The show always occurs in the middle of flu season, a timeframe that led Pasierb to call it “the Purell show” in honor of the presence of hand sanitizers throughout the show floor. The organization did not add any additional guidelines to prevent the spread of germs, and while some meetings have encouraged participants to refrain from handshakes, that was never in the cards. “You have a building full of adults, so you’re not going to tell someone to not shake hands,” he said. “In bad flu season years, half the people at our show are walking around sick. Everyone is constantly hitting the hand sanitizer.”
Still, a bad flu season doesn’t get the kind of headlines COVID-19 has generated, so the organization offered constant updates to its audience — a move that Pasierb recommends for all event organizers in a time of uncertainty.
“The tone of our communications was empathetic and highlighted that we are worried about this, too,” Pasierb said. “It’s okay for meeting organizers to say that an issue concerns them. People have a pretty good BS filter. If you try to put the happy face on it, they know you’re not telling the truth.”
Organizers should have alternative plans in place and over-communicate with their attendees, he said. As COVID-19 continues to create challenges for the meetings industry, Pasierb underscored the importance of face-to-face gatherings.
“People crave connection,” Pasierb said. “Regardless of where this goes, it’s going to resolve itself over time. This is the 2019 coronavirus, and they’ve been around since the mid-1960s. Meetings like this are important. We have to keep on keeping on — this will clear up. The meetings and events business is alive and well.”
David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.
PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the outbreak and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared.