Will the Spirit of Spielwarenmesse still allow the toy industry to Play in 2021?

Wednesday, 2 September 2020  |  Paul
Image Courtesy of @Spielwarenmesse
Image Courtesy of @Spielwarenmesse - 2020 Toy Fair Image Library
Stuart Whitehill

We spoke to Stuart Whitehill of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce ahead of the highly anticipated 2021 Nurnberg Toy Fair.

Stuart Whitehill is the overseas fair organiser for the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, and, as such, one of his many roles is to help put together the British contingent at the annual Nürnberg Toy Fair in Germany - Spielwarenmesse.

He is an expert at this task, and, thanks to his wonderful organisational skills and amazing diplomacy, not to mention his tireless work ethic, the British involvement at the show has never been in better health since its inception in 1950. He is exceptional, and we know he cares deeply about the success of this annual event. We mention about the show never being in better health, and certainly, the word health will be on a lot of people's minds this coming year.

COVID-19 has dominated the thinking of most people's planning for the immediate future. As we close our borders, batten down the hatches and don our face masks and cover ourselves in stomach churning ethanol smelling hand sanitizers, Stuart is busy trying to encourage us to attend a huge international business event with representatives from 120+ countries, jostling in the aisles of the fair, and jollying close together in the heady atmosphere of the post show parties that, on the face of it, to the casual observer, might be the best place to encourage the spread of this dreadful virus.

It's a tall order for anyone, but, to a man of Stuarts' undeniable skills, it's all in a day's work. We tracked him down at his offices and asked him how he sees this big event coming together in 2021.

How have you found working through this pandemic?

Challenging to say the least. The pandemic has had a dramatic effect on the entire trade fair industry not just that of toys, games and educational products. International events have been cancelled and postponed since February and we are only now starting to see some shows returning. It has been incredibly disappointing, demoralising and upsetting to see so much hard work, planning and effort go to waste.

Have you been affected by the constant changes in advice, is it the same internationally? How many fairs that you normally attend have been cancelled this last year?

Yes we have. Everyone has been learning about the pandemic as we go along and as a result, we have had to adapt and be flexible with what we are doing and how we can do it. Like most, we introduced home working as instructed but have now started a gradual return to the office which will be completed by the 7th September when all UK children are back at school. The furlough approach here has meant we have had staff unable to carry out their duties whereas colleagues in Germany have had a "Short Work" policy where they are only able to work on certain days. This has prolonged answers and delayed decision making. We have seen 18 of our shows either postponed or cancelled.

Right now Stuart, if the show was tomorrow, can you really see the greatest toy show on earth happening?

German law has determined that B2B trade fairs are NOT mass gatherings such as pop concerts, festivals and football matches. As such they are allowed to take place after the 1st September 2020 providing, they prepare a hygiene concept which meets the Robert Koch Health Institutes' guidelines. The Spielwarenmesse have done this and, as a result, have been able to demonstrate that they can run a world class international trade fair looking after the health and safety of exhibitors, visitors and trade fair staff. The show will take place as planned and all required safety measures will be in place.

How are the numbers looking for 2021, will we have a full contingent?

Spielwarenmesse remains a sell-out show with a waiting list, the only difference for 2021 is that there may be some increased aisle widths which may result in a reduction in stand area but we anticipate this to be minimal. We are also mindful of the travel restriction situation and what might still exist at the time when the fair starts.

The cynical ones might suggest that the organisers are pressing ahead in spite of all advice and warnings from medical experts, how can you reassure us that all will be well?

The German organisers, as you would expect, are making absolutely certain that everything will be ready and in place for the opening day. All health and safety measures will be taken care of so all exhibitors, visitors and trade fair staff can go about their business safe in the knowledge that everything has been put in place to ensure their safety. The entire site is equipped with a modern ventilation system which will provide a fresh air supply with a separate air intake and exhaust.

I have visions of hordes of people looking like they are ready to audition for the next medical costume drama sporting PPE and hidden behind surgical masks, what will the protocol be for meeting and greeting etc., will we be able to touch the products?

The Hygiene Concept has drawn up the following rules to be applied but, as things develop at pace with this pandemic, and we are still 5 months away from the show, we could still see changes to the following:-

  • Face coverings to be worn when walking through the halls. These can be removed when seated at tables on stands
  • Hand hygiene stations throughout with all surfaces through the halls including doors, handrails and toilets being continuously cleaned
  • People should refrain from shaking hands when meeting
  • You will be able to touch and handle products, but exhibitors will be reminded to clean items to avoid any possible cross contamination
  • Visitors will all have to pre-register and exhibitors will be asked to keep a track of who has been on their stand for a meeting

A full breakdown of the hygiene concept will be sent out to the UK exhibitors in October along with the stand drawings and on-site order forms.

Getting to and from the show by public transport might be a challenge with social distancing and tracing apps being required and recommended in Germany, with this in mind do you anticipate staggered opening times maybe, to avoid the rush hour, is there any possibility of a Nurnberg tracking and tracing app being made a feature for all attendees and exhibitors perhaps?

This has not been mentioned by the organisers but naturally it will have been considered. I shall put this question to the Spielwarenmesse and am expecting additional guidelines over the coming weeks.

Do you see some of the undoubted changes that have been thrust upon us, becoming a permanent fixture in the years to come, at not just this fair, but every international get together in the future, or do you think we will move on from this crisis and once again revert to handshakes and hugs all round once this has passed?

I am convinced that as we move forward and time passes, we will return to the normality of hand shakes and hugs. Humans are naturally sociable and as time passes, I do see us returning quite quickly to a more normal way of conducting business meetings. I do believe that there will be some things that will remain; the use of Zoom and Teams could see an end to travelling to short one off meetings in London for instance as well as more offices introducing a working from home policy where possible and appropriate. There will be some positives when we come out of this at the other end. There has been a number of attempts to run virtual events over the last few months with little real success, recreating the buzz of a trade fair on line will always fall short. The real thing gets all the senses going and those chance meetings in aisles, passing through halls and spotting something unexpected or bumping into people in restaurants and bars during an evening out cannot be done on line.

Finally Stuart, providing this all goes ahead in January next year, how will we be socially distancing in the 'Toy Makers Arms'? Can it be done, or will the landlord be calling time on the happiest 'local' in Nurnberg?

A good question, firstly the show will be going ahead. Spielwarenmesse has sent out solid assurance to all involved that they will be opening the doors on 27th January. As for the Toy Maker's Arms I will be making certain that once guidelines on the hospitality regulations on stands are received we shall be looking at how we provide the high service everyone has come to expect from all of the team at the Toy Maker's!

Overall, it looks as though the greatest toy show on earth is set to return and allow us to 'Play' in 2021 although with a few minor adjustments to allow us to carry on with our 'new normal'.

These adjustments are nothing in comparison to the hard work that Stuart and the organisers of the fair have had to go through to make this possible for all of us and we can't thank them enough for putting the procedures in place to make it a safe working environment for all of us.

We can't wait to say 'cheers to another year' in the Toy Maker's Arms next January.

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