Every industry has its own trade fairs, where new products, processes and other innovations are on show to the congnoscenti. Most of these fairs pass by unnoticed by the general public, perhaps with the exception of fashion fairs, which are closely watched by newspapers and fashion magazines. Toy trade fairs have also been widely publicised to the general collector audience, in a rather similar way to fashion trade fairs; to see what you’ll be buying in the year to come.
Why are the trade fairs held so early in the year? Well traditionally the big selling season for toys and models has always been at Christmas, so the idea was to grab buyers while they can still remember what sold well, and while they are still buoyed up by seasonal sales, so that they are ready to place big orders. There used to be another factor. When toy brand owners also owned their own factory, their manufacturing plans for the rest of the year would be based on orders received at the fair. If a proposed toy did not raise much interest from buyers, it might never be made. On the other hand, if a lot of orders were received for an item, then it would be allotted a bigger production quantity. This is often not possible nowadays, as by the time a new product is revealed at the trade fair, production slots will have already been booked with a Chinese sub-contractor, right down to specific quantities, colours and detailed specifications.
From early January until the end of February participants felt like hamsters on a wheel, chasing from one European toy trade fair to the next. Manufacturers would start by exhibiting at Harrogate, then go on to London, then to Nuremberg. Milan and Paris would be included for some folk, while others would jet off to New York.
The Harrogate fair, in early January, was a curiosity; originally it was set up by the stationery industry to sell Christmas cards and decorations to the wholesale trade, which would have empty warehouses by then. Gradually other giftware and toy trade manufacturers chose to exhibit their wares at Harrogate, primarily to toy wholesale firms, of which there were many hundreds in the UK in the 1950s to 1980s. In Leeds alone, I used to visit four local toy wholesalers on a regular basis in the 1970s, which gives you some idea of how many such companies existed.
Many specialist wholesalers exhibited at the London toy fair, a couple of weeks later, showing the ranges they had signed up at Harrogate. The London toy trade fairs, variously held at Earls Court or Olympia, were where UK retail shopkeepers visited, to order from wholesalers and manufacturers. Orders could be placed in advance for the year’s releases, after inspecting handmade prototypes of toys or models not yet in production.
I used to visit both Harrogate (a notoriously chilly spot, where more than once our car was jammed in a snowdrift) and London, both as a buyer for our retail business and, with a press pass, for Model Auto Review.
As the number of producers of diecast models grew, UK distributors such as Modeltime and David Conway’s Model Import Company exhibited new ranges for collectors. In 1982 we were approached by an exhibitor who needed to raise some cash for a new venture. With a friend, Ian Livingstone was selling the new Dungeons & Dragons fantasy game from his Shepherd’s Bush flat. His uncle used to own a toyshop, and Ian sold us the remaining stock of tinplate stations, dolls’ heads etc. We transferred the stock between our cars in the Earls Court underground car park. Soon afterwards, Ian and his pal opened the first Games Workshop store, expanding to become a chain of shops, and the rest is history.
The London toy fair would close on the Wednesday lunchtime, after which there was a scramble for the afternoon flight from Heathrow to Nuremberg for exhibitors and press alike. Nuremberg opened on Thursday, where larger companies had already set up elaborate stands, but their senior executives only arrived from London at the last minute.
Bavaria has always been the historical centre of the world’s toy industry, with factories dotted around Franconia in northern Bavaria and Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic.
Nuremberg is notorious as the home of the Nazi rallies in the 1930s, and some evidence remains of massive ceremonial structures. After the war the town, already battered by bombing and artillery bombardment, was bulldozed by the American forces, but it was rebuilt in the old style, and is now a popular tourist destination where attractions include the house of Albrecht Dürer the artist, and a toy museum.
The Nuremberg toy fair began as a local showcase for the Bavarian toy industry, then became the German national toy fair, and thus the international toy fair, held in an enormous exibition complex which grew larger every time we visited. Other trade fairs are now held there, but the ‘Messe’ was originally built for the toy fair. There is indoor display space of 170,000 m2, plus outdoor display areas. If you can imagine a dozen Earls Court exhibition halls arranged in a ring, you have some idea of its size. We would visit for three or four days, and still not manage to get round all of it, so we had to eliminate halls which we thought were of no interest (computer games, dolls, children’s books) but this could mean missing out on a new product which had slipped in at the last minute and got a stand cancellation in an inappropriate location, or where an exhibitor displayed items on behalf of a friend, which were unrelated to his own products.
In the days of film cameras, I would expose 50 36-exposure films, photographing items for Model Auto Review, filling bags with film cans, in addition to photography cases, sacks of catalogues and even a sample or two. Hotel accommodation was scarce in the relatively small town of Nuremberg, so we could be an hour’s drive away by courtesy coach. It set off early enough for exhibitors to be at their stands by opening time, and left after the fair closed, so these were long days.
After a few years we changed our travel arrangements, driving from Yorkshire to Bavaria via North Sea Ferries, Europoort and the superb German autobahns. Once at the Minichamps stand, Paul Gunther Lang asked us if we still drove over in a Range Rover; we did, one of three we owned one after the other. At the time he was uninterested in making a model of it, as the car was virtually unknown in Germany. Soon afterwards we changed to a Jaguar XJ6, but he didn’t make a model of that car either.
The first year we took the Jaguar, via a short cut from home to the M62, we were met by a police car coming the other way. They told us the road was impassable for a low-slung car due to flooding; the Range Rover would have made it. So we had to go the long way round. We never had any problems driving in freezing weather to the middle of the Continent, but once there, it could be frighteningly cold. The hardy locals would stand outside, eating hot sausages and drinking ice-cold beer from a sales trailer. We would prefer to sit on one of the many restaurants in the Messe complex, enjoying the excellent food and lovely Tücher beer.
The high-flying management of the big toy firms arrived by private jet, stayed in luxury hotels and ate enormous expense-account meals. Lesser mortals like ourselves stayed in distant hotels, but after a few years we found our favourite location, in a place called Egloffstein, in so-called ‘Franconian Switzerland’, a village which was a summer health resort, where German workers on sick leave could take an ‘air cure’ (ie breathing fresh air). Thomas, a local chef and hotelier, saw the opportunity to reopen the village each year for a week in February. There we would enjoy his wild boar, fresh trout or ham hocks, accompanied by even more draught beer, and sometimes meet friends. One year we met a group of Belgian retailers and collectors, after Leo Tack wandered into the bar with the latest issue of MAR tucked under his arm.
In fact, the best aspect of our Nuremberg visits was the opportunity to see friends in our collecting community from around the world. Our usual base camp was Leslie Hurle Bath’s Replicars stand, where we would leave our heavy bags and catch up on the gossip. As well as showing us the latest ranges he was distributing, Leslie would point us at new ranges he had spotted elsewhere. I would try not to make appointments for specific times, although some exhibitors insisted on it. You always knew when someone was late for such an appointment three or four halls away by their speed of movement. In the 1980s and 1990s many new ranges appeared, and most specialist collector ranges were represented at Nuremberg. Sometimes the manufacturers exhibited (even Mike and Joyce Stephens of Western Models had their own stand) but often they were represented by a distributor.
In those days ranges were exclusively handled by national distributors, and there were often ‘turf wars’ when distributors sold models to another country, with the defence that the EU was a single market. I had occasional arguments with manufacturers on this topic; notably an unusually disagreeable Italian. Mostly, however, our meetings were very cordial; we always looked forward to seeing Thomas Wolter of Tin Wizard from Germany, who shared his stand with Gerhard and Elizabeth Klarwasser of Toys for Collectors in the USA. Jacques Greilsamer of Eligor always offered us a drink, while complaining that he would leave France for Switzerland if a Socialist government took power. Some stands were friendly and welcoming, such as BBR, ABC, Brumm from Italy. Others were efficient, such as Solido, Schabak, Conrad and all the German H0 scale ranges. Some were shambolic at times, including Corgi, where the sales manager once asked me to find out the price of a competitor’s product, because he was scared to do it himself. Some were cold and unreceptive, such as NZG, or even downright obstructive, such as Maisto (May Cheung) who would never let us take photos on their stand. Exhibitors could experience aggro as well. The fair organisers had very strict rules; in error a British exhibitor built his stand 2cm higher than the permitted height. A nearby German exhibitor complained, and the Brit was given the choice of entirely rebuilding his stand, with a day to go before opening, or to leave the fair. Other exhibitors are eagle-eyed about copies of their products being displayed, If they complain, the organisers remove the offending item until the dispute is resolved, effectively for the duration of the fair. It has been known for firms to use this ploy to have a particularly promising new release removed from a competitor’s stand.
As well as meeting friends and acquaintances who were exhibitors, I also enjoyed meeting other visitors to the fair, whom I hadn’t seen since the same time the previous year. It was always interesting to compare experiences with our opposite numbers in other countries, such as Jean Fontaine of Calandre in Paris. There could even be quite a crowd of old friends gathered together comparing notes or telling jokes. I recall one occasion when our multinational group of British, French, Dutch, South African, American, and Argentine visitors were being told a joke by an Australian distributor. As we blocked the aisle, chattering in English and laughing, we were eyed suspiciously by passing Bavarian shopkeepers, wearing national costume. They always visited the fair on the Sunday, when their shops were closed.
I usually visited around 200 stands, some regular stopping points, many others with surprise finds. Occasionally there were disappointments; an absentee or a lack of new releases. As time went on there would be fewer new ranges we didn’t already know, and from the 1990s onwards the internet allowed us to access news from manufacturers without spending the best part of a week away from home and spending a couple of thousand pounds in the process. Personal circumstances stopped Val and myself from visiting the Nuremberg toy fair, but by that time there was less to see, and we were getting reports from regular contributors, especially Hans-Georg Schmitt. He would take hundreds of photos, as I used to, and collect two of every catalogue; one for me. His load could be as much as 70kg of paperwork. One year BBC television filmed at Nuremberg, and caught a glimpse of Hans-Georg at high speed, towing his trolley-load of catalogues. He also managed to augment his collection by acquiring free samples of special toy fair model issues from dozens of stands, but fewer companies produce special models these days.
Times continue to change; Hans-Georg still sends his reports for MAR, but there are fewer surprises. He doesn’t have to post 30kg of catalogues to me, as most manufacturers produce CD-ROMs or just keep their ‘catalogue’ online.
Even long-standing exhibitors now cease to take a stand at Nuremberg. Rio Tatarletti of Brumm, who always had one of the most stylish and welcoming stands, did not exhibit at the 2014 Nuremberg toy fair on his own account. He said it was ‘because of the excessive cost in respect of a steady decrease of clients attended’.
Hans-Georg tells us that Nuremberg toy fair was quieter than ever this year, with empty aisles two hours before the official closing time. I prefer to keep my memories of a busy, bustling, exciting annual experience.
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