The global toy industry is often said to be recession-resilient. This, of course, is the dismal science that proves children usually get what they want – parents’ bank accounts be damned. At the Spielwarenmesse International Toy Fair in Nürnberg last week, the full power of the industry was apparent in all of its plastic, wooden and electronic glory. I was there to produce a Monocle film on the business of toys and after four days of bratwurst, interviews, and endless halls of plush dolls, I walked away with a clear impression of the world’s most fun enterprise.
First, the scale of the toy industry is staggering. Each year, Nürnberg gathers the industry’s biggest players for this; the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the UN General Assembly of the international toy community. Seventy-six thousand visitors from 112 countries this year; roughly 2,800 exhibitors, thousands of journalists, a million products, 70,000 of them brand new.
Another issue was quality. While stereotypes of the toy industry often fall into false narratives of solid US manufacturing and the cheapness of “Made in China”, I learned the reality is far less black-and-white. Some amazing toymakers from Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Gibraltar and Palestine set up camp under the fluorescent lights of the exhibition hall. The Czech Republic sent a handful of government-backed manufacturers and Argentina maintained a brightly lit but empty booth with a few sad toys in a plastic display case. And fine, Beijing seemed a bit unstoppable; its delegation sheltered snugly in a gigantic government-sponsored pavilion splashed with the words “Best of China”. One could get lost in there, and indeed I did.
Looking at my map, I planned an escape route from plastic to wood. This led past a provisional church (non-denominational, of course), which contained what appeared to be a makeshift confession booth. It was all a bit surreal, which perhaps summarises the entire event.
I’ve reported from the icy streets of Davos, hitched a ride on the world’s largest ship, infiltrated Occupy London crowds during its heyday and dodged flying debris in an Athens riot. None were as strange, fascinating, or ripe for double takes as Nürnberg. If there were ever a trade show to make a modern-day Hunter S Thompson salivate with gonzo journalistic potential, this would be it.
Among the private security at corporate pavilions guarding pink-hued trade secrets, there’s also stern-suited men displaying plastic dollhouses with the gravity of factory bosses during political-party inspections, pretzels stacked like PEZ in large plastic bins, beautiful wooden animals made by hand in the Alps, plush zebras zooming past on wheels, Texans with mutton-chop sideburns trading miniature train tips with Swiss counterparts in tortoiseshell glasses. But above all, there’s money being made, and many, many happy faces.
Yes, the toy industry is doing just fine.
Daniel Giacopelli is a producer for Monocle 24.