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International Toy Fair Attracts Lehigh Valley Companies Big and Small

By Colin McEvoy on February 15, 2016

The largest trade show in the Western hemisphere for toy industry professionals, retailers, and press representatives was held this weekend, and Lehigh Valley companies both large and small were in attendance.

The Toy Industry Association, Inc. held its Toy Fair 2016, the 113th annual event, in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City from Feb. 13 to 16, welcoming more than 30,000 registered industry professionals and displaying hundreds of thousands of new toys and games in 415,000 square feet of exhibit space.

In a testament to how well the Lehigh Valley economy is suited for this niche market, the Toy Fair had representatives from long-established leaders in the toy industry, like the Forks Township-based Crayola, as well as smaller companies and entrepreneurs who have utilized the Lehigh Valley’s resources to begin their own startups.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Briana Gardell, 23, creator of the throwable paintballs Goblies, whose company was recently profiled by LVEDC. “I’ve signed on with a lot of stores already and I’m expecting a lot more orders. The opportunities are really endless after the show.”

Crayola attends the Toy Fair each year to showcase its products and provide an early look into its innovative and exciting new toy brands. The company is a testament to how well suited the Lehigh Valley is for toy manufacturers, as Crayola has benefited from such economic assets as a strong workforce, quick and easy access to major interstate links, and an intermodal transportation system, company representatives said.

“Crayola has called the Lehigh Valley home since 1900. It is a great place to do business,” said Eric Zebley, a Crayola corporate communications official. “In the Lehigh Valley, you will find a solid business climate with companies of all sizes in many different industries, from global leaders to startup businesses. You’ll find a solid transportation and communication infrastructure that gets better every day, 11 colleges and universities, an educated workforce, business minded government, the arts, sports, recreation and a great ethnic mix of history, culture and food.”

Other Toy Fair attendees include entrepreneurs who have started their own toy companies with help from the many Lehigh Valley resources available to startups, including Lehigh University’s Baker Institute and Technical Entrepreneurship Master’s Program; Allentown’s Bridgeworks Enterprise Center; Bethlehem’s Ben Franklin TechVentures and SoBeCoWorks; and the Southside Bethlehem KIZ.

Those attendees include four toy-making women who graduated from Lehigh University in the last two years and started their own companies. In addition to Gardell, they are Lisa Glover, of the origami dinosaur company KitRex; Lauren Villaverde, of the 3-D puzzle company Stacakblz; and Shannon Varcoe, 22, of the wooden building blocks company Abuildity Brand Toys.

Gardell, who plans to open her own a manufacturing facility in Bethlehem, said Monday that she has already signed with several new retail stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who will carry her product, and many more big-box retailers have expressed interest in signing with her on the final day of the fair, when most of those decisions are made.

Villaverde,  who is not yet at the stage where she has purchase orders ready, said she was nevertheless able to make several new connections that could help her continue developing her product and grow her company. She and the other Lehigh graduates were also interviewed by CNBC.

All four Lehigh graduates received mentorship and support from Lehigh alumna Alita Friedman, CEO of Alita’s Brand Bar and former chief brand officer of the UglyDoll brand, for which she won the Women in Toys award and Toy of the Year.

“All of our alumni are very supportive of our students; whatever their area of expertise is, they’re always happy to lend a hand,” said Lisa Getzler, executive director of the Baker Institute. “In our programs at Baker, we provide opportunities for student entrepreneurs to really understand the problem they’re solving, the customers they’re serving, and the context in which they’re developing a product and a business.”

Other Lehigh Valley companies in attendance include the Bethlehem-based Punisher Skaterboards and Creative Products, a wholesaler and distributor of gag gifts and novelty items, located in Hanover Township, Lehigh County. Creative Products has about 85 products in its catalogue, with plans to add 37 more, and distributes all over the nation, according to company owner Richard Remetta.

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