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Show Business

Lee Rosenbaum’s next big project: turning Playground into a West Coast destination for buyers and brands alike.

Lee Rosenbaum

Lee Rosenbaum

As the new show director for Children’s Club, Lee Rosenbaum’s experience launching everything from magazine titles to trade shows is poised to pay off on another big project: turning Playground into a West Coast destination for buyers and brands alike.

Walk any trade show in the children’s market, and you’re bound to encounter endless speculation about everything from the state of the industry to what’s on the lunch menu. That’s especially true if you’re Lee Rosenbaum.

Director of Children’s Club, the seasoned salesman took on the role last year after the retirement of the show’s longtime director, Stanley Kaye. Big shoes to fill, yes, but Rosenbaum—the former associate publisher at GQ—is no stranger to the fashion arena, or to the challenging world of sales. In fact, just like Kaye, he worked in magazine ad sales for many years before transitioning to trade shows. (He got into the magazine business as a teenager, working summers as a self-professed “mail room thug” for Rolling Stone, where his uncle served as the circulation director.)

He carved out a career launching new titles like Talk and Life & Style Weekly, but when Tom Nastos, the president of ENK International, offered Rosenbaum the opportunity to help oversee the company’s new events in China, he decided to shift gears and give directing shows a shot. Now, four years later, it’s safe to say the role was a good fit.

While Rosenbaum’s sales experience and fashion industry insights certainly make him a go-to figure for questions ranging from the mundane to the meaningful, there’s another big reason brands and retailers keep sending him queries: Simply put, it’s Playground. The latest children’s show to enter the scene, Playground will host its third edition next month at MAGIC in Las Vegas. It’s been more than a decade since children’s apparel had a dedicated home at what has become the biggest wholesale fashion market in America, but Playground promises to give West Coast retailers a closer-to-home show experience akin to Children’s Club in New York City, Rosenbaum relays.

That goal is easier than ever, due to several big shifts in the trade show industry: After a series of acquisitions, both Children’s Club and MAGIC now fall under the umbrella of global events company UBM. As a result, Rosenbaum and his team hope to integrate the Children’s Club and Playground show experiences into what he describes as one show “with an East Coast and West Coast sensibility.”

Still have a bunch of burning questions? Read on for Rosenbaum’s take on everything from Playground’s prospects to the role of live trade shows in a digital era.

How did your career as a magazine publisher prepare you for your current role?

There are a lot of parallels. If I’m putting together a September issue of GQ, I’m dealing with 400 advertisers in that thing, right? And they all want to be in the first 10 pages. It’s not unlike a March Children’s Club show, where I’m dealing with 500 exhibitors, and all of them want to be in the first 10 yards of the show. In both cases, you have to have the ability to be sensitive to your customers’ needs. And you have to be able to handle a large volume of customers—and they all expect a return on investment, just as magazine advertisers. The ability to put together a trade show that is harmonious in the way you put all of the customers together certainly parallels to the harmonious way you put together the editorial content of a magazine.

After a decade-plus hiatus, why do you think the time is right to revive a children’s show at MAGIC?

As a magazine that’s chronicled children’s apparel for 100 years, you guys at Earnshaw’s probably know better than anybody that the industry has gone through some seismic changes since children’s was last on the table at MAGIC. Over that time, Children’s Club really developed a very successful formula in its presentation to the industry and commitment to both retailers and wholesalers. It’s a formula that’s very customer-service oriented and very sensitive to the needs of the industry, especially the many smaller companies within the industry and the realities at retail. So it’s not really about the past [children’s show at MAGIC], but about taking the present-day strengths and the successes of the Children’s Club formula and making that work for Playground.

What are some of those changes?

For one, both Children’s Club and MAGIC now fall under the umbrella of UBM. What we have with UBM is a very experienced global events company, and events are the company’s first and foremost priority. Combining the strengths of MAGIC and Children’s Club is a market-driven solution for the children’s industry. It’s a great opportunity to do what basically all of our exhibitors want and need, which is quite simply to capture the largest portfolio of retailers possible. The reality is that retailers are traveling less than they used to. When I look at the brands at Children’s Club, they are rock star brands. But whether you are a rock star brand in clothing or you’re U2, you still have to travel to your audience. That’s just reality. We’re trying to create an opportunity for exhibitors to travel west and capture a huge new market of buyers for whom traveling to New York City is a challenge. We’re trying to create an opportunity that’s convenient for them, at what is arguably the largest wholesale marketplace in the world. It’s all part of our plan to leverage every possible market opportunity for our exhibitors.

Will there be any big differences between the two shows?

Our strategy is to create not an alternative but an additional opportunity for the exhibitors at Children’s Club. We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel with Playground. People seem to like Children’s Club, and the productivity at Children’s Club is pretty consistently solid. What we’re out to do is capture the largest group of retailers that we can, and if we have to take the show on the road to do it, then we’re doing it with Playground.

What are some of the strengths of Children’s Club you hope to replicate at Playground?

I think we’ve really been able to build a sense of community [at Children’s Club]. As the market has evolved from very, very large companies with very large booths to a market with much more diversity, we’ve really developed the ability to accommodate small, mid-size and large companies, creating opportunities for all of them to flourish together. Being able to merchandise new brands with older, established brands really enables us to satisfy the needs of each, especially since it brings in a diverse group of buyers. That’s what’s made Children’s Club work consistently. We have strong retailers and strong exhibitors—and great customer service. One of the things I’m most proud of is our team’s personal attention to our brands—who they are, what they need, which brands they want to be around and the buyers they are looking for. It’s a specialty market. The Children’s Club model is very in tune with what’s happening in the industry, so if we can bring that experience and knowledge to how we develop Playground, I think it’s right for the times and right for the state of the industry.

MAGIC is known for attracting big, international buyers—not necessarily specialty buyers. What is your team doing to bring those retailers to Playground?

I would say that MAGIC is known for attracting buyers and retailers of every ilk—from single-store boutiques to major international department stores. That’s what makes MAGIC such a compelling and unique marketplace. For Playground, our attendee efforts are specifically focused on about 13,000 dedicated children’s retail accounts across 13 western states and a bit of the Midwest. Many of these buyers admit they would love to attend Children’s Club, but for one reason or another they can’t. So we are talking to these folks and sharing our commitment to building a trade platform that celebrates some of the best children’s brands and collections in the land, just as we do at Children’s Club.

So, say I’m a brand with a small budget. Do I go to Playground or Children’s Club?

Both shows are surely able to accommodate and find solutions for brands with limited resources. I think the consideration has more to do with the existing stock list and the design sensibility of the collection. Of course the first thing we would ask the brand is: Have they invested in the necessary infrastructure to do business effectively at either show? Do they have their production in order? Is there a
website buyers can visit after being compelled by the brand at the show? Do they have their systems buttoned-up?

Any big plans in the works for the shows in 2016?

We’re really trying to create seamless integration, and make it as easy as possible for Children’s Club exhibitors to migrate west. Just in the first two chapters of Playground, it’s really represented itself as a geographic complement to Children’s Club. There’s a national buyer base at Children’s Club, as well as European and Canadian buyers. At Playground, almost 85 percent of the buyer base is from 13 western states, as well as Latin America, Western Canada, and from the Far East, largely Japan. When you look at buyer attendance, it really makes sense, and it’s doing exactly what we want it to do. We want to put more resources toward [Playground], we want to expand the exhibitor base and make it as easy as possible for our Children’s Club exhibitors to take advantage of what we see happening out there.

What are some of the ways you’re integrating the two shows for exhibitors?

It’s some of the basics. It’s about prices. It’s about like-minded booths. It’s about shipping. It’s about samples. It’s about packages. If you plan for one show, you should really be able to plan for both shows. I think we’re making good progress so far. But it doesn’t happen overnight, because you’re talking about two different shows evolving into one, with an East Coast and West Coast sensibility.

Today many retailers are making wholesale purchases on digital platforms like NuOrder and Brandboom. What do you think trade shows offer to buyers that those sites don’t?

Everyone wants to pit live trade shows against digital tools. I don’t think there’s a strong correlation between the two. I see NuOrder and Brandboom as very effective tools that bring ease, efficiency and knowledge to the ordering process for manufacturers. Many exhibitors have even integrated digital tools into our show to speed up the buying and the selling process. That buying and selling process is core to what we do at Children’s Club, and I see these digital ordering tools as just enhancing what we’re about. But I certainly don’t see these tools replacing the essence of trade shows. I really believe to my core that business is still done better face to face, especially in apparel. You can’t really replace that inherent need, particularly for textiles, to touch and feel the goods; to experience what is arguably many different standards in production. Not to mention, trade shows offer a unique opportunity to get the full breadth of a collection. Even if a buyer really thinks they know a brand, every season involves new goods and new production runs. I think it’s very hard to judge a new collection from a flat piece of paper or a line sheet. And for a retailer, having a personal relationship with the person you’re doing business with, particularly if you can meet the designer and understand her inspirations, will help you sell the product.

And you can make sure she’s a real person!

You look at websites sometimes and you can’t tell if it’s two sisters making a sweater in a garage or a major company. Children’s Club has given so many of our exhibitors, both large and very, very small, the chance to have a powerful voice. The show provides a stage to present the brand, the creator and the product in the most honest way possible. Trade shows are like a live performance. Adele makes this beautiful record and sells two million copies, but it’s a totally different experience when you watch her perform the album live. Your context for appreciation is completely different. A lot of things can be put into a website to disguise the quality of the product and the realization of a brand. But when you’re coming to a trade show, you’re performing live. It’s where the rubber hits the road. And I think the brands that can do both—put a great digital and live presentation together—are the ones that succeed.

In another digital-era evolution, some new brands are focusing exclusively on direct-to-consumer sales. What would you say to those brands?

It takes a whole lot of sophisticated technology to get the word out under a direct-to-consumer model. And it takes a deep understanding of the social media world. To start a brand and focus in one area only—that’s not something I would advise. In today’s economy, you have to try and master many different opportunities and see which works best for you.

And direct-to-consumer is just one of those opportunities?

I think most brands feel that they have to have diverse channels for sales and one doesn’t really replace the other. Today, you have to have a website. Ninety-nine percent of the exhibitors at Children’s Club and Playground have a website. And most of them have some element, whether large or small, of direct-to-consumer sales. But I think the smartest brands are doing a bit of DTC and a whole lot of wholesale activity, as well as pop-up shops, store-in-store concepts and creating diffusion lines if the opportunity is there. The smartest brands, sort of like smart investors, have a very diversified portfolio. They follow the ebbs and flows of the different channels, and try to capture the momentum as each flourishes. Trade show presentation is very important, but it’s only part of a brand’s presentation. You also have to have a great digital presentation and great social media efforts. I think that type of diversification is not only the secret to success in the fashion business, but for any entrepreneur. You really should investigate all the different avenues of opportunity.

Is that the advice you give to new children’s brands?

The advice I would give to someone in the children’s fashion business is the same I would offer to any new entrepreneur looking to expand their brand: Business will not come to you; it requires building and not waiting. I think a lot of my advice is Business 101 and filled with clichés. Leave no stone unturned. Don’t take no for an answer. Invest in quality product. Embrace disciplined spending. I’m a big believer in that, even when selling space at Children’s Club. I always encourage brands to build [booths] within scale of the business, and to make sure the wholesale world and trade show world is the right avenue for them. I encourage them to invest in sales technology and systems and recognize shipping deadlines (I hear that a lot from the retail side). Do your homework, prepare for the show and know the competition as well as you know yourself. Most importantly, create a sales proposition. Even when building a booth for a trade show, ask yourself: What is unique about my brand? Know what would make a buyer say, ‘Ah, that’s the point of difference.’ Having a unique selling proposition and a deep understanding of what your brand represents, even without clothes in the booth, is crucial. Then, be sure to express that and explain that. And since the children’s business is so rich with entrepreneurs and smaller businesses, it’s also important that everyone in the company can express what inspired your brand and what’s unique about it.

What advice do you offer to brands before a show?

Look up. The customer is in front of you; not on the screen below you. I know some shows have more buyers than others; I take heat sometimes. It’s just reality. We do our best, but obviously attendance is often based on the nature of the market. But we work very, very hard to merchandise the show intelligently and strategically, and sometimes I see what could be a very nice collection but the people in the booth are looking at their cell phones as buyers pass by. Even in a booth 13 feet wide, you’ve got 13 feet to engage the buyer. And again, put together a brand presentation that compels them. Your booth is a store window. Showcase that one killer look from your collection, the one that may make a buyer stop in her tracks.

With warmer-than-usual weather slowing down 2015 sales, I suspect buyers will be pretty cautious next year. How will that affect the shows?

We’re in the same business as our exhibitors. We feel the same pains and frustrations. We try and pay attention to the needs of both our attendees and our exhibitors. After all, we’re all in this together. We try to be sensitive to the tough times and embrace the good times. But at the end of the day, we do feel in our heart that an investment in sales—and that’s what trade shows are all about—is one of the best investments out there. •

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