Take note, Puddings…this is how you turn a doll convention into an experience extraordinaire. After now seeing all of the major event organizers in action, most recently with Integrity Toys’ 2014 Gloss Convention – I can accurately report on the top events with confidence…
Two weeks ago, I turned 50. It was a pretty disappointing day considering all the birthday cakes I bake for other people (bastards). But I had something up my sleeve – if you want something done right, do it yourself. Alone, I fled the Redneck Riviera for Orlando – Disney, Harry Potter – and the Integrity Toys 2014 Gloss Convention. My faith in birthdays was beautifully restored. I just love playing, and if there’s one thing I’m damn good at – it’s playing with myself. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to with the hundreds of other doll collectors descending onto Orlando with me.
As I described here and here, I’ve been to many doll-related events over the last 20 years. Honestly, you really can’t compare them to each other because of so many variants such as customer base, location, event organizer…and of course, the dolls. Nevertheless, they are all still doll-themed events meant to entice attendees into dropping huge sums of cash to come out and enjoy your party. Although they cannot be directly compared, there are distinctive elements therein that warrant discussion through means of comparison. Let’s go there, shall we…?
Doll events are all about a critical balance of basic, but essential concepts. Primarily, you’re looking at the location, theme, product and service. Any deviation outside critical fabulosity places you in a precarious position with your customer, and it creates a gossiping subject among your competitors and critics. The doll convention holds one of the most singly important image building revenue earners for any given organizer in the course of a year. So whether you break that down into a handful of events scattered across the country, or put all your dolls in one basket for one grand event, the results will greatly impact your annual bottom-line, and pave the road toward your follow-up year.
And no, I’m not trying to seduce Integrity – I don’t think that shit works on them anyway – so as I glow and cheer about this event, bear in mind that it’s the real deal. I learned my lesson a long time ago about tossing all your loyalties into one basket. Later on, when that basket tosses you, you’re left with a whole shitload of emotions and crap to deal with through therapy – so back off, bitches. I know the acerbic tongues wagging out there, and I know what they are saying – and quite honestly, I simply don’t give a fuck.
The negative people don’t know me well enough to hurt my feelings, and they probably could serve themselves well with a dose of therapy and/or intensive medication. They are the exception to the rule, despite their bitter poison trying to take everyone down – did your mother dress you funny as a child and make you eat week-old steak? Really…
As you arrive at ITCon’s shimmering location, the Hyatt Regency Orlando, you instantly know you’re in for it, as the hotel always create the first impression. What I loved was that there were no places for collectors to gather in the entrance – they were all nestled in adjacent alcoves, so ‘hanging out in the lobby’ was a much more clandestine task. I never once waited for an elevator with a crowd of people – ever. That’s really saying something. True, the hotel’s layout was sprawling, but that was minor to the fact that in its design, you could scatter 500 people quickly and efficiently.
As for the staff, well it’s easy to see the Orlando-effect in the employees – always smiling, always courteous. In particular, the banquet personnel went above and beyond the call of duty to offer resounding service, and not just merely dropping plates of food on the table. I felt like I was in a top restaurant, and that the staff actually cared I was enjoying the evening with them. When one employee acts like they don’t want to be there, the impact is paralyzing to the hospitality service machine. From the concierge to the cleaning staff – all were friendly, professional and giving. And to that cutie, Julio, in the banquet room, you deserve the employee of the year for offering options to folks who wanted meal variations outside the event menu. Kudos, man…if only you were 20 years older, gay and single…
The hotel is the setting, and registration is your first contact with the convention. Staffed largely by the Newsum Family, a handful of Integrity employees, and a group of supporters who have followed Integrity for years – questions are answered, your name is spoken with enthusiasm, and you have now been initiated into a world where ‘common’ just doesn’t exist. Exploring my registration bag yielded such a strong first clue of things to come – and that these folks get it. It wasn’t a custom-made piece of luggage, or a screen stamped recycled inflammable textile usually reserved for covering bedding box springs. No – it was a simple glossy black Integrity shopping bag – with your welcome gifts – and a single implied message: you’re going to have fun here.
I won’t criticize those that make lavish convention bags for their attendees – they are a damn nice touch. But as I’ve said, I would rather see your money go into dolls and doll-related souvenirs. No coffee mugs, fancy-shaped chocolates, or other ephemera that has nothing to do with a doll. Put it all in the dolls, and I’ll be happy. However, depending on your level of frippery you extend to your event to make it ‘glossy’, the number of dolls and doll-related offerings all must generate revenue. Companion dolls, extra souvenirs and accessories, workshops – they all carry a price, which I’ll discuss later.
I’m not going to walk you through each event and the souvenirs, and discuss the secondary market implications of each – no. Other bloggers do a much better job of bringing this information to the collectors (click here for one of the best at Fashion Doll Chronicles), and I’m not about to piss in their back yard. I would rather focus on the things that made this event shine…because there was little to diminish its patina.
Every event was appropriately polished, I would almost even say rehearsed. Entering the banquet room had such an amazing visual impact with draped walls, lighting, color – like you were on the set of some talk show production. In fact, the stage was set with conversational sofas – a touch I thought was nothing short of brilliant. Large screens flanked both sides of the stage, so everyone could follow the programs.
This kind of AV isn’t cheap, my dears…paired with the cost of food, they are two of the biggest expenses appearing on your hotel bill. Many take that shit for granted, because they certainly didn’t have to do it. But creating this lavish sense of immersion brings a quality to the event that is unparalleled, upstaged only by the souvenir dolls (as they should).
Programs and announcements were kept to a minimum, but each hosted by the fabulousness of Carol Roth. All convention organizers should take a note to her approach. Stylish, concise, charming – Carol brought an element to the stage that felt like a bona fide ‘A’ List celebrity had been hand-picked as the ‘face’ of the convention. Of course, you also had Alain Tremblay and the Integrity Designers presenting and sometimes co-hosting, but it was Carol that ushered us through event to event, with style and grace befitting of doll royalty. I felt so terrible for her at the closing banquet when she was lifting each raffle ticket box to the designer who picked the winning ticket – those boxes were heavy, and it showed. Really, guys…she was wearing couture – and you’re going to make her lift heavy boxes on stage? My mother would have been mortified. But Carol handled it like a pro, proving she could not only play with the big boys, but she could do manual labor in silk and heels, too. I’ve never seen that before in my 20+ years.
Alain also gets a big shout out. I am very proud to know him as a friend, and we are pretty consistent about keeping our friendship and his professional world separate. So when I say that his level of showmanship and concern for producing a quality event is paramount – it’s not just fluff. If only some event organizers would step up to his level of organization, planning and execution – they might fill more seats.
Quite honestly, all the Designers, Staff and Family associated with Integrity Toys bust their asses to bring their customers a choice event. This part is not unusual. Most event organizers work exceedingly long hours to plan and host their events. In my days at Tonner, I rarely saw few on our staff who slacked in the slightest (well, and those that did know who they are). It’s a thankless job to operate from the crack of dawn to the wee hours with few breaks or sustenance – and as such, I understand completely when something goes wrong.
And you can’t go astray with an appearance by a 100% real fashion world celebrity. Many knew Jason Wu years ago in his early days of doll design, and it was lovely to see him spend time with the Integrity Team and collectors. Jason’s presence at the final banquet was a true testament to his devotion to the fans, and a sincere nod toward his beginnings.
Perhaps the only drama during this event was the nervousness shielded from collector view by the delay of a shipping container carrying a vast number of event souvenirs. It’s a common threat, given the timeline to design, manufacture and ship the products from China. Product not arriving is a rarity – when it does occur, it can be devastating.
The Integrity folks handled it with stride, even making a running joke out of the wandering ship somewhere on the high seas with dolls aboard wearing high fashion. But not even Santa Claus can recover from a failed promise, and in no uncertain terms Integrity would have suffered had the shipment not arrived. I was extremely impressed with the way they handled it, offering shipping options and even consideration to both domestic and international customers.
Nevertheless, this is a big deal – and they knew it. It’s true that it’s not the problem, but how you handle it – however, few collectors even begin to understand the impact on a company should its convention product not arrive. It’s equally impressive when you know what they know, and what they are thinking behind their smiles – and yet, they still managed to shield the attendees from what had to have been unbelievable stress.
When the container arrived, the Integrity Team sprang into action through an overnight marathon of prep and inspection. We still saw smiles the next morning, and it’s remarkable to know those smiles saw little rest. I remember at Expo East years ago, the folks at Madame Alexander were faced with a delayed shipment, and when it arrived, the dolls were completely disassembled and naked – the designers worked overnight to assemble, dress and box each little puckered-mouth Wendy, so as to not disappoint their customer. I can be rather hard on Alexander – but that single act, and many like them happening to other organizers, is a testament to the level of commitment to the customer. But some collectors just don’t give a shit…and that’s where the true obligations come into play.
Almost instantly, the online rumor mill attached onto this delay like it was some sort of Armageddon…or worse, a planned conspiracy. Some said there was a shortage of dolls, some said they were stolen, some said they wouldn’t arrive at all. It was interesting to see the parallel of these rumors, and the eBay listings of those that were pre-selling the dolls, only to find they might be delayed. Speculation that there wasn’t enough would drive those secondary market prices sky-high, leaving one to question the nature of such rumor mongering in the first place.
Dissenters, evil ambition, naysayers, instigators – all the nasty comes out during a popular convention, and Integrity was no new victim to this. These negative people are like scabs. They are – in some way, shape or form – necessary to the healing process, but that doesn’t alleviate the ugly inconvenience of their existence. Whether it be the people who were soured because they couldn’t get in, or those attending that eat negativity like candy – you simply cannot rid yourselves of them. But you can slap the shit out of them, so take heart that there’s always a solution.
While roaming the tables shooting pics for Haute Doll Magazine, I watched one collector scramble to photograph the screen projection of one delayed doll, and instantly post it to eBay from her phone. Her eyes glistened with the greedy spark that arrives to take advantage of an unfortunate situation. I saw her a couple of other times – miserably dressed, never smiling, and no, she didn’t wear a costume to the Halloween event, either. They say misery loves company, but I can only imagine that even misery would have avoided this bitch like the plague. It made my heart sing to know that most of the attendees were not like her at all – and I felt a little sad for her, wondering what it is that makes people behave with the manners of a common street whore. Pity, really…and her shoes were criminal at best. But I digress…
As for the other 499 attendees, they represent a collective of energy and fun that isn’t always present at doll conventions. Like the Barbie and Tonner environments, Integrity attracts a group that is uniquely attributed toward its passion in the products. These folks share in their love of the dolls and its maker – and this brings such a level of excitement, you’d piss your pants trying to keep up with them.
People wandered from table to table to see others’ travel dolls, a special find from room sales, or hugging friends that only see each other once a year. And, Puddings…there was an obscene amount of hugging and selfies – so obscene I often secretly wished for some folks to just get a room, already. Be that as it may, it was all in good fun, and this type of obscenity is embraced with warmth and deep friendship.
By the way, you can see all the Convention Selfies I took on my Facebook page – and you don’t need to be a member of Facebook to see these – click here.
The attendees at the Integrity event were a mixed crowd, culturally diverse, and much younger than those who frequent other events. And the men. Woof. I was terrified to open Grindr on my phone for fear it would explode. Clearly, there are more men at this event than any other – now I know where you’ve all been keeping yourselves – you can run, but you can’t hide…
Inevitably, there are always going to be comparisons to other events, namely Tonner. I was asked by a number of folks about my opinions. As an instrumental operative in the Tonner conventions, I was damn proud of the events we held – I know how much time and energy I put into presentations, entertainment and imagery. Yet this convention humbled me in a number of ways. Sometimes you just can’t see the whole picture for the balloons on the table, and it all served as a reminder that one must always improve on the next event – you’re only as good as your last convention. That being said, I hold Integrity in such high esteem now, because this was narrowly the best convention I have ever attended (coming in a close tie with the 2009 Barbie 50h Anniversary Convention). A couple of Tonner events still rank in my top 10, and I’ll pass that list onto you in a future post.
In the periphery of this convention, you also had a well-planned series of ancillary activities to keep convention goers occupied and entertained. Other events throw a number of workshops and seminars, often leaving the attendee frustrated because of the decision-making that results when trying to choose one event over another. Integrity’s workshops were minimal – only three. But they covered topics that appeal to everyone who love dolls.
Sharon Wright presented an in-depth look at photographing your dolls, using tricks of light and balancing to create motion and life. Vicky Garnier brought her expertise of the miniature to attendees wanting to create tiny wrist watches with such detail and finesse, you’d think she had shrunk the kids.
The most unique was Uriah Redden’s 3-D Printing Workshop. This is a topic that could potentially create a competitive problem for doll makers. Why buy a doll when you could make your own? It’s not quite that easy – yet – but the potential is there, not to mention the implications of scanning an existing sculpt, and printing a copy. But that didn’t matter to the convention host, and what Redden brought to their customer was something uniquely entertaining and insightful. Pushing the envelope like that takes balls – big ol’ brass hangers that clink when you strut.
And of course, there was plenty of products to buy. Integrity doesn’t have a vendor salesroom, per se – this year they hosted a Halloween Party, allowing folks (like me) to set up tables to sell their wares. The tables were free – yes…free – and you could get up to five by reserving in advance. Add this to convention/hotel-sanctioned room sales, and Integrity’s own salesroom – you had all the shopping you would want. I was selling the new Debut Couture Illustrated Collection by Ayal Armon and several of my own designs you’ve seen me discuss on this blog (Scarlatto, Vienna, Aurora, White Tie, Infanta and Éire) – sales were a great success, but it also meant I didn’t have the time to travel to other rooms, or to visit with vendors at the Halloween event. My timing was poorly planned, and I did talk to lots of folks – but I should make a note of this for future events, because – duh – I like shopping, too. For me, missing other vendors was a missed opportunity to see designs in person – something I have always loved to do because miniature sewing fascinates me to no end. All was not lost however, and I was able to partake in the feast of dolls entered into the competition – where amazing talent comes to shine and whore itself all over the eager eyes of convention attendees. Yeah…me, too…
Room sales was new for me. Not only was I representing Ayal Armon’s debut collection, I was selling my own things for the first time ever at a convention. I loved the idea of the Halloween Fashion Bazaar, because something about posing your fashion dolls all around two king size beds borders on the creepy. Nevertheless, I met so many new faces, bringing accolades for our work – and of course sales, which never hurts. And yes, I will be working on 12inch designs for next year – it was foolish to not embrace the size, given its complexity in scale to my fat fingers. But to all the 12inch collectors who visited our room and the table – thank you for taking the time to admire something you ordinarily wouldn’t buy – you have great taste.
The competition was truly amazing in its turn out – and no wonder! The prize in the advanced category was to have your doll actually produced and offered in one of the company’s collections. It’s also a good way to show your work to others, all in the name of self-promotion and recognition amongst your peers. The success of a competition relies on the quality of the exposure, and I can’t think of any better than having your design manufactured. It’s been a long time since I entered a competition, and the prize was appealing, I have to say.
I didn’t win – so I’m not building up to anything. I knew the second I took my dolls out (they were the only two 16inch dolls entered) that they wouldn’t win – this was clearly a 12inch group. It’s not that I didn’t think my designs were impossible for the win, but after seeing the level of the entries there, it must have been quite the task to pick a single winner by the judges. I easily saw eight entries that could have been the winner – but only the judges know what they are looking for in terms of cohesion to their collection. They would have to select one that was reproducible – and matched the colors, themes and styling of existing designs in next year’s line. I saw significant merit in the winners selected, softly uttering ‘bitch‘ under my breath while their names were being announced (which also charged the air as it escaped other designers’ lips at the same moment as mine). They were certainly worthy of the win, considering they were among the dolls that captured the essence of the competition theme.
Now to be clear to the winners and people who think I’m eating sour grapes, this doesn’t mean I thought those designs shouldn’t win. It’s just there were several that could have won – and you can only have one winner. What truly surprised me in the competition were the dolls that had absolutely nothing to do with the competition theme…gorgeously rendered designs, but completely irrelevant to the given competition guidelines for early 1960s fashion. I wanted to know why – did they not understand? Did they not care? Like some on Project Runway, did they feel it was best for them to go their own direction, thinking the judges would be wowed by their entries? It’s a mystery, really – the world may never know…
Note: In order to minimize duplication of images shot for Haute Doll Magazine, you will notice an absence of certain photos like the winning competitive entries, the convention souvenir dolls, table and people photos, etc.
I was very pleased with my entries, but they stood out for all the wrong reasons – scale for one. It is true that all size female fashion dolls made by Integrity (except Jem) could be used – but that 1:6 scale eludes me as incredibly complicated and precise – with practice, I think I can get there. It’s one of the most challenging miniature sizes, and when it’s done well, you can only stare at it, and marvel in its accomplishment. Even if my designs had been in 12inch size, I still don’t think they would have won based on the very iconic, definitive styles chosen for the win. The winning designers displayed mastery of not only the scale, but the characters and genre of the Integrity fashion doll. That’s why they won. To those of you who told me you voted for my designs, thank you from the bottom of my heart – I was happy with my entries, as I was also happy with the wonderful turnout of all the designers – it was quite the show of design and artistry.
The competition was housed in the same social center of the convention known as the Integrity Sales Room – here, you could view and buy dolls made exclusively for the convention, and a few dolls in the existing Integrity collection. I heard some grumblings both online and in person regarding the sheer volume of dolls offered – and to you, I say, get over it. I’m not going to even remind you that they are a business, but I would be shocked if Integrity came out of that event with any kind of substantive profit – and they are entitled to a profit if you want them to keep making dolls. Nevertheless, knowing what hotels charge for their services, it was pretty clear why so many dolls were offered. That, and considering their mainline doll collection is not as big as other makers, they obviously know where and when to drop a highly focused collection into the hands of eager customers. It’s risky…damn risky – but Integrity also seems to have a confidence in its products that suggest an almost supernatural intuition. With consistently high levels of design and richly detailed packaging – all at reasonable price points – they are a force to be reckoned with. Other doll makers, both artist and manufactured, should be taking loads of notes – because this is how you do it.
And the dolls? Well…between the exclusive collection, the centerpieces and the souvenirs, the souvenirs were the best of them all (as they should). There was something for everyone here (much like Tonner having both fashion and child dolls) – you didn’t have to buy everything to be pleased. If you had simply took home only your inclusive souvenirs, you would have had an amazing collection.
Registration included four dolls and two accessory sets, certainly worth the price of admission – if you attended the W Club Luncheon for a separate price, you would have had a fifth doll. I try to not be a stickler for any event when it comes to what you get – because when you look at the price of registration, I’ve rarely seen any of them to rip you off. Of course, if you’re only into a specific type of doll, you may feel shorted – but that would be an ignorant assumption, considering you should know fully what to expect in any convention before making the decision to sign up.
The souvenirs are where the Integrity Designers really elevated their game. Using a theme such as ‘Gloss’ is ambiguous – but as we later learned, there was this whole 70s vibe infused into the convention design plan. The resulting dolls displayed a cohesiveness across all character stories, bringing unity to the convention theme. Centerpiece dolls were minimal, but nothing less than gorgeous. I did always admire Tonner’s events for dressing a table in surreal landscapes meant to not only display multiple dolls, but also to tell a story for the event’s subject. Integrity puts its creativity into an elegant package, creating tables meant for dining and socializing, pairing simple floral arrangements with one signature doll that establishes the mood. It’s minimal, but it’s effective.
In the end, this was one amazing event. It’s very easy to compare it to others, but it’s also unfair – because so many factors come into play that aren’t congruent among events. The size, location and hotel are all relevant factors – but so are the quantity of products that need to be sold to pay for the production. Your registration price barely covers the cost of the dolls and food – everything else – audio/visual support, secondary break-out rooms, hotel staffing, security, electricity/internet availability, delayed containers arriving late at night, rowdy conventioneers that have to be forcibly ejected – all that jazz – all comes at a price. Remember that next time you go to any event and question the profit-making potential of the organizer. And let’s not forget the significant differences between manufacturer-sponsored events and independent organizations/clubs that host annual happenings – apples and oranges, my dear – the only thing they have in common is the central theme of doll collecting.
Notwithstanding all the gloss, glitter and sparkle of the Integrity event, I have been to many other events that sparkled less, but glowed just as brightly. This, of course, is the testament to the organizers and volunteers that bring challenging elements to its core collector to not only entertain them, but to also sell to them through a business exchange of goodwill and revenue. None of them should be taken lightly – whether it’s a luncheon of 50 people, or an extravaganza of 1500.
So KUDOS to you, Integrity – keep that fire burning for next year and years to come – I do hope you all sat back and reflected on the enormity of your success, because you’re the target to hit. With great power, comes great responsibility – and fab shoes.
My trip came courtesy via the final pieces of my Alice in Wonderland collection, so I can only hope I’m employed by the time next year’s convention rolls around…it’s in Long Beach, CA. What are kidneys going for these days?