Business Musings: Licensing Expo 2022

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The Las Vegas Licensing Expo happened in person for the first time since 2019.  We attended, along with 12 writers from our classes, and a number of colleagues and friends. WMG Publishing had quite a presence, since Allyson Longuiera came as well. This was her first licensing expo, but it won’t be her last.

Nor will it be ours.

I’ll write a blog or two about things learned at the Expo that will benefit all of you. I’ll put those up next, because the “How Writers Fail” series is a bit of an evergreen, and can wait. The Expo feels timely to me, so I’m going to focus on that first.

The other blogs will be more in depth. But today (Saturday after the Expo) in my exhaustion, I’ll do a mini recap/review.

I’ll be honest. I had such a busy front part of the year that I couldn’t focus on the Expo at all. Dean prepped for it tremendously, and guided the writers through their first experience. His prep paid off for us—not that we got a deal (yet). That’s not how the Expo works. But he was prepared and ready with a pitch or a conversation. He spent all three days at the Expo, on the floor, talking to people at the wrong time of day for him. (He normally works all night and sleeps until late morning.)

We discussed a lot of plans ahead of time, but deep in my heart of hearts, I had convinced myself that Licensing Expo as I experienced it in 2018 and 2019 was a thing of the past. I wasn’t sure what the future was going to hold and I was reserving judgement.

Maybe I was a bit afraid of even looking forward. Okay, no maybe. I hadn’t realized until the conference how much I had been resisting looking at the future, which is just not like me. But, like most everyone else, I felt shellshocked from 2020 and 2021, and was having trouble moving away from it all.

But I learned (thanks to a great therapist) that the best way to deal with a wayward emotion was to acknowledge it and then take the action you had planned anyway. So I went to the Expo, learned a lot, and realized a bunch of things about myself and others.

The Licensing Expo had 11,000 attendees and 250 exhibitors. All of us had to provide proof of full vaccination or a negative Covid test. Masks were strongly encouraged, but were abandoned mostly mid-conference, except by the folks with young children or immune-compromised relatives. There was no mask shaming, which was really refreshing. One booth (Warners, I think) expressly said that you needed a mask to come inside, but by Thursday morning (the last day of the conference), everyone inside the booth looking at things was maskless.

Appointments, though, where you sat across a table from someone? Those were usually masked.

The vaccination requirements and the attitude toward them (which was 100% positive) made the Expo feel like a safe space. I had experienced that same sense of safety at UNLV in the fall, when it too required everyone to be fully vaccinated to attend classes. It felt like a bubble.

No one talked about Covid, which surprised me, and no one recounted their own personal horror story of the past two years. Instead, everyone talked about how great it was to be back, how lucky we were to be there, and oh, yeah, let’s look at the future.

It was absolutely marvelous.

However, Covid did leave its sweaty fingerprints all over the Expo. 2019 had 400 exhibitors and lots of really elaborate booths. 150 of those folks did not return, most of them, according to a friend who has attended for 10 years, the “mid-level” folks.

The upper level folks had two different kinds of booths. The first was a lovely rehash of previous years, with new things on display (like the costumes for Dune at the Legendary Pictures Booth) instead of new banners or new information touting the products.

The second was a cubicle or something like that. More like a square office, side by side with other square offices. There was a door, a roof, and four walls. Over the door, a single word like “Netflix.”

In other words, these folks had no booth at all. Just a place to hold meetings.

This all made sense when you consider this: It takes six to eight months to plan for this Expo. Six months before was the horrific fall Delta surge. At the beginning of the year, as companies started thinking about attended, it was Omicron.

Many companies canceled or went online. Others did not invest much at all, using old materials rather than creating new ones, just in case the Expo got canceled.

Rather than send in employees the weekend ahead, only those who were setting up the booths arrived early. The folks who negotiated the deals arrived Monday night or Tuesday at dawn, so that they could be on the floor on Tuesday morning. Many of them left before the end of the Expo on Thursday.

So our setting felt scaled back. And that was a bit unnerving day one. Another contributor to that was Disney. In the intervening years, Disney had bought Star Wars and Marvel and damn near anyone they could think of. So instead of a totally cool Marvel display as in recent years, they were behind a desk with a receptionist on the lower level. That felt weird as well.

It was clear to me within my first hour of attendance that the spirit of the Licensing Expo was alive and well. Everyone was happy to be back, and everyone was happy to talk about new projects and deals and what the future might hold.

Dozens of us attended a panel that day on the future of licensing, but the two panelists punted. They didn’t even address the topic…at least, it didn’t seem like it. I was later told that they addressed it vaguely at the end.

I made a note to self: If I’m ever asked to give a keynote address, I will deliver my keynote on the topic listed.

Most of us left the panel early because we got no answers. Later that night, as we writers gathered, we all kvetched about that panel, until someone finally said, “Maybe they had no idea what the future is going to be, just like the rest of us.”

That made sense to me. So much had been on hold these past few years. It wasn’t until we were all on the floor that the future of licensing became very clear.

The future of licensing is that it will continue, with new tech and new ideas and old tech and old ideas and products of all types. Planning and pitching will still happen and enjoyment will occur. Negotiation went underway as if it had never stopped.

What was different was this: The pandemic encouraged more product development. It also made tech move into a direction that I believe would not have happened for five or more years. The entire world had to become comfortable with online work/school/streaming. The changes accelerated and were present at the Expo (including several booths that promised to help manage your NFTs).

In other words, instead of fewer opportunities, there were more opportunities, which I did not expect.

So after that first hour, I switched gears. I decided to get an answer to a question we at WMG had been asking for three years. Was getting a booth at the Expo worthwhile?

A little background here: Booths are best for IP creators, like writers or artists or anyone who creates something that some manufacturer (or other company) would want to license for a product, like a t-shirt or mug or stuffed animal (or anything else you can imagine).

I talked to a lot of people who had small brands with lots of licensed products on display. With the exception of the agent who ambushed me at one of the booths (to tell me how dumb I, as an IP creator, would be to handle my own work without his expertise. Yeah, dude, that’s a selling point. Idiot), everyone was friendly and helpful.

Friendly and helpful, by the way, is the mantra of the Expo. Very few people were egotistical or too involved in their own stuff there. It was nice.

Anyway, I got a consensus from the folks I spoke to, who have been successful at past licensing shows. Every person I spoke to said they walked the floor for two (or three) years to familiarize themselves with the show. Then they got a small table (which were not in evidence this year) for a year or two, and then they got a booth.

I also asked how much money they sank into the booth, and most of them put in the cost of the booth plus the advertising materials and more. All of that came to a minimum of $35,000.

The question was, as all of the people told me, whether or not that $35,000 was worthwhile. And for them, ultimately, it was.

But as one person told me: If you’re coming in cold and you’ve never seen the Expo, it’s wasted money.

Another told me that unless I had made a number of deals while walking the floor, having a booth was a bad idea.

Turns out Dean and Allyson were asking the same question as they walked the floor and they learned similar things.

Dean did more, though. He made initial contacts and we’ll see if they pan out. I was too tired and scattered to even try to do more than some minimal work.

It became very clear to me that my nagging sense was right: I needed to go into the Expo better prepared.

I’m not sure it would have been possible to be better prepared this year. Not because I lacked the time, but because I (like most everyone) was struggling with finding a vision of the future.

I think I found it at the Expo. It’s not some grand vision or a great prediction. It’s just the crystallization of a realization that’s been slowly building since April.

We have a future. It includes Covid, which will inconvenience us or (god forbid) make us or someone we love very sick. But that’s no reason to stop moving forward.

We all got trapped in amber in 2020. It has taken each one of us a different amount of time to get free of that trapped feeling.

I’m surprised that the Expo is what pulled me out of it. It wasn’t that the Expo was normal. It’s not a normal event at all. It’s that the Expo was so positive and forward facing. I lapped that up like a kitten with a forbidden glass of milk.

A few other things about the Expo.

First, a disappointment. In 2018 and 2019, Licensing University was spectacular. It taught new participants how to participate. It focused on contracts and negotiation and what kind of behaviors to expect when a deal is made and when it is executed.

To a person, everyone that I spoke to who took Licensing University called it a waste of time and $200. The panels were boring and not very useful at all.

I felt bad, because I had encouraged writers to take it, thinking the content would be relevant. It was not.

Second, WMG rented a suite at the Luxor (the sister hotel to Mandalay Bay) where the writers who were in attendance got together at eight every night to share what we learned and what we saw.

I had initially put something like this together on a small scale, in a bar, at the 2019 Expo. Dean is the one who scaled this up to a suite, and I wasn’t sure it would be worthwhile.

It was very worthwhile. Some of what I will write about in the next post or two will come from those nights. We could talk each other off the ledge, point out good booths to see, explain certain aspects of the Expo that one or another of us understood better than the person who saw it, and so on.

We’ll be doing that every year going forward. I learned a lot up there, and I know others did as well.

I suspect that in future years, barring another unseen worldwide event, the Licensing Expo will be very advantageous to writers and other attendees. It will be bigger next year (again, with the caveat—I guess I’m not entirely over 2020) and it will be even more forward facing.

We’ll be going. We’re already drawing up plans for what we hope to accomplish there, and the ways we plan to accomplish it.

And, in case I wasn’t clear, we will not have a booth. We’re not ready for one thing, but even if we were, I’m not sure we need to spend that kind of time and money. Walking the floor provides a lot of freedom and gives you the opportunity to actively schedule your time. You can schedule an appointment, find time for an unscheduled one, eat lunch on your own terms, and maybe head back to the room for a short recharging nap, if need be.

You can’t do the last two with a booth, unless you share duties with someone else so that the booth is covered at all times. I’ve had booths at conventions in the past and they tether you to a location. That makes you easy to find, but it makes extricating yourself from problems very difficult.

I recommend that every writer who can come to the Licensing Expo and walk the floor with no expectations of making a deal. Just view things, and see what inspires you. The Expo is free to people with appropriate businesses (published writers fit in that category). The expenses are the travel costs, meals, hotel, and the time. Never discount the time.

Maybe by next year, Licensing University will be worthwhile again. I’m hoping this year’s misstep was another pandemic-created problem.

Even without Licensing U, the Expo is worthwhile for a person with the right attitude.

I’m pretty sure that next year’s dates will be up in a month or so. Consider coming. We will have more information on licensing and the Expo on, especially as our tiredness eases and we start looking toward next year. Check that site as well later in the summer.

It’s nice to have a sense of the future again. It feels good.

And it makes me approach the oncoming few months with joy and energy—even if I am exhausted.


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“Business Musings: Licensing Expo 2022,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2022 by  Kristine K. Rusch

4 thoughts on “Business Musings: Licensing Expo 2022

  1. Honestly, COVID’s uncertain trajectory has made planning in advance very difficult. If you need to be physically present, it’s tough, but, even for virtual meetings and non-contact interactions, it’s a challenge.
    Heck, even keeping focus on your own projects can be hard. I’ve been down with a mild case of COVID for the last 11 days (hoped to be cleared by today, but, no). Despite all the time in the world, even after I started feeling better, I had no ability to concentrate for any length of time. My focus is just not there.
    So, in the last few days, I decided to do what I could do – walk the dog, if I’m able. If not up to it, take him outside to the backyard, and let both of us get the fresh air and sunshine. Putter around the house, organizing paper. Do small household tasks (I tire easily, so not anything prolonged).
    Baby steps, but keeping progress.

    1. Booths at any convention, from Comic Con to an sf convention to this, have hidden costs. Employee time, time-time, hotels, food, and more. For example, this place had $6 bottled water, which was spendy, but sometimes necessary after all of that walking (and another bottle drained). So yeah. Spendy. Maybe I need to blog about this, too…

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