HD Expo injects life into contract market

Jesse Burkhart, July 23, 2011

The Howard Elliott CollectionThe Howard Elliott Collection is aiming to be a versatile, all-in-one solution for designers and specifiers, offering customization of its wall décor, accessories and furniture lines for hospitality settings.
PERHAPS NO SEGMENT OF THE home furnishings industry has been hit harder by the recessionary economy than the hospitality contract market. Appropriately, "the city that never sleeps" served as an ideal venue to stir up the slumbering sector, as last month's Hospitality Design Expo, held in Las Vegas at the Sands Expo and Convention Center, invigorated those who have seen the contract market's better days.

"This show has been one of the most inspiring shows I've ever had the pleasure of being a part of," said Liz Sommerville, group show director for all Nielsen events within the HD market. "The atmosphere is so positive. The exhibitors are thrilled with the fact the market has started to turn."

With nearly 900 exhibitors, the show has also seen vendors increase the investment in their display space, an indication that cash flow is coming back and renovation projects are reopening, particularly abroad.

"There's no question there's more in the pipeline now, so business is looking up," said Uttermost's Contract Sales Manager Don Barker. "Everyone is being more aggressive in terms of the domestic design community going after projects in the Middle East and the Caribbean. Central America is really strong for us right now. That's helped a lot to offset the fact that there's very little new construction in the U.S."

Global ViewsGlobal Views made economical use of its booth by staging product around a conversation space for sales reps and designers.
"There's certainly activity in asking for specific quotes," said David Beld, executive vice president, Palecek. "They're saying, ‘Hey, I'm working on a project,' so that's exciting because there's meaning behind this. There's some kind of element of a project that's happening that we can now work on together."

But even as more hotels and restaurants commit to updating their look, the interaction between buyer and vendor at HD Expo isn't the same as the interaction at the major home furnishings markets.

"It's not necessarily a selling show - it's really a meet-and-greet," said Brian Berk, president, The Howard Elliott Collection. "It's a hands-on thing to see what your capabilities are. As we've learned how to work this show, we've learned you need to make a statement. You can't just show product - you need to make a statement so that people remember you."

Part of that statement Berk wants to make is to show designers that buying from his company isn't strictly a made-asseen proposition; rather, it remains flexible with the ability to customize residential products for hospitality settings.

"We're showing products that we've either customized for specific projects that we've done through the years or things that are more contract-oriented," he said. "For instance, we're showing mirrors (that would fit in a) residential setting that we've blown up and enlarged or tweaked the profile to accommodate a customer request for a hotel project. We're trying to separate ourselves from being just a wall décor source; we're trying to be more of a total solution with our furniture line and our accessories."

There were other differentiating aspects of the show. In general, the scene was younger, and the event organizers catered to that fact by putting together one of the more technologically advanced trade shows going, from its digital media kit to its use of social media.

The foremost example of this was the "Hook-Up Lounge," a designated area in which attendees could recharge their phones, watch video of the show on a large screen, interact with the Twitter Wall (a scrolling feed in which tweets that included the #HDExpo hashtag would display), or simply relax on one of several sofa sectionals.

Green Day, which hosted various award presentations and speakers on sustainability, also resonated with the attendees. "We'll definitely be doing the Green Day aspect again next year because the interest level in sustainability from our attendees is growing," Sommerville said. "They want to get hands-on with the process from the beginning to end. Especially the young designers because they know that is the future."

As the residential market rebounds, so too does the contract segment, and the HD Expo is helping fuel the comeback by hosting a forum in which designers and manufacturers can increase their synergies.

"It has been a fantastic show," Sommerville said. "I don't think I've had one person say to me that the show has been disappointing for them. Expectations are set; they know what their goals are, and they are succeeding. That makes my job easy. That's what we're here for - connecting people."

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