High Point Market CEO Reflects On Fall Event, Looks Toward Future
Organizers of the High Point Market canceled the spring event with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic — the first hiatus for the twice-a-year market since World War II. It returned this month with pandemic precautions in place that included daily testing of visitors and limits on how many people could be in showrooms. The result: a market about half the size of the typical event and largely devoid of international travelers.
Tom Conley is president and CEO of the High Point Market Authority. In a wide-ranging interview with WFDD’s Paul Garber, Conley calls the fall market a success despite its smaller size. He credits an infusion of COVID-related government funding for helping the furniture industry stay afloat and for the market to go on. Without another round of assistance, though, both the market and the industry will face a tougher time.
Still, Conley believes another smaller market could be ahead in April. He’s hoping a return to a more normal market will occur in the fall of 2021, which he says will benefit both the industry and the local economy.
On his assessment of the just-completed market:
We were probably about 50 to 55 percent down over last market, but last fall was the best market we've had in about 12 years. So, you know, it's a very high, high benchmark for us. But a couple things hurt us, to be honest with you. There are 11 states that consider North Carolina a hot state, and nine of those eleven states are east of the Mississippi. And so just [to] give you an example, in the Northeast, when we first opened registration and as we sort of moved through the four-month process for registration, we're about 50 percent of people from the Northeast who registered to come to this market who were here last year. We only got about 28 percent. And that's because so many of those Northeast states considered North Carolina to be a hot state. That means that when they get back, they had to self quarantine for 14 days, and people just couldn't take that opportunity to self self quarantine. So in general, I think we met our expectations. Those exhibitors who were prepared, I think had a fairly good market. And not only does this industry need this market, but the community needs this market desperately.
On whether technologies adopted during the pandemic such as video meetings damage the market:
That's an excellent question. And as a matter of fact, that is the question as far as I'm concerned. The online experience, while it can be a good stopgap, is not a substitute for a face-to-face market. Our market is really built on three very solid tenants. Number one is product, and the product for a business-to-business buyer as opposed to a millennial consumer is see it, feel it, touch it, sit on it. You've got to really understand that product and that can't be done electronically. The second thing is the networking. You've got to be able to look at people, talk to them — whether they're a competitor, whether they're somebody who has a similar company or a retail store or design business across the country, whatever it is — you want that opportunity to trade secrets, trade war stories kind of thing. And the last thing is education. We have our own education. Many states for designers require continuing education credits. There are lots of opportunities for them to earn those credits here at market, which they are very, very grateful for.
On what's likely for the spring market:
My sense is, is that by April there'll be some light at the end of the tunnel, although COVID won't be gone. So we will not return to normal. I guess the question is how much of this staying safe, feeling safe, do we have to do in order to get above that close to 50 percent no show factor that we had for this market.
So we're going to try to create a couple of plans. We're going to create a plan where we basically do everything that we did this market, continue to monitor the progress. This was very expensive. We were very blessed to get some money from the federal COVID-relief dollars that were sent to the state ... and that really helped us dramatically. But unless there's another kind of a relief package that is passed after the election and unless that money gets passed through and we get a chance to get more of that, it would be a real strain on our budget. And I'm willing to spend the money. Don't misunderstand. But you just hate to spend money that you don't need to spend. So we're gonna be watching very, very carefully. Our expectation is, is that we could get to 60 or 70 percent of the year over year market number and that we could find ways to keep people safe. And then a year from now, we'll be back to whatever the new normal is.