Nearly 300 flooring contractors and suppliers gathered at the Fuse Alliance conference in Austin, Texas. This year’s event focused on how members can better connect with the architecture and design community in their markets to offer unbiased advice, install better floors and grow their businesses, said Fuse executive director Geoff Gordon.

Cheryl Durst, executive vice president and CEO of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), encouraged contractors to leverage their expertise as an unbiased resource for flooring projects, floor preparation and successful installation methods. As design needs change, contactors can help designers identify ways flooring can help solve problems. For example, open-concept office spaces are starting to become less popular as employees realize they need more privacy and better acoustics for conversations, Durst said.

Offering continuing education units (CEUs) is one way to get a foot in the door of design firms. Durst recommended that companies expand the topics of CEUs they present beyond installation to provide solutions for common office pitfalls, such as business etiquette and conflict resolution. Product fairs are another avenue for connection, but they should be solution focused instead of product focused. “Bring macro ideas to start,” Durst said. “Talk to them about projects—knowledge about an enterprise—and add specific product information later.”

Karen Hoffman of GSR Andrade Architects in Dallas told contractors to pay attention to even the small flash jobs because they can lead to others. She said she recently won three new projects based on a small industrial flooring makeover where she specified luxury vinyl tile and porcelain tile. She also completed a project for a laboratory that needed new flooring but the owners had little budget. “We used a quartz tile and our suppliers helped work with pricing so we could get a better product,” Hoffman said. “I have found that working with my suppliers helps.”

When specifying flooring, Hoffman says she first listens to her clients and the end users to understand the expectations they have for their flooring, along with the types of maintenance they plan to do, since it affects longevity and appearance of the surfaces over time.

Dean Maddalena, president of studioSIX5 in Austin, Texas, said his firm specializes in senior living and is the largest interior design firm specializing in this market. The company is working on more than 90 projects in 29 states and about $40 million in project costs. On the list this year is a 450,000-square-foot retirement community project in Denver. “This is a rental model and owners are looking to hold onto them for the long term, so they want to invest in good product,” Maddalena said.

Carol Elia, owner of CR Design in Newton, Pa., says 99% of her business comes from the senior living market. She’s currently working on a ground-up project that includes community-assisted living, skilled nursing, dining, gift shops and coffee shops. “Most of the time as an interior designer you don’t get to do a ground up project—you do tons of renovation,” She said. “This project has been valued engineered probably 18 times at this point. We are embarking on a new situation and we have to be more thorough.”

Fuse Alliance’s national flooring contractor division, Fuse Commercial, grew by 53% in 2016 and managed about 250 projects, according to Mike Hutton, senior vice president, Fuse Alliance. Hutton said the organization is growing thanks to the collaboration among members and the connections they already have in each market. With the industry changing and project installation named the No. 1 problem, Fuse Commercial aims to be the center point of accountability for materials, installation and project management and reclamation.

Hutton said the organization is targeting relationships with Fortune 1000 companies across the U.S.: “We are selling the fact that one size doesn’t fit all. We want to fit into a model they have so that we are easy to do business with. We want to provide stability for them and we want to become their preferred supplier on a national basis.”

He said over the last three years more companies had turnkey installation services in their request for proposals, including companies like Accenture, Capital One, CitiGroup and Hewlett Packard. “More people are leaning toward the idea of one-stop shopping for buying materials and labor,” Hutton said. “They don’t want to point the finger and that’s why we are working with end users and vendor partners to protect them and help protect their investments.”

It means flooring contractors need to be environmentally conscious, be able to turn around quotes in five to seven business days, be on time, accountable, and offer the same quality and execution for projects nationwide—even if they are as far apart as Boston and Los Angeles.

“We have experienced a year of growth at Atkinson Carpet, and many of our fellow Fuse members are growing as well—and 2017 looks to be another strong year for us all,” said Andrea Hood, sales and project manager for Atkinson Carpet in Haverhill, Mass. “For us in particular, it appears as though corporate is going to be a strong market after not being so for many years, as well as education, both K-12 and higher education, which have been fairly strong even through the downturn of the economy.”