As evidenced by aisles teeming with showgoers and exhibits crammed with products promising a new approach to floor covering, the 2006 edition of Surfaces is likely to be recalled as a watershed event for the industry. Amid concern that rising fuel prices and a cooling off of the home construction business could hurt sales this year, the consensus among the record number of attendees was that the flooring business remains on solid ground.

"I was surprised that the mood was as upbeat as it was," commented D. Christopher Davis, president and CEO of the World Floor Covering Association, the official sponsor of the three-day meeting in Las Vegas. "Nearly everyone I talked to agreed this was the best show we ever had. I know it is common for people to say that after a show, but the traffic we saw at our exhibit really validated that. And what I'm hearing from other exhibitors is people they saw were not there to kick tires. They were buying. Many of the suppliers I spoke to said they were pleasantly surprised at how well they did. I think this show exceeded everyone's expectations."

Although the show's organizer, Hanley-Wood, had yet to release a final attendance figure at press time, show officials said they expected the figure to top 43,000. Whatever the exact number, the clear consensus was that attendance for the 17th edition of Surfaces surpassed the previous high of 40,289 attendees in 2003. The 1,070 exhibitors this year did eclipse the all time high of 1,054 booths last year.

Retailers agreed the optimistic mood was fueled by a bevy of new and innovative products seen on the show floor. Although some acknowledged that it was a bit overwhelming, even veteran showgoers said they were impressed by the effort put forth by manufacturers.

"It was not the same old stuff," said Kurt Duitsman, executive vp of Carpetland USA, an eight-store chain in Daverport, Iowa that has been in business for 35 years. "There is more opportunity than there has ever been. I have never seen better looking laminate floors. Right now only about one-third of our business is hard surface so we see a lot of opportunity in that area."

As has been the case in recent years, the show includes a sizeable number of new arrivals eager to crack the market. Included was a particularly large presence of companies from China and other Asian countries. Still, retailers generally agreed that much of the new product buzz was generated by the industry's largest, most well-entrenched suppliers. The effort to build on a well-established foundation, they said, suggested a lack of complacency among the industry's leaders-as well as intensifying competition among suppliers.

"Look at the great product rollout from Mannington at this show and look at what companies like Amtico and Atlas did," said David Alton, president of DCA Enterprises, a Portola Hills, Calif. retailer. Alton, a former chairman of WFCA who was named honorary chairman of Surface 2006, was referring to major product rollout from those manufacturers that helped galvanize interest among retailers. "The mood was very positive; I did not hear a single negative comment."

Alton, whose business is focused mainly on the construction trade, said there may a slight slowing in construction and home sales this year but it is unlikely to be severe. "A builder may build 25 homes a month instead of 30. It may take a little bit longer to sell a house but the mood overall is very positive."

While standing in his exhibit amid heavy traffic, Ralph Boe, Beaulieu of America president and COO, agreed. "All signs are pointing to this being a great market and a great year," he said. While he was speaking specifically about his company, his comments were echoed by many other senior executives exhibiting at Surfaces. Many exhibitors said they saw the show's higher than normal attendance as a bellwether of good things to come for the industry.

Comedian Brad Garrett and Mannington's chairman Keith Campbell at the company's event.
"I believe this has been the busiest Surfaces with the best quality meetings for us," said Christine Whittemore, director of in-store innovation for Solutia's Wear-Dated carpet fiber. "Surfaces is reporting attendance levels that are better than the past three or four years. It's causing a lot of excitement."

Indeed, manufacturers generally said this year's Surfaces added up to a sure fire way to grow their businesses. John Rietveldt, president for Tarkett's worldwide residential division, noted that the show provided his company with a jumping off point for connecting not only with his own customers, but with the industry as a whole. "We believe we have a leadership role here at Surfaces," he said. "It's a place where we can talk about the industry and help develop the industry."

Mannington's Betsy Amoroso alongside a display challenging showgoers to determine if a sample of flooring is real wood, vinyl or laminate.
Meghan Patterson, marketing manager for Alloc, said the show gives her company more visibility, as well as giving her a chance to hobnob with key clients. "Surfaces helps us keep our momentum going," she said. "We want to maintain our relationships with current customers and make new contacts as well. It is a very valuable show, and we are absolutely going to keep coming back."

The enthusiasm extended to those whose agenda was limited to networking.

The Installation Showcase on the show floor.
Tsering Song, a West Coast account representative for Carpetland of Nepal, said she was attending the show to scout for new contacts. There was no better place than Surfaces to find them. "The profit margin is better here in the States than it is in Asia, so we're looking to expand in the U.S.," she said. "It has been a great place to make contacts."

Richard Sanders, president of Northwest Flooring Supply, a newly launched hardwood flooring distributor in Portland, Ore., also sang Surfaces' praises. "I'm looking for some flooring lines to purchase for my business," said Sanders, a 30-year veteran of the industry. "Surfaces is both convenient and less expensive for me than having to visit different parts of the country to find all the products I need."

Anderson Virginia Vintage hardwood display.
Even those who took a toe-in-the-water approach to the show were pleased. Teresa Swanson, a designer for the upscale retailer Greenlee Designer Surfaces said she drove from Prescott, Ariz. to attend the last day of the show. "I just wanted to see what's new and see a few of my manufacturers. I was amazed at the quality of some of the tile-absolutely beautiful. It was my seventh Surfaces and I think I enjoyed this the most. I guess that's why everyone was in such a good mood even on the last day."

Surfaces lunch special: Roast Howard

National Floor Trendssenior editor Howard Olansky occasionally gave his trademark eye roll, but mostly smiled gamely as industry figures took turns skewing the veteran journalist at a Surfaces charity roast. The luncheon roast was held on the first day of the show to raise money for the Floor Covering Industry Foundation, which provides support for people in the industry experiencing catastrophic illness, severe disability or other life-altering hardships.

Jeff Cowan, of House of Carpets in Modesto Calif., was one of the first at the podium and began by pointing out the guest of honor's uncanny resemblance to a famous movie star.

"Doesn't Howard remind you of Yoda?" asked Cowan, evoking the diminutive, yet wise and mystical figure from theStar Warsmovies. "He is just the right size," Cowan deadpanned. He went on to fondly reflect on their long friendship: "I cannot remember one time when Howard picked up the tab."

Other digs were aimed at Howard's frugal nature, including his ability to cajole industry figures into writing non-paid "guest columns" and his longtime favorite wine, "Two Buck Chuck" from Trader Joe's.

Although the barbs drew plenty of laughs from the 110 people on hand, it was mostly good-natured ribbing. "More like 10 seconds in the microwave than an actual roast" is how D. Christopher Davis, president and CEO of the World Floor Covering Association, put it. Davis added that the FCIF was "ecstatic" with the response and the funds generated by the event.

When it was finally his turn at the podium, Howard gazed long and hard at the roasters assembled beside and demanded to know: "Who picked this group?" When the laughter subsided, he thanked the audience and said he was touched and honored. He seemed misty-eyed, but later denied it.