Some of the more than 4,500 attendees on hand at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Steady advances in other hard surface areas have not dulled the luster of hardwood flooring. As evidenced by the upbeat mood among the 4,500 attendees and 342 exhibitors on hand in Baltimore for the National Wood Flooring Association's Education Conference and Wood Flooring Expo, the category remains a shining star in the flooring business and frequently the No. 1 choice for designers.

The four-day conference held in late April highlighted the expanding opportunities as well as the challenges facing one of the industry's oldest product segments. With manufacturers showcasing a range of products aimed at advancing the appeal of hardwood, discussion centered on issues ranging from installation to environmental concerns to globalization of the business.

Baseball great Cal Ripen Jr. signs autographs after his keynote address.
During the panel discussion "Impact of Imports," top executives from Armstrong, Columbia and Mullican acknowledged increased globalization can be a double-edged sword. They agreed that the growing middle class in China and other emerging nations means dramatically expanding demand. Still they cautioned that exploitive labor conditions and environmental impact remain constant concerns in the international arena.

"As the income per capita goes up we have a lot more capitas," said David Wootton, president of Columbia, who also noted that new opportunities will not diminish the company's approach to manufacturers. "Environmental responsibility remains one of our core values. The days of 'log it `til it's gone'? We're way past that."

For his part Michael Lockhart, Armstrong's chairman and president noted that his company conducts audits to assure that material used for its flooring was properly sourced. "We want to make sure that it was all legally harvested." He added that new glueless installation products are easing the impact of wood flooring on the environment.

The Artistic Finishes exhibit on the show floor.
Mullican's president Neil Poland added the category is expanding on the strength of new exotic species, styles and colors. New opportunities, he said, also mean new responsibilities. "Being environmentally responsible gives us a real opportunity as a manufacturer."

Exhibitors and other on the show floor also agreed that wood flooring is presenting a host of new opportunities. "We are seeing so much interest here in our accessories," said Tom Leach, vice president of marketing for Artistic Finishes, a maker of prefinished hardwood molding and vents. "We are working closely with manufacturers to help expand the opportunities here."

Designers on hand noted that their wood options have never been broader. ''What we are seeing is so much more exotic color and vibrant dynamic design," said Gabrielle Meaney, an interior designer who operates New Detroit Design Studio. "The floor as an interior expression of design and color is beginning to be seen as a major focal point to interior design."

Tey Beng Chye, of Samawood (left) meets with Ken Ables and Debbie Ables of GrandForest Wood Flooring Products to discuss a licensing deal that well make the Parakett brand of flooring available in the U.S.
Ed Korczak, executive director and CEO of NWFA, noted that, based on comments from exhibitors and attendees, he believes the Baltimore meeting ranks as the organization's most successful. "Our educational sessions were packed, our trade show floor was packed, our networking events were packed, and our keynote speaker, Cal Ripken, Jr., truly inspired the crowd," recounted Korczak.