Hunkered down but not backing away would seem to summarize the mindset among those on hand for Surfaces this year. While the effect of a soft housing market could be seen in nearly every corner of the show, the overwhelming sentiment was one of confidence that the storm clouds looming over the flooring business will lift in 2008.

Even those who were bracing for a somber Surfaces said they were pleasantly surprised by the tone of the show.

“With all the gloom and doom economic forecasts leading up to the show, my expectations were that Surfaces would be definitely downbeat,” acknowledged D. Christopher Davis, president & CEO of the World Floor Covering Association, which sponsors the annual event. “I couldn’t have been more wrong. “Every exhibitor I spoke with said Surfaces 2008 was not only one of the best, but the best to date. I saw smiles on the faces of mill executives who have not produced smiles in months. If Surfaces is any indicator, then this year is likely to be far better than anyone has predicted so far.”

Manufacturers also seemed eager to add innovative touches to well-established products. Davis, a veteran of the show, remarked that he saw a number of groundbreaking items. “One item that caught my eye and impressed me was the utilization of bamboo in textiles. I saw and felt bamboo rugs that were as soft as silk, yet nowhere as expensive. Metals and glass showed up in tiles, and metallic elements were woven through textiles to give a little splash of style, and glitz and glam.”

Although it was widely assumed that attendance was off from previous years, much of the show floor was bustling with activity and spirits seemed generally high. The primary reason for the optimism, many exhibitors and attendees said, was that companies that were struggling may have decided to sit the show out. As one exhibitor put it, “The naysayers stayed home. The people here are the ones building their business.”  Overall the consensus was that those who traveled to Las Vegas came to the show with a clear plan.

Juan Flores, president of Faus, noted that his company was using the meeting to introduce five new laminate flooring collections including additions to the Really Exotic line. He too said the showgoers that stopped by his company’s exhibit were mostly serious buyers.

“Traffic was a bit on the lighter side, but the quality of visitors at this year’s show was noticeably better,” said Flores, adding  that the environment was well suited to his agenda. “Surfaces gave us a great opportunity to showcase our five new luxury laminate collections. Plus, we were able to talk one-on-one with individuals about our two new multi-transition floor finishing options. From an industry perspective, we are all in a waiting mode although manufacturers are preparing new opportunities that can help retailers get through this market environment.” He added that he was confident that “business will come back to where it was.” 

Winners of  the North American Laminate Flooring Association Lammy Awards this year included (left to right) David P. Goch, Esq., (President’s Award); Juan Flores, Fausfloor, (Member Company of the Year); Dennis Bradway, Mannington, (Member of the Year); Peter Barretto, Torlys, (Distributor/Retailer of the Year); Mike Pawlisheck, Sekisui Voltek, (Associate Member of the Year); and David Pritchard, Pak-Lite, (Associate Member Company of the Year).

“Overall, we are extremely pleased with this year’s Surfaces show.” said Mannington Mills community and public relations manager, Betsy Amoroso. “Despite the downturn in the economy and the housing market, people came to the show to buy – to help inject some energy into their businesses until things pick up – and they bought enthusiastically.  A lot of that is due to the fact that we believe we are offering the right products at the right time – with something for everyone in all of our categories.”

Jim Boyles, divisional sales manager for Alloc and Berry Floor, characterized  Surfaces as a success, largely because of what he described as an abundance of  ‘A-list’ customers. “The attendance is down, but the show has been great for us,” remarked Boyles. “We’re getting a lot of ‘A’ s and not a lot of ‘B’s and ‘C’s, which is great because they can take up a lot of time.”

Similarly, Margaret Buchholz, head of marketing for Capri Cork, said she was more focused on the “quality of customer” coming to visit her exhibit. “The quality of the booth visits has definitely improved,” Buccholz observed. “We’re not seeing as many people this year, but we’re having much better conversations.”

Paul Reifinger, vp national sales for Ark Floors, said his expectations for the show were not only met, but exceeded. “It has been absolute bedlam [at our exhibit] for the last couple of days,” he said. “I never could have imagined how busy it would be.”

Christine Whittemore, director of in-store innovation for Solutia’s Wear-Dated carpet fiber division, put it succinctly. “Based on attendance and the market right now, it’s going to be a tough year. But it’s also going to be a great year.”

Many retailers interviewed on the show floor said they made the decision to attend Surfaces this year in the hope of gaining an edge on the competition. The general consensus was that the challenging environment will always favor those embracing innovation.

“You gotta go,” said Tom Quinlan, owner of Dreyer’s Interiors, a retailer based in Tacoma, Wash. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What are you missing by not being down here?’ The competition might already be hopping on a hot product at the show that you’re missing out on.”

The Washington State Floor Covering Association won the top prize at this year’s Howard Olansky WFCA Affiliate of the Year Awards held during Surfaces. Pictured left to right are: Gary Long, WSFCA junior past president, Debbie Tott, NFT’s publisher Jeff Golden, and Rick Tipton, WSFCA president.

Tim Calloway, a sales rep for Hendricks Home Furnishings in Virden, Ill., agreed.  The show was an ideal setting to find tools needed to build sales, even for stores where flooring is not the core business  “We’re primarily a furniture dealer but we sell flooring as well, and we’ve been coming to the show for 15 or 16 years to see what’s new,” he said, noting that he was impressed with the new offerings he had seen.

On the marketing side, the effort to address environmental concerns showed no signs of diminishing. Perhaps most notably, exhibitors agree that environmentally products are a priority for homeowners.

“Green flooring products have most definitely arrived on the residential side,” remarked WFCA’s Davis. “While I saw nothing totally revolutionary, there appears to be consistent enhancement and evolutionary improvement in all types of floor covering across the board, including styling, texture, color, installation and maintenance aspects.”

Along with the heightened “green” presence at this year’s show, there were other targeted marketing efforts evident at Surfaces. In one prominent example, Beaulieu of America has rebranded itself as Bliss by Beaulieu in a bid to be more  “woman-friendly.”

According to Patricia Flavin, Beaulieu’s senior vp marketing, the move is designed to present a “more caring” image.

“Our old logo, the big red ‘B’, is gone,” she said. “It was a little masculine. We softened it up, made our name and our POP signs and displays more caring and friendly. We’re trying to put the Fun back into purchasing carpet. ’”

She noted that the new branding was the brainchild of Jeff Meadows, Beaulieu’s exec vp, residential. The displays, which feature take-home samples so consumers can really see how the carpet will look in their home, were designed in-house by Danny Wade and Hans Bakker. “They were really the ones responsible for the new look. I just came in and put a girl slant on it. I added the lipstick,” she said.--Michael Chmielecki & Al Stewart

New Product Pavilion draws praise

Showgoers had high marks for the New Product Pavilon that debuted this year with more than 50 offerings. Also new this year were separate pavilions devoted to Decorative Concrete and Hand-Crafted Tile. The three new exhibit areas were sponsored by NFT, and sister publications Floor Covering Installer and TILE, to showcase new items from all categories in the flooring area. 

Eyeing a product assortment that included a laser-guided tile/stone saw, odorless wood stain and a new generation of interlocking modular flooring, many of those visiting the New Product Pavilion remarked that the showcase helped them work the show in a more efficient manner.  If they saw an enticing product, many retailers said they made it a point to visit the main exhibit of the company marketing the item. 

“Aren’t new products why you go to Surfaces?” asked Mark Bisbee, owner of Liberty Carpet One in Fairfax, Va. “I had pretty much walked every aisle on the show floor before I visited the New Product Pavilion. But wouldn’t you know it? I saw some new things I missed, so I returned to those exhibits to get more information.” Although Bisbee said he saw several items he may add to his inventory, he noted that he saw a computer software item that he would not have otherwise seen.

Show organizer Kelly Cooper noted that the new product areas helped add excitement to the show. “There was quite a bit of buzz going on around all the new features added to the show this year, including the New Product Pavilion, Decorative Concrete and Hand-Crafted Tile Pavilions,” she said.