For the members of the National Floorcovering Alliance (NFA), coming to convention is like coming to a family get-together—everyone knows each other. Part of the reason for this has to do with the fact the group has only 42 members so attendees not only get to speak to just about everyone, they see each other multiple times during the year.

The other has to do with how the group structures its meetings by allowing the members and vendors to spend a great deal of quality time with each other to form long-lasting relationships that, in many cases, tend to spill over from being just about business to more about friends—and family.

One thing to keep in mind when it comes to the NFA is to not be deceived by the number of members as these are 42 of the largest, most successful retailers in the country, meaning when they gather their combined purchasing power, it is as much as groups having hundreds, even close to a thousand members.

These are truly the “big boys on the block,” so even the manufacturers who are part of the group’s core vendors make sure their top executives are on hand to help strengthen their relationships with each member as well as to listen to ways their company can better serve them.

Yes, there is certainly a good deal of selling and buying that takes place during the full-day of member-vendor meetings but for the most part it boils down to these companies forming connections that can help both sides grow and succeed.

Unlike traditional buying groups, NFA’s “trade show” is more like an exercise in speed dating, as the membership is broken into small groups which then visit with a vendor at a table for approximately 20 minutes before moving to the next supplier so that by the end of the day each member sees every supplier and vice versa. At this convention there were 26 suppliers, making for a full day of meetings.

To some this may seem like a tiring exercise, especially as the day rolls on but Dave Snedeker, NFA’s president and flooring division merchandise manager for Nebraska Furniture Mart, felt the vendors “were the most prepared than I’ve ever seen.” As a result, “They really got us energized, the time really flew by.”

He told Floor Trends, the vendors realize “they have a very limited time with each member, so they understand they have to come to the meeting with an agenda for what they want to accomplish with each of us.”

Snedeker noted this is important because while NFA may have less than four-dozen members, their business models run the gamut for what can be done in the industry and the suppliers need to tailor their presentations to the individual businesses.

“Some companies are so prepared now,” he added, “they have it down to the second—and that includes time for welcomes and some basic chitchat. Like our members, they are so much more professional than ever before—whether it is seeing new products or programs they are offering or discussing ways in which they can better service us—it makes for time well spent.”

Sam Roberts of Roberts’ Carpet and Fine Floors, agreed, noting, “All the vendors continue to become more adept at tailoring their programs to the NFA in ways that are more effective and impactful for themselves with the group. It is a positive evolution.”

Products and programs are obviously a large part of the discussions as Sam Ruble, vice president of sales for USFloors, said, but it goes beyond just what a company already has. Case in point, while the manufacturer’s COREtec was the talk of many of the members he said the company also used its time to discuss new product developments in order to gauge reaction and get input because “if we can get traction with these dealers it goes a long way for the company as they are some of the biggest and best in the country. They are leaders in their markets and when they take on a product and find success the industry takes note.”

When it came to its COREtec product, though, he said the takeaway from this meeting is “we are on the right track with COREtec and that we need to keep feeding the beast as the members really like it.”

Members agreed. Jon Pierce of Pierce Flooring & Design, said, “The most talked about product was COREtec Plus. Most of the membership was very high on this line.”

Jim Mudd of Sam Kinnaird’s Flooring, called COREtec Plus “the hottest product for everyone.” On the soft side, he noted the Stainmaster PetProtect products “are a huge hit. And now there are many vendors showing it. Originally there were only two vendors with it, now we have so much more from which to choose.”

Doug Jackson, vice president of sales and marketing for Shaw’s Tuftex division, which is the brand the company is using to carry its PetProtect offerings, said the show was “great for us. Tuftex is a high-end, fashion-forward brand and NFA members are the perfect audience for us as they understand how to sell these types of products.”

Mudd was also “really happy to see the Lifetime Luxury brand, which is the NFA brand, is now encompassing all flooring categories. Originally carpet was the only flooring branded in that fashion.”

Snedeker said the NFA brand is not only expanding to other product categories, “it is starting to take a life of its own. As the offerings and abilities for it grows so does the number of members who are using the brand.”

Though it may not fall initially under the Lifetime Luxury brand, one way the group is looking to expand its offerings is beyond flooring, he added. “We’re working on a cabinet option. We’ve been playing with it for a while and reached out to members who already do business in this area to see how they do it and how we can maybe add it to our vendor offerings.”

Beyond the one-on-one meetings during the trade show, NFA also sets aside a full day for members and vendors to spend time interacting outside the normal business environment.

Ruble said this is quality time that can’t be matched. “The 20 minutes at the tables go by so fast—and while they are productive in terms of helping to show products and finding out what each members wants and needs, being able to network with them in a relaxed setting is truly time well spent. This is where we can talk with our guards down a little and get to know each other on a more personal level, which allows everyone to talk more openly.”

Whether it’s at the individual meeting or spending time outside with the members, Manny Llerena, director of sales and marketing for MS International, said “it’s all about developing strong relationships with the members. Yes, we talk about how we now have 20 distribution centers across the country to better service them as well as the fact we’re adding to our sales force, plus our focus on making sure our products are meeting today’s trends, but in the end it’s about forming a meaningful relationship with each member. They are the cream of the crop.”

Along with members and vendors forming stronger relationships, NFA meetings are also about the members strengthening their bonds so they can learn from and help each other—not just at the meeting but throughout the year.

Scott Akin of Akin Bros. Flooring, said for him it’s about “learning from the older members—it’s the circle of life. To be able to pick their brains is something that allows me to help grow my business as they have so much knowledge to share. That’s what I love about this group—everyone is so helpful to each other.”

The NFA convention was the first major industry meeting following the “60 Minutes” story about Lumber Liquidators, so there was certainly some talk surrounding it. For the most part, members said there was some kickback by consumers in the days immediately after the show aired but in the long run felt the issue limited to the chain store, especially since the suppliers most of them deal with are among the best in the business and ensure their products are meeting all regulations as they have their own reputations to maintain.

Mudd pointed out after the show aired “all the mills we deal with sent their compliance letters out. We now keep these in a notebook to refer to in case a customer inquires about the integrity of a mill in regards to their compliance. It was comforting to know that they were doing the right thing all along.”

Shane Calloway, vice president of sales – independent distribution for Mohawk’s Unilin/Quick•Step division, noted, “We don’t want laminate to get a black eye. So we’re making sure dealers have all the ammunition and tools they need to communicate to customers that what was talked about in the ‘60 Minutes’ piece is not what Quick•Step is about.”

Snedeker said while there are always challenges and issues facing retailers and the industry, such as the need to get more professionally qualified installers, NFA “is a well-oiled machine. So while we need to adjust to each challenge as a group we are positioned to meet each one in a manner that will make everyone stronger—from our members to our suppliers.”