While the residential industry continues to plow through a mixed business climate, one needed to look no further than the world famous Merchandise Mart and the 47th NeoCon to feel the strong pulse of the commercial industry, as more than 50,000 people from around the world fought off heavy storms and tornado warnings to see the newest products for projects they were working on and learn about the latest trends for upcoming jobs.

The good news, is that it just wasn’t a large number of people attending the show, exhibitors across the board reported larger contingents of senior and junior designers from companies, whereas up until last year, the trend had been fewer people and mostly just the senior folks.

Having the younger designers makes a difference as they are not only the future decision makers, the way many firms are now set up, it is the junior designers who are being asked to find products and solutions and then make presentations to the higher ups. Having them at the show was a chance for the flooring industry to present to them the latest innovations and explain in person how they work and the thought processes behind them.

As Russell Grizzle, CEO of Mannington Mills, said, “We’re seeing a good mix of people but the number of junior designers has certainly been more than in recent years. That’s a good sign of how things are picking up.”

Russell Rogg, president and CEO of Metroflor, added the company, like many others, was “seeing a lot of flooring contractors coming in besides the A&D people. That’s really exciting when they are interested in your products because there are times when a contractor can immediately influence your business unlike the A&D people who can take six months or more before a project comes to life. With the contractor, a manufacturer can get its products on a job quickly—especially if it’s from the professional contractors we’ve seen stopping by the first two days.”

Emil Mellow, vice president of marketing for Karndean, who called the show “one of the best in years,” noted beyond the throngs of senior and junior designers stopping in, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) “did a great job bringing in lots of students. These are the future architects and designers so to get the chance to not only educate them about our products and LVT in general, we get to introduce them to our company, our products, and our services. It’s the start of building long-term relationships, which is what this industry has always been about.”

He added, the students coming in provided a “great complement to what we’ve been doing back home. In Pittsburgh we’ve been doing a lot of training with students interested in the A&D field.”

In addition, exhibitors reported the vast majority of the crowds were coming in with projects in hand and seeking products to be used for them. Plus they were looking at products for various jobs for which they were planning bids.

Natalie Faulkner, director of marketing communications for J+J Flooring Group, said the people were “coming in with a purpose and a mission—they’re very serious as both their budgets and timeframes are limited. They certainly have an agenda and especially want to see not only new products but what’s innovative with them.”

She noted the mill was also seeing how the A&D firms seem to be “dividing and conquering” being they brought more people with them. “To make better use of their time they are splitting up and asking for more collateral materials than before. I think this is so when they return from the show each group can make presentations to each other about what they saw, allowing for the company in general to be able to have a better understanding of all that is out there for them.”

Jeff Krejsa, senior vice president of marketing for Tarkett, noted a similar observation. First, though the company unveiled at the show a new strategy of starting to put its various brands, such as Johnsonite, under the main company umbrella in order to eliminate confusion and also allow the A&D community to realize all the manufacturer truly has to offer.

Adding to what J+J’s Faulkner said, he noted because of the change in technology and how today’s smartphones—which are carried by just about everyone attending NeoCon—have cameras that can produce images with tremendous resolution, many people were coming in and taking photos of the floors/products and then just asking for the spec details. “They’re using it for presentations because it’s quicker since they don’t have to wait for samples and the photos they can take really show the product’s details so it allows them to go back with all the info they need. It’s amazing the change in dynamics, as there used to be a time when no one would allow photos to be taken in their booths; now you are seeing it everywhere. Granted, we can tell if someone is truly interested in the product or if they are here to try and grab a detailed image of one of our designs to replicate so we’re careful to not let that happen.”

This year’s show also continued a trend that seems to be growing ever since the commercial industry started bouncing back from the recession. For many years NeoCon was more a trade show catering to the corporate segment of the commercial industry, which continues to be the main focus, as it remains the largest piece of that pie. In recent years, though, NeoCon has become a show for every major contract segment, from hospitality to healthcare to education to retail, allowing it to be more of a true gauge of the commercial industry.

Some flooring industry officials even pointed to NeoCon’s educational offering as proof of this change, noting how a number of seminars were geared specifically to segments such as healthcare or hospitality whereas in years past it was by and large all about corporate.

No one was complaining, though, as in this post-recession period the world has changed and many of the various segments are “crossing boundaries” as a number of executives pointed out. Meaning products that were once thought of as strictly for hospitality or healthcare or corporate are being used in other categories. This is due in part to segments such as healthcare and hospitality trying to make many of its areas more like “home.” While in the corporate world the way people work and interact has changed—especially among the millennials. So workplaces are adopting with spaces that are more open, relaxing and even fun, allowing for products that might have once been used, for example, in a dorm rec room to now be used in an office setting.

Adding to that, since the recession, A&D firms that once specialized in one or two areas, i.e., corporate and education, have broadened their scope of work to now include just about every commercial segment—especially the midsize to larger companies. This means you now have the same design team working on a hospitality job and also one in healthcare, such as an assisted living facility.

While not necessarily a conscious move, the fact is, people tend to gravitate toward what they like and feel comfortable working with. And being the lines between segments are already blurring, it makes it easier for a designer to choose similar products for both jobs.

Transitioning Products

To help with this, flooring companies answered the call by not only continuing what they started last year by creating products—namely carpet and resilient, specifically luxury vinyl—that blend together in both how they look and install without any transitions.

They even expanded upon this blurring of lines with new sizes and styles of carpet. Once available in either broadloom or modular, many of today’s “carpet tiles” are now “planks,” mimicking the look of an LVT. From, sizes ranging from 12 x 48-inches to 9 x 36-inches and other non-traditional dimensions, manufacturers were showcasing the latest technological advances that allow them to create styles in these sizes, thus giving the A&D community even more ways to design how the flooring will look in their projects.

The same was true on the resilient side, as manufacturers, many of which are now producing both soft and hard surfaces, were showing LVT designs with a softer, more linen type of look.

In fact, for many of the companies producing both, including Milliken which unveiled its first LVT line, Stacey Walker, director of customer experience, said with 109 SKUs, “each one coordinates with our carpets. We use our own color reference system on our website to help designers find coordinating products. We’re just starting off and will be expanding our offerings as we go along. But this will be a big part of helping us celebrate our 150th anniversary next year, as we’ve always been fortunate of our reputation and the people coming in have been most impressed with what they are seeing from our initial offering.”

Another trend that seemed to be broadened from last year is in the use of lighter colors, which many note is also a sign business is getting better, as people tend to use brighter colors when they are happy and darker colors when their mood is dour, such as during the recession.

Todd van der Kruik, Bentley’s vice president of design, said this year “it seems like people are designing more on inspiration and are moving more toward the lighter colors—those are taking off really well.”

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