Tom Conley is the president and CEO of the High Point Market Authority, the official sponsor and organizer of High Point Market, the world’s largest home furnishings trade show. Drawing on almost 40 years of experience in the trade show and association management industries, Conley has led the Market Authority since 2011. He has served as president of several associations, including the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association, the National Housewares Manufacturers Association, the Steel Service Center Institute and the Toy Industry Association. He also worked in the association management field with International Travel Management Partners, The Sanford Organization and his own consulting firm, TPC & Associates. Conley’s innovative thinking and strategic planning expertise has led to a track record of balanced budgets, increased revenues and streamlined processes, all resulting in organizations operating more efficiently and intentionally towards key goals while playing a vital role within their industries. Conley has a Bachelor’s degree from Columbia College and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Chicago. Out of the office, he enjoys golf, traveling and spending time with his grandchildren.
What is the history of the High Point Market?
The High Point Market is the largest furnishings industry trade show in the world and has been around for over 100 years.
The five-day show is held every six months, once in April and once in October, at High Point, North Carolina.
This fall, the market will be held October 14 - 18.
The market, which is organized and sponsored by the High Point Market Authority, consists of 11.5 million square feet of exhibit space in 180 buildings and more than 2,000 exhibitors.
How many people attended the event?
The High Point Market, which is not open to the public, draws between 75,000 and 80,000 people with about 10% coming from outside of the US. In addition to the exhibitors, the attendees are drawn from all areas of the industry but primarily buyers and designers or their representatives. Among the other attendees are journalists and other related industry suppliers.
In April, we had a slight dip in the number of attendees to about 74,000; however, we anticipate that between 74,000 and 75,000 will attend the upcoming market in October.
Why is the event called the “Market” and not a trade show?
The term “Market” evolved over the course of the years. The history of our market is kind of interesting.
When the industry first developed, it was primarily located in the northern half of the country. To take advantage of its non-union, skilled labor and the abundant supply of wood in the surrounding states, much of the industry moved to North Carolina.
The large buyers were from up north and when they came south, they would have to travel around to the various manufacturers and their warehouses which would take many weeks. The manufacturers recognized that buyers were spending too much time and that it would be more efficient to bring the products together at a central location. They purchased a building called the Southern Furniture Market which was located near the High Point train station and renamed it the High Point Market.
How do you organize the event and the education sessions?
The market covers about a 13-square block area and consists of 150 to 160 different buildings, which are owned and operated by 100 different entities. The High Point Market Authority sets the dates, as well as organizes the education, transportation, entertainment, registration, recruitment and buyer retention.
We work very closely with the owners of the buildings who sell the exhibit space. It is a rather unique business model.
We also work closely with buyer associations like the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and the Home Furnishings Association (HFA). They create the educational programs for attendees and we provide logistical support.
The International Market Centers (IMC), which is one of the larger building owners, controls over 60% of the High Point showroom space. They also offer meeting space and educational programs. The programs, which are used by exhibitors to attract buyers to their showrooms, cover a wide range of interests.
Are there any special education tracks this year?
Not really. The Scott Brothers, Jonathan and Drew of HGTV who help home buyers to purchase and renovate "fixer-uppers," will be here for an educational program and book signing. And we are working on a couple of other celebrities.
What is a rough break down of the 75,000 attendees?
Of the 75,000 people that attend, about 40,000 of them are buyers, but the buyers fall into several categories. In addition to designers and retailers, there are some that buy and hold inventory and others that do not. Some designers have retail operations and others are independents that work through various retailers.
A growing segment of the attendee base is made up of on-line sellers.
We cater to both types of buyer – representatives from companies buying power as well as individual designers walking around looking for ideas. We want to make sure that exhibitors have a chance to see as many buyers as they possibly can.
Can you describe the organization of the buildings?
We designate the buildings either as multi- or single tenant buildings. We have some very large buildings here that have 100s of exhibitors and some medium size buildings that have a couple of dozen. We also have single tenant buildings where the exhibitor owns and operates it, or leases it from either a family or a real estate company.
The largest showrooms are over 100,000 square feet, while some booths are only 1000 square feet. A few exhibitors keep their showrooms open all year and cater to buyer that come down throughout the year, but most sit empty. Some exhibitors have been here for many, many years, while others are just getting started in the business and are here for the first time.
In addition to U.S. manufacturers, we have exhibitors from Asia, Europe and South America. Among the foreign participants, some have U.S. based representatives, while others have organized delegations that buy large spaces and create country pavilions.
Is there sufficient hotel space in the vicinity to handle the visitors?
There are more than 90 hotels in the region, but none of is a large convention type hotel. Most just serve the transient audience. For the convenience of our attendees, we provide free bus service in the mornings and evenings to the center of the market district. There are five licensed realtors in the community that work with exhibitors and manufacturer’s reps to help them find accommodations since they tend to be here for an extended period.
We have looked into Airbnb and there are over 300 homes that are available in the area. So, we are starting to recruit local homeowners who have space and would like shorter rentals, from 3 to 5 days, that would appeal to buyers. Traditionally, home renters have gotten 7-to-10-day commitments from reps and manufacturers.
Things are changing dramatically as technology disrupts the way people do business. In the past, we have had a nice mix of home based housing and hoteliers and we just need to make sure that we stay current with what is available to help our buyers find suitable accommodations at a reasonable price.
Are there a variety of restaurants available in the area?
Most of the hotels in Greensboro and Winston-Salem area have new and exciting formats with wonderful opportunities for the people to dine out. But many of the showrooms offer hospitality as a way to entice and retain the buyer. They provide everything from a hot breakfast or hot lunch to snacks and drinks.
It is possible that once a buyer arrives in the High Point region and books their hotel or their Airbnb, they can get to and from the market free and eat pretty much for free.
We even provide two nights of entertainment - Saturday and Sunday -with free food and beer. While High Point is not New York, we try to make up for our deficiencies by providing Southern hospitality.
How has the industry changed in the last decade?
High Point no longer competes just with Las Vegas, Atlanta, New York and Dallas, which are the traditional markets that targets high-end designers and buyers. With globalization, our competition has changed dramatically and forced us to try to recruit buyers from around the world. More and more, we are competing with Paris, Milan and China.
Sourcing is also become more global. The trend started years ago when wood products moved their manufacturing to China. But now China is becoming too expensive so Vietnam and Indonesia are becoming the new production locations.
What is unique about the High Point market?
Because of High Point’s inexpensive real estate and labor, exhibitors are able to take large amounts of space and show their entire product line at one time. As a result, we have the largest number of home furnishings exhibitors and broadest range of products that can be seen in one place. This gives High Point a huge competitive advantage over the competition.
While we face competition from online, most buyers still want to see the product, touch the fabric, and evaluate the quality before making a decision. Of course, we also know how to treat buyers to our southern hospitality. We want to make sure they have a pleasant experience.
How has e-commerce impacted the High Point Market?
Of the five largest buyers attending our market, two of them are online businesses - Amazon and Wayfair. They each send over 100 buyers to our market twice a year. From a marketing perspective, they recognize the importance of educating their staff and meeting exhibitors because they face the challenge of keeping abreast of the market.
Is there demand for online content pre-and post the market?
There is a fair amount of online demand and we try to fulfill that demand in a couple of ways. On our web site, we allow exhibitors to feature their new products. Buyers can browse the site and schedule appointments with the exhibitors of interest.
We also have a program called “Style Spotters,” where we feature well-known designers who evaluate the current season’s offerings. They come to market early and look for trends. Then the Tuesday before the market closes, they give a presentation in a ballroom where they report on their observations.
What is it like to spend a day at market?
Over the years, we have reached out to a wide variety of buyers to have them share with us their experiences at the market so we could better understand through their eyes what improvements to make.
What we as the market’s organizers think may be very different from what buyers who attend that trade show expect.
Some are looking for unique finds, while others are here to look for developing trends. Some value the non-market hours where they have the opportunity to socialize with their colleagues. So, the complete market experience isn’t simply a showroom-to-showroom tour, but often it starts with a breakfast meeting and ends late at night with opportunities and sharing experiences and asking for help from friends and competitors.