By Steven Feldman Atlanta—After a few stops and starts, the 2021 Southeast Flooring Market (SEFM) kicked off in earnest here last week amid strict safety protocols. Outside of the four-city Mohawk Roadshows, the event marked the return of in-person regional markets for the flooring industry. And, for the vast majority of vendors and retailer attendees alike, it couldn’t have come sooner.
“The buyers here are saying, ‘We want to be here; we want to come out,’” Lori Kisner, managing partner of Market Maker Events (MME), which organizes the show, told FCNews on day one of the event. “Retailers want to see, touch and step on new product. And the exhibitors saying, ‘We want to see those faces. We want to sell face to face.’ We feel incredibly honored to be that market.”
In the months and weeks leading up to the event, SEFM management said it was encouraged by not only reports of floor covering retailers around the country getting the itch to attend markets again, but also by a vendor community that was excited to preview new products for customers in person. Those needs and desires were further corroborated by other in-person industry events that had taken place since last fall.
“We were proud to see the Mohawk Momentum Roadshows continue, as well as the [NFA event] in Savannah,” Kisner said. “I mean, we’re like, ‘go, go!’ We felt that from other industry people, too, that they’re cheering us on.”
Historically speaking, the MME regional shows are largely attended by floor covering dealers who are within a few hours’ drive of the respective venues—i.e., the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida. No one knew how large that would loom in a COVID-19 world where many people are still squeamish about getting on a plane or staying at a hotel to attend business meetings. It turned out to be a silver lining for MME.
“Because people mostly drive in to attend these shows, it’s a much easier task to convince them to come, so I think we are in the fortunate position to be able to be the first to stage,” said Barbara Stroup, managing partner, MME. “Normally, we are the first in the line of events anyway because we’re always the first two weeks of January. We felt someone needed to step up and just open that door. And that’s where we felt like we were in the best position to be able to do that. For us, it’s all about getting that product shown to the retailers as soon as possible.”
Ever mindful that the country—and the world at large—is not quite out of the woods just yet regarding the pandemic, SEFM organizers said they knew they had to demonstrate their intentions to keep attendees safe. To that end, for months show management discussed and implemented a range of stringent safety protocols, including: sanitizing stations throughout the common areas; widened aisles and booth spaces to prevent overcrowding; and digital health screening tools and surveys designed to identify potential red flags as it pertains to COVID-19 exposures. On top of that, MME went “old school” by mailing pre-registered attendees their badges in advance of the show so as to avoid long lines at the registration desk.
Show organizers said they also applied the lessons they learned by consulting other conference organizers—both inside and outside the flooring industry—to get a better idea of what works vs. what doesn’t in this “new norm” of trade shows. “We are so blessed to have a lot of people share the knowledge that they learned,” Stroup said. “That ranges from developing the safety protocols, making sure all of our partners and vendors that we work with were on the same page and making sure our checkpoints were exactly the same. We worked very closely with the building and the general services contractor on the floor plan as well as all the exhibitors to make sure that not just the space that they wanted, but that the space offered them gave them a very high comfort level.”
If the feedback from vendors and retailers is any indication, consider it mission accomplished. That’s according to exhibitors like Chris Dillon, vice president of sales and marketing at Create. The 2021 SEFM event marked his first show since February of last year. “It’s been great to be back to human interaction—that’s for sure,” he told FCNews. “Getting to see some old friends—just being able to see people live—is my favorite part of the job.”
The show was also worthwhile for the company in that it was able to place some orders. “Considering everything that’s been going on, I think [the show has] been pretty good,” Dillon said, citing appointments booked solid. “We sold some containers, and we’ve placed several display orders. It’s been a surprisingly good show for us.”
Other vendors said they were also happy to be back in front of customers at the 2021 SEFM. “Internally, at our company, we were hesitant as to whether it was time or if it was a little premature to attend a show,” said John Weller, chief innovation officer at FloorForce. “We decided this would be the show where we would finally send a few people. There are a few people here—it’s not overwhelming. There is a nice mix of dealers and manufacturers here. And it feels like a pretty good show.”
More importantly, Weller said it felt safe meeting people face to face again. “It’s so nice to get back out talking to people in person—not over Zoom or electronically,” he said. “To be honest with you, that has been very challenging. Actually, talking to people face-to-face and be able to touch product, shake hands a little bit, rub elbows, whatever it is, has been really nice. I feel safer here than I do going grocery shopping at home.”
Beyond business, vendors say getting back to shows is good for the collective psyche. “COVID-19 has really had an impact on a lot of people,” Weller explained. “The one thing that has happened, thank goodness, is people are in their homes. People are looking at their floors. There’s pent-up demand, but for that to happen, there still has to be that transaction between retailers and manufacturers, and FloorForce is that connection between the two. We have to get together to make these things happen to position ourselves, to take advantage of the opportunity that’s before us.”
Other retailers who were in attendance at the 2021 SEFM also attested to the positive impact that “hunkered-down consumers” have had on business. “We had an incredible year; it was a record year for us,” said Ted Gregerson, owner of Ted’s Abbey Carpet & Floor, Anniston, Ala. “I think people were sitting at home a lot more, and they were looking down and saying, ‘Man, my floor is ugly.’ And, they were doing home projects, which benefited us. We were not expecting that when Alabama first shut down all essential business or non-essential business. It was an incredible year.”
As far as being back at market, Gregerson said it was just good to connect with people again. “It’s nice to see everybody again,” he told FCNews. “That’s one of the exciting things—just being able to shake hands with folks again. Last year, you almost felt like you were on an island.”