New IHFMA President Sits Comfortably on High Point's Hot Seat

New International Home Furnishings Market Authority President Brian Casey discusses plans for improving the High Point Market and keeping it the number-one show for residential furniture.

By Hannah Miller
Brian Casey, the new president of IHFMA.

Brian Casey got a crash course in the residential furniture industry as he took over the reigns as president of the International Home Furnishings Market Authority just 11?2 weeks before this spring's market in High Point. Casey, who was hired in March following the retirement of Judy Mendenhall, spent the past 26 years managing trade shows and meetings for trade associations in numerous industry sectors.

A Chicago native and graduate of DePaul University, Casey, 52, started his career managing the large International Housewares Exposition in 1980. After 12 years, he joined Chicago-based Smith, Bucklin & Associates, a management company for trade associations in the fields of technology, health care, financial services and manufacturing. Casey launched Smith Bucklin's trade-show division and in 1999 he became the company's executive vice president. He held that position until 2003, when he formed his own events management firm, Next Generation Events Group.

In an exclusive interview with Wood & Wood Products, Casey offered insight into his new job and the future of the High Point Market.

Wood & Wood Products: The High Point market is under more scrutiny now than ever before because of the competitive threat from Las Vegas. Efforts are underway to make it more attractive to buyers, and manufacturers are asking for even greater strides. Do you feel you're on the hot seat?

Brian Casey: I started my career in 1980 (with the International Housewares Exposition) - I was in a hot seat then. Launching the new trade show division in the Smith, Bucklin management company, I was in the hot seat. When I launched my own company and grew it over three years, [the seat] remained hot.

Challenge is not foreign to me. Working hard certainly is not foreign to me. Whatever I've done in my career, it's always been to make a difference. I'm going to continue to do that. All you can do is focus on the job at hand and do the best job you can and hope the rest takes care of itself.

I know it's a lot of responsibility, but there's no one single person that does it all. There's a whole group of people in the home furnishings business here in High Point that is pulling in the same direction. The entire state of North Carolina is working with us to make [visitors to the High Point Market] feel comfortable and welcome. There's a collective group of people that continue to be on a hot seat, and I'm right there with them.

W&WP: Is the competitive threat of Las Vegas your main concern as you take this job?

Casey: I think the global economy is. Look at the shift in manufacturing overseas and the impact of low cost production of goods. It changes numerous aspects of our overall markets. Consolidation and the need to look beyond our borders is an essential component of business these days. While competition may present itself locally, much of it is a direct result of those global changes. For instance, had manufacturing of furniture been sustainable in the Southeast, it is unlikely that anyone might present a competitive launch. So, in other words, look at the big picture in order to gain a better vantage point than merely focusing on your own backyard.

I think the important thing is that we're aware of Las Vegas, but we're focusing on High Point. We're focusing on strengthening this market, bringing the buyers inâ?¦making sure the infrastructure continues to improve to ensure the buyers' experience here is a good one.

The Spring High Point Market drew more than 100,000 attendees from the residential furniture industry.

What somebody does in Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Tupelo - there's not much we can do about those activities, or whatever their claims may be. We know what we're about, and our job is to focus on that and to continue to pay attention to our core business.

If you focus too much at what's going on can't be effective in developing your own business. You have to monitor and understand some of the dynamics of the marketplace and do what you need to do to make your business model stronger. That has been our focus, and I intend to continue with that model of operation.

W&WP: What's the most unique thing you've noticed about High Point?

Casey: You have a lot of individual [showrooms], both large and small. In effect, the International Home Furnishings Center owns its showroom and Showplace owns its showroom. To me that's a very, very unique component of this market, almost like shows within a show. The good aspect of this is we collectively collaborate to market to buyers who come here.

I'm used to controlling all aspects of a market. With this market, it's almost a community that controls it. It's rather unique, but it's amazing how effective it is and how well it works.

W&WP: There will be a fixed starting date and a fixed ending date for the Oct. 16-22 Market, making this the first time the Market hasn't been spread over several days, prior to its official opening. Is this important, and why?

Casey: It's important from a number of different perspectives. One, it creates more energy for the Market from a perception standpoint, and secondly, it opens up [equal] opportunity to everyone, which I think is an important component of the market.

I think an unofficial opening is not good for the Market, overall. It dilutes the traffic flow and there's added cost from an infrastructure standpoint. We also have issues with some showrooms closing early, which is not good for anyone involved.

W&WP: What is the Authority doing to hold the show to these seven days?

Casey: We've been meeting with showroom building managers and tenants themselves. We're strongly recommending that tenants adhere to the opening day of Monday, and use the weekend for sales training and getting their operation up and running. Major companies have informed me they're going to politely let the buyers know they're in the process of training their sales people and if they'll come back on Monday, they'll be happy to discuss business.

W&WP: How confident are you that you'll succeed with the deadlines?

Casey: I have a lot of hope that it's going to work. The only thing I can control is to request that people honor [the deadline].

W&WP: But the authority has some clout, right?

Casey: We do have a responsibility to the marketplace to put some better controls around the business. We won't run shuttles Friday or Saturday before market. We don't expect showrooms to be open then.

W&WP: Century Furniture President Robert Maricich said that getting to and from High Point is difficult for many buyers because of a shortage of direct flights. He has suggested, now that there's a definite starting date, the market could charter planes to major cities. Has the Authority discussed this?

Casey: While the Spring Market was going on, we were spending a lot of time in planning meetings and discussions with Guests Services and Marketing committees to determine what we need to do to facilitate those types of things...that [inaccessibility] is a bit of a concern, and we're looking at all options we can put in place to help address that. No decisions have been made. We've always said our main concern is to get the buying community here and ensure that their experience is a good one.

W&WP: Another complaint is that hotel prices jump at market time. What are you doing about that?

Casey: I know that's still a critical concern, but escalation of hotel rates happens across the country, depending on demand. You can go to Chicago and find a hotel that one night will be $400 to $500 and on off-season you can get that same room for $89. That's not to say we don't have issues with this. We have a responsibility to ensure buyers have access to reasonably priced rooms, and we are doing all we can to address the issue.

We already have had success to some degree. Some of these hotels lowered rates this last Market and some changed their rules on minimum-night stays. We're also having direct dialogue with hotels, hoping we can gain even more cooperation. One idea we're looking into is lower cost [temporary rental] rooms in homes to draw down demand on hotels. We tested that this time - didn't market it a lot, but we tested it. We did have folks using these rooms, so we're going to see what we can do to expand that.

W&WP: Are there other areas where you're trying to get costs lowered?

Casey: Rental car companies are still a concern. We're having discussions with them to see if we can make a difference there as well. Anywhere we can get fair pricing while allowing these businesses to still make profits...we want to do whatever we can to get reasonableness into the market.

W&WP: What were some of the other improvements evident at the April


Casey: We centralized the registration process so that there's a central pass system. We expanded some areas for free buyer parking. There were more shuttles utilized. Four mid-day trips were added to the morning and evening schedules of buses serving the area's 110 hotels.

W&WP: Describe the free "Go Anywhere Ride" set up to help visitors get to drugstores, restaurants and other places not on the regular shuttle routes that run between showrooms and hotels.

Casey: We increased the convenience for the buyers. You could call from the transportation hub and vans would pick you up and take you anywhere within a 3-mile radius. (Editor's Note: An estimated 22,000 people used this service.)

W&WP: Was this year's Spring Market, held April 27-May 3, bigger than past markets?

Casey: You can't compare. We don't have the same metrics. The centralized registration system let the Authority calculate attendance for the first time. We had more than 100,000 registrants, considerably more than the 70,000 to 80,000 average attendance the Authority had been estimating for markets. People did a lot of business here. We had a lot of positive feedback.


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