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From Home Furnishing Business

Tom Mitchell

By Home Furnishings Business in High Point on March 2007 Tom Mitchell is senior vice president for showroom and trade-show manager Merchandise Mart Properties Inc.€™s High Point operations. MMPI didn€™t invest in the market until almost eight years ago, but since then has not only established itself as a major showroom resource, but also helped lead the way in making the High Point Market a friendlier place for buyers. Mitchell and MMPI brought a team mentality to a town and a market that had long been strong on parochial interests. A major player in civic, regional and state efforts to promote High Point€™s raison d€™etre as far as the furniture industry goes, Mitchell sat down last month with Home Furnishings Business to talk about MMPI€™s approach to showroom management, and how that relates to High Point Market as a whole.

After a pretty late start in terms of High Point Market history, Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. is the second-largest manager of showroom space in town. As a powerful but relatively new player in High Point, what has MMPI offered in terms of vision for the High Point market, and how do you think its suggestions have been received?

It€™s fair to say our vision is to grow and improve the market, and we€™ve certainly grown the market in terms of space with the Suites (at Market Square) and Plaza Suites to now manage 2 million square feet here; and we€™ve grown attendance by marketing to buyers in hundreds of new ways.

But building consensus and leadership are key, too. You can€™t effectively lead if you€™re not a team player, so what€™s good for the market as a whole is good for MMPI.

You know we€™re one of the largest trade-show producers in the country. I have about 25 years in the business, and Chris (Kennedy, MMPI president) has about 20 years ... Our team has a lot of experience.

We€™ve led the way in forming and funding the High Point Market Authority. When we first came to High Point, Chris and I went to see Bruce (Miller, who at the time headed the International Home Furnishings Center) one day. We just wanted to be good neighbors. We pretty much said, €œThis is a great show, and we see an opportunity to grow this.€ ... The High Point Market Authority grew from that conversation.

I remember going to the (North Carolina) general assembly, and it was the craziest speech I think I€™ve given. I said, €œI€™m actually here to ask your permission to let us tax ourselves to fund (the Authority).€

We€™ve engaged the community and region on the importance of the market and making visitors feel welcome.

We€™ve been creative in marketing from name entertainment€”we€™re the ones who brought in the Neville Brothers€”to go-anywhere vans to building a buyer service team whose sole responsibility is accommodating buyers€™ needs.

We keep our costs low for our exhibitors€”no one likes being nickeled and dimed.

Our staff is trained regularly on customer service€”no one ever says, €œThat€™s not my job.€ If you do, you€™re fired. If you€™re working on our loading dock and you take a tip, you€™re fired.

We€™re out visiting every major show in the world, at every industry event, out meeting customers and speaking with them directly. No one€™s more fully engaged.

We€™ve been here a little over eight years and feel we€™ve had significant impact in terms of the future strength of the market and a focus on growth and improvement; and never being satisfied, because you can always improve.

At the recent Las Vegas Market, officials there went on record as saying they want to be the €œdominant market€ in the home furnishings industry. In your opinion, what must High Point do to keep that from happening?

Our job is to continue to provide value.

For buyers, that means having the most resources in all categories and prices in one place at one time€”that€™s efficiency. For exhibitors, that means delivering the most buyers for the lowest exhibit cost. At an average of $15 to $20 per square foot, no other market can compete with that cost/benefit ratio. It€™s a question of where will you find the most buyers for the lowest price.

But it also means perceived value€”while the Market Authority has reduced hotel and rental car rates, we€™re constantly negotiating for more.

There€™s a more important, deeper answer, and that€™s that High Point is clearly the home of the (furniture) industry. There are more industry companies headquartered here, more sales and marketing offices, more product designers; more fabric, finish and hardware companies; more photography studios, more freight lines and distribution centers. The trade press is all here. The industry associations are all headquartered here.

More commitments are made every day. Baker moves to North Carolina, Lifestyle (Enterprise) invests more than $1.5 million in land to build a new showroom, Legacy Classic€™s new headquarters, La-Z-Boy€™s new offices.

That€™s a reflection of the city€™s and the state€™s commitment to the industry, because they both understand the market€™s $1 billion annual economic impact.

And, did you know that furniture companies own over 60 percent of showroom real estate in High Point? That€™s a statement of commitment.

What did you think of the recent headline in the High Point Enterprise telling its readership that the threat to High Point Market was lessening?

We€™re aware of other markets and know their strengths and weaknesses, whether they€™re in Shanghai or Cologne. Competition is a healthy thing, and we€™re very focused.

Looking at MMPI as a whole, how important is the aspect of residential trade shows to its overall business?

That was the foundation of the Merchandise Mart in 1945 when Joseph P. Kennedy bought the building (in Chicago) from Marshall Fields€”that€™s over 50 years ago€”and residential furniture was what we put in there.

Between High Point, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boston and Los Angeles, over half of the 8 million square feet we own and manage is dedicated to residential furniture. You bet it€™s important, and no one€™s more committed nationally than MMPI.

We believe we do more marketing for our exhibitors than any other space. Say an exhibitor has 300 accounts and 200 come visit them at High Point. You tell me who the 100 you don€™t see are, and give me their rep€™s name, and we€™ll put those in a matrix with our top 25 exhibitors to get them on the phone. We offered that to 100 exhibitors last market.

We aren€™t out there saying, €œI€™ve got this box I want to rent.€

It€™s a question of who are you trying to sell, who are you selling today, and who do you want to sell five years from now.

We€™re asking how can we really help you do business the way you want, not €œHere are the keys, have a nice day, and see you in five years when the lease comes up.€

What do you see as the key to MMPI€™s success in the competition for attracting exhibitors in High Point?

Contributing to the success of the market as a whole is the key, but we set pretty high standards, and we strive to have the very best exhibitors; the friendliest, most knowledgeable staff; the best food service and the closest free parking.

All the components of a successful mall€”that€™s the best analogy I could make. You need the best anchor tenants, the best in-line tenants, and a place that€™s well-lit and secure. It must be a pleasant place to go shop and spend your money. You do all that, you€™ll have a successful operation. We believe we have the nicest buildings in town.

We spend a lot of time, money and effort every market on being prepared. What happened last market that went wrong, and what do we do to fix it?

What are the new and fresh things we can do to make it better? Whether its the American Furniture Walk of Fame or a fresh new buyers€™ lounge where we can greet customers or let them just take it easy after a long day.

It might be going across the street (from Market Square) and buying a property, tearing down an ice house and putting up a sign that says €œFree Buyer Parking.€

We prepare intently for each market and always try to do more for our customers. You have a meeting with 35 people, because wee need to have feedback from the loading dock, security, everyone involved. We maintain a staff of 35 year-round, and hire and additional 75 for market.

And so far, that strategy has paid off.

What€™s MMPI€™s ratio of permanent to temporary space in High Point, and is that ratio satisfactory to the company? If not, how are you addressing the issue?

We have the most diverse spaces in the market, not only in terms of location, but also temporary versus permanent space, and price point.

All our locations in High Point are focused on a different customer base€”Market Square draws a lot of high-end business, Plaza Suites (exhibitors) might be looking for container business, while Hamilton Market, with the exception of Master Design, which has the whole second floor, has a designer orientation.

About 85 percent of our space is in permanent showrooms, and 15 percent in temporary space. Of that temporary space, the Showtime fabric fair is the only other trade show we handle here besides High Point market. The exhibitors on the top floor of the Suites at Market Square have to move out for that, but on the other levels, the tenants aren€™t affected.

You asked earlier how important the residential furniture industry is to us€”it€™s important enough that we aren€™t going after other tradeshow business for the bulk of our temporary space. Those temporary exhibitors who don€™t have to move (for Showtime), around 90 percent, can customize their own space to a much greater extent, and they can leave their product there. All they have to do market to market is just move the old and new goods in and out. That€™s an economic advantage for exhibitors and a tremendous marketing advantage for us.

Most of our temporary exhibitors can tell customers, €œI€™m not going to get bounced around, so come back and see me right here next market.€

What do you do for fun outside running a showroom management business?

Since I€™m away from my family all week, I spend most of my free time with them. But I enjoy being outdoors€”camping, hiking, golf. HFB

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