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Chris Jones

Dueling Cities: Hurtin' in High Point

31 October 2005


Like a spinning planet jolted by the gravity of a nearby emerging star, High Point's nearly century-old furniture market has in many ways come off its axis.

And while business leaders in North Carolina still publicly scoff at the notion that a threat from Las Vegas alone has sparked serious change within the Tar Heel State, no one here denies that efforts to fix their market's perceived shortcomings are furiously under way.

"(Las Vegas) was another wake-up call to the people of this community. But we're not ready to roll over and play dead," Judy Mendenhall, outgoing president of the International Home Furnishing Market Authority, said during High Point's fall market.

The Market Authority formed in 2001 to help transform High Point's diverse array of exhibitors into a more-unified organization a la Las Vegas' new furniture showcase, World Market Center.

Its creation was the first of several steps to bolster the 96-year-old market's competitive footing. But some still question how long the self-proclaimed "Furniture Capital of the World" can hold off World Market Center, a $2 billion development that plans to match High Point's existing 12 million square feet of exhibition space by 2012.

Talk at High Point's fall market, which ended Wednesday, included widespread acknowledgement of recent improvements, most notably an upgraded transportation system.

Big changes soon to come were also discussed, including planned introduction of a universal registration system and a one-month advance of the April and October show dates used since 1950.

But this year's weeklong event was dogged by poorer-than-average attendance, sources said, which some suggest resulted in part from the July arrival of World Market Center.

"High Point is hurtin' for certain unless they make changes quickly. There's nobody here," said a furniture exhibitor who asked not to be identified to avoid retribution from his employer.

The salesman's colleague, a 35-year High Point attendee who also asked to remain anonymous, said the city "has taken too much advantage" of visitors for too many years, citing market-inflated motel and car rental costs.

"If Vegas had a bigger facility, I don't know if anyone would turn out to High Point," the second salesman said. "These streets used to be so busy you could barely move. Now it's just a few people on the sidewalks."

Ivan Saul Cutler, a Greensboro-based furniture industry analyst and publisher of the Web log, said this year's attendance was markedly down compared with recent fall markets.

High Point's pending changes may not be enough to stave off World Market Center's expanding importance within the industry, he added.

"Finally, the reality of Las Vegas as a substantive threat has penetrated the inner circles of High Point's Market makers," Cutler wrote Oct. 20, the event's first official day. "They are scrambling to save the market and their investments in the pre-eminent trade show venue, not just now, but in three to four years from now when Las Vegas might have conclusively won over (the) industry's hearts and minds."

While Cutler said High Point's efforts are occurring after "the herd flew," Mendenhall, 67, defended the Market Authority's approach, explaining it first sought to address problems she described as "low-hanging fruit," or those easiest to fix.

Mendenall had earlier declined to discuss her future with the authority. But Cutler reported four days later that she will retire once a new president is named.

Those at the market buzzed about a new transportation terminal between the massive International Home Furnishings Center and Showplace, two of High Point's largest show venues. Mendenhall said the four-lane loading zone was just one of several steps taken to improve exhibitor and buyer flow throughout the area.

Using a $1.2 million grant from North Carolina's state government, Mendenhall said free shuttle service was added to ferry guests between the market and airports in Charlotte and Raleigh, while existing shuttle rides to nearby Piedmont Triad International Airport were converted to express-only routes.

The Market Authority is also considering adding midday shuttle service between hotels and market buildings next spring.

In July, World Market Center hired nearly 80 buses to provide all-day transportation between its venues and nearly 20 Las Vegas hotels.

"The shuttling system has been greatly improved," said Derek Peterson, a buyer from Kewaskum, Wis., who attended the October market with his wife, Cheryl. "We used to think we had to stay in High Point, which was expensive. But now we're able to stay within a wider circle and find cheaper rooms elsewhere."

Inadequate accommodations have long been a knock on High Point. Hotel rooms in the Las Vegas Valley outnumber those in the city by a 133-to-1 ratio, a deficit that's largely been overcome by forcing market attendees to stay in outlying cities such as Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

But Mendenhall hopes to increase the long-standing practice in which High Point residents rent out their homes or spare rooms to market attendees.

"I'm constantly asking people here if they've taken this market for granted, reminding them to smile and roll out some Southern hospitality," Mendenhall said. "I think we can all do a little more of that."

The Business Journal of Greater Triad Area reported this month that some High Point leaders are seeking legislative action to prevent hotels and motels from seeking major price increases during market.

Earl Phillips Jr. -- who with his partners recently sold major holdings in Showplace and three other key market buildings -- on Oct. 21 published an open letter to Triad residents that asked them to "wake up" and boycott local businesses such as car-rental agencies, hotels and restaurants that "outrageously raise their rates" during market.

"The Market, a $1.1 billion economic engine, is steaming into the Triad. But, it will not be business as usual," Phillips wrote. "This time, our visitors will be looking at us with a fresh set of eyes. Ask anyone who attended the Las Vegas Market. The buyers loved their business experience there."

Phillips added High Point suffers from visitor perceptions that include "an attitude of complacency, greed and arrogance." Since market attendees now have a viable alternative, he added, "The Market is quite simply ours to lose."

Separately, High Point leaders will unveil a universal registration system in time for next year's spring show, a step that would eliminate the current practice in which some venues do not honor guest badges issued by competing show venues.

A one-badge system would let the market organizers better track how many attendees are in town, and which venues they visit while in High Point.

Attendance estimates for October's market ranged from 70,000 to 85,000. Without centralized registration, it is impossible to determine which, if either, number is accurate.

Those who live and work in the 93,000-resident community and its environs, including some who rely on a busy market to support their businesses, also noted High Point's troubles.

"It's off terribly. There's no one here to buy," said Jerry Clodfelter, who worked a sidewalk lemonade stand on Main Street a few blocks south of the market's busiest corridor.

Clodfelter wasn't optimistic that those who were missing this year will return.

"If Vegas can take Broadway shows from New York, what's to stop it from taking the furniture show, too?" Clodfelter said as he poured a $4 cup. "If Vegas wants it, it's going to get it."

World Market Center entered the furniture fray in late July when it hosted the first Las Vegas furniture market at its downtown campus. A follow-up event will begin Jan. 30. Before this year, High Point was the industry's unquestioned leader.

Spokeswoman Dana Pretner said seven World Market Center representatives toured the High Point market last week to lobby potential clients and interact with existing business partners.