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Chris Jones

Traffic Snarls Second Market

1 February 2006

Furniture manufacturers and retailers have for more than a century cataloged the perceived shortcomings of this country's largest furniture showcase in High Point, N.C.

And though Las Vegas' World Market Center this week is hosting just its second major event, its critics are already lurking about.

If Las Vegas hopes to someday knock High Point from its throne, market attendees on Tuesday said, leaders here must first tackle parking and traffic issues.

Likewise, the proposed $2 billion project must host a wider array of manufacturers to offer the "critical mass" of products attractive to buyers worldwide.

But fortunately for World Market Center, its critics also said the Las Vegas Market is already exceeding their expectations. And many believe problems here can soon be resolved.

"There are some wrinkles that need to be ironed out," said Ruth Green, a 69-year-old store owner from Overland Park, Kan. "They're not there yet. But I can see it's growing and (believe) it's going to be a good show."

Green's biggest complaint -- "the building is too cold" -- was unique Tuesday, the second day of Las Vegas' five-day Winter Market.

Others' gripes more frequently cited included traffic snarls near the center, and on Interstate 15 during the morning commute to its downtown Las Vegas campus.

"Traffic sucks in Las Vegas," said Jeff Cook, president and chief executive officer of High Point-based Magnussen Home Furnishings.

His feelings were echoed by Dianne and Doug Smith, owners of Pool Tables Plus in Poway, Calif., who made their first visit to World Market Center this week.

"Parking was totally disorganized on Monday," Doug Smith said. "We left extra early (Tuesday) to avoid another rush."

Nearly 100 shuttles raced Tuesday between the center and numerous Strip hotels, including Mandalay Bay, which housed nearly 600,000-square-feet of off-site exhibition space.

Brent Steiner, owner of Steiner's Amish Furniture, a Phoenix-area retail outlet, said the shuttles operated smoothly.

While distracting to commuters, heavy vehicle traffic produced plenty of foot traffic. And those footsteps were music to exhibitors' ears.

Buyers milled about the lobby of Simmons Bedding Co.'s sixth-floor showroom early Tuesday, each awaiting an appointment to see the Atlanta-based manufacturer's latest mattress products.

Customer traffic and sales here are already on par with High Point, said Tim Oakhill, senior vice president of marketing.

"Our industry has been excited about the opening of Vegas," Oakhill said. "The folks going through are engaged; they're not window shopping."

Referencing the 1.6 million-square-foot, 16-story tower rising just west of World Market Center's first building, Oakhill added: "These buildings aren't going down. They're going up for a reason."

Others agreed. Amini Innovation Corp., a Los Angeles-based manufacturer, dropped nearly $1 million revamping its eighth-floor showroom several months after it spent $1.5 million for July's market.

Less than two days into Winter Market, Chief Executive Officer Michael Amini said his sales orders were "fantastic" and are validating his faith in World Market Center.

Amini was the first business owner to lease space at World Market Center nearly five years ago, a move he said resulted largely from the amenities of its host city.

"You can do great business here, eat the best food and entertain at the best shows," Amini said. "In Las Vegas, you have the best of both worlds."

High Point's critics frequently cite its traffic congestion and lack of world-class hotels and restaurants. Green, a 20-year show veteran, added she's "tired of being gouged" by taxi drivers and hoteliers in North Carolina's historic furniture hotbed.

Even Magnussen's Cook, who was critical of local traffic snarls, said he's pleased with what's taking place this week.

Buyer demographics are different from July's debut market, which was plagued by too many spectators eager to check out the furniture industry's first big showcase to open in decades.

This time around, Cook has spotted more new products, and more orders from buyers.

"This place still needs more manufacturers. A lot of the upper-end companies aren't here, same goes for recliners," Cook said. "But will they come here? Sure. It's just a matter of time because this place certainly has the clout."

When phase two opens in January 2007, 10 of the nation's 25 largest furniture manufactures will exhibit in Las Vegas.

Magnussen's 13,000-square-foot Las Vegas showroom pales in comparison with its 40,000 square feet in High Point. But the company has 29,000 square feet reserved at World Market Center's second phase, based on the belief business here will continue to grow.

"We're going to grow where our customers want us to," Cook said. "And right now we're in both places."