TIMING IS EVERYTHING
THE SAGA OF TRADE SHOW DATES AND POSITIONING HAS ORGANIZERS DOING BATTLE FROM COAST TO COAST.
Byline: Georgia Lee
ATLANTA — Accusations, dueling dates, tenant defections, power struggles — it sounds like the seeds of a TV miniseries. But it’s all been a part of this year’s battle among trade show organizers and regional marts to arrange the best market timing and attract the most buyers.
Despite retail consolidation and a dwindling specialty store buyer base, trade shows are proliferating. From New York to Las Vegas to California — with a host of small regional shows in between — the trade show calendar is full and getting fuller.
Compounding the situation, sales representatives are traveling more to individual stores, making it easier for buyers to make shorter market trips, or even skip a show or two. With so many options slicing an already small buyer pie even thinner, trade shows are hungrier and more competitive than ever.
On the regional mart scene, competition between the industry’s two biggest players — the Dallas Market Center and Atlanta’s AmericasMart — is as fierce as any pro sports team rivalry.
The battle for buyers came to a head this year over the issue of market dates. Dates are set years in advance, in New York, in meetings among representatives from the marts and New York fashion councils. Dallas has typically run markets a week after New York shows, and a week before Atlanta.
But earlier this year, Dallas set three 2001 dates and one in 2000 to overlap with Atlanta shows. After months of spirited negotiations that lasted through November, the two marts finally rearranged dates so as not to conflict with each other.
Dallas management maintains that date decisions are made based on today’s business climate and exhibitors’ best interests, rather than any intentional conflict. Regional marts, like other trade shows, are forced to be more flexible today, and that dates are always subject to change, depending on the exigencies of the industry.
“Dates can no longer be set five years in advance,” said Cindy Morris, executive vice president of marketing for the Dallas Market Center. “We have to work around changing break dates and cycles for various categories to make sure sample lines are ready. We set flexible tentative dates, always based on our best business interests.”
Dallas insisted on — and now has — a later June 2000 market date (June 22-26) to combine gift and apparel shows for the first time. Atlanta rescheduled its show for June 8-12.
Combining gift and apparel shows is part of an overall plan to play up Dallas’s primary strength — a breadth, depth and variety of lines that no other market can rival, said Morris. (See related Dallas story, page 13.)
AmericasMart officials have a different slant on the date issue.
“They [Dallas] were trying to do us in by going head-to-head with us,” said Peg Canter, general manager of AmericasMart Apparel. “Conflicting dates would be the ruin of manufacturers, retailers and regional marts.”
Canter said overlapping dates were unprecedented and would hurt manufacturers with only one sample line that travels around the country, as well as sales representatives who have showrooms in both markets.
“There’s a need for shows in both regions,” said Canter. “We’ve always worked closely with Dallas management before. Of course, we’re all under pressure from sales representatives for the best dates, and their natural tendency during tough times is to blame the landlord.”
After years of bankruptcies and store closings, Canter thinks the apparel industry, — particularly independent specialty stores, the bread-and-butter of the regional mart — is gaining momentum. Stores that survived the past decade are now stronger than ever. Changes in consumer buying habits are also fueling the turnaround.
“Consumers are less enthralled with discounters and outlet malls,” she said.
Despite a yearly failure rate for independent specialty stores of 10 to 15 percent in recent years, the Southeast maintains the country’s highest concentration of specialty stores, said Canter.
Mart attendance picked up slightly over the past year. More importantly, said Canter, buyer quality keeps improving, which means more buying power and bigger orders left at market.
Becoming an all-inclusive, one-stop center — through cross-merchandising apparel with other merchandise categories — is the linchpin of AmericasMart’s strategic plan.
The cross-marketing push is so pervasive for AmericasMart, a campus that includes the Merchandise Mart, Gift Mart and Apparel Mart, that the building names will be changed to AmericasMart 1, AmericasMart 2 and AmericasMart 3, respectively. The idea is to inoculate buyers with a unified name and encourage them to cross-market all areas.
Key to the plan is the development of product category centers and easy access between buildings. Product centers started in the gift mart, with dedicated floors for areas like garden, holiday floral and fine linen. Last year, the apparel center adopted the concept, with a new accessories center and bridge linking the apparel and gift marts.
In January, AmericasMart will launch the new Resort and Souvenir Gift Center, on the apparel mart’s 14th floor. The area, formerly a children’s wear floor that relocated to the 13th floor, was reconfigured with 80 new showrooms. Currently two-thirds occupied, the area, which will open at the January gift mart, should be fully leased by spring, according to Lawton Hall, vice president of new business at AmericasMart.
New tenants include resort-oriented apparel companies as well as gift lines that include jewelry, bridal and paper products, artwork and children’s plush toys.
In addition to gift markets, over half of the new showrooms will open during apparel markets, which should attract an entirely new genre of retailer, like zoos or museums, said Hall.
The new center, with design input from John Portman, the original owner/developer/architect of AmericasMart, included construction of a covered bridge linking gift and apparel marts.
The new center should extend the reach of the gift shows. Major shows draw over 50,000 buyers, with 33 percent outside the Southeast.
“The only way to grow outside the Southeast is to offer things nobody else has,” said Hall. “We want to categorize industry areas to make it easy for vertical buyers to be able to camp out here,” said Hall. Two more product category areas will be added in the near future, possibly in the apparel mart.
Like Atlanta and Dallas, the Chicago Apparel Center has consolidated and diversified in recent years. Starting 20 years ago with 11 floors, apparel is now contained on 4 1/2 floors. Office space occupies 5 1/2 floors. January gift and apparel shows are now combined.
“All the regional marts are too large,” said Susan McCullough, vice president of the Chicago Apparel Center. “We’re not trying to take away apparel space, but it’s not healthy for the industry for us to warehouse empty space.”
Next year, the mart plans to create new apparel shows. Although officials wouldn’t confirm details, sources say the new shows would be held in exhibition format in the adjacent merchandise mart building.
Members of Apparel Center Tenants of Chicago (ACT), uncertain about the new shows, among other things, are looking at new properties after a 20-year presence at the Chicago mart. Last spring, ACT formed Shop Chicago International, a 130-member trade organization, to explore new properties and market directly buyers. The group is considering a 200,000-square-foot space in Chicago’s South Loop.
“We wanted to take control of our destiny as sales representatives, not necessarily as tenants, and take marketing into our own hands,” said Susann Craig, ACT acting president, who said a move is likely, as tenants’ staggered leases come up in January.
The group’s frustration stems from flat buyer attendance and what they consider inadequate marketing initiatives by the mart, said Craig. Members express the feeling that apparel is becoming less important to management, as new tenants have come into the mart.
Not so, say mart officials, who hope regular meetings with tenants groups will iron out differences.
“This is an ongoing situation, but we take these concerns seriously. Of course, we want ACT to stay,” said McCullough. “We plan to be in the apparel industry. We understand they may want to assess options, and that’s not a bad thing, because we think we do this better than anybody.”
McCullough said all mart decisions are made with tenant input and that marketing plans are joint projects. She said the mart would also beef up buyer incentive programs for the new year.
Conflicts over location and control threatened to split the swimwear industry this year. The annual Miami swimwear show, a July event sponsored by the Swimwear Association of Florida (SAF) for 17 years, will remain at the Miami Mart/Radisson Centre mart for 2000, although its future is uncertain.
Swimwear manufacturers from ISAM and Swimwear Industry Manufacturers have recently called for changes, including a new location and more input into the show. Many manufacturers want to move the event to the Miami Beach Convention Center, in trendy South Beach. The Miami mart is near the airport, but a good half hour from the beach.
At an October meeting of New York-based SWIM, over 85 percent of members voted to move the show. Retailers even received letters earlier this year, about a new Miami Beach swimwear show that would compete with the original.
After cost examination and further discussion with SAF, manufacturers decided to keep the show at the mart in the coming year, with the stipulation that they would have equal representation in decision-making through new or expanded advisory boards.
“This is a small industry, and splitting it into two shows makes it even smaller,” said Barbara Brady, director of ISAM and a SWIM member who favored moving the show.
SAF members want to keep the show at the mart, where around 15 member reps have permanent showrooms. With double-digit increases in attendance as well as exhibition space over the past several years, members say the show is successful — and cheaper — where it is.
SAF is also banking on a $75 million proposed renovation of the Miami International Merchandise Mart, scheduled for completion in 2001. The project will add a 250,000-square-foot exhibition hall. The current space offers 110,000 square feet.
Industry players say that although a detente has been reached, changes are inevitable.
“The mart will be fine for the forseeable future, but SAF is prepared to change the look and venue of the show if the industry wants it,” said Jerry Fleisher, chairman of SAF’s board and president of Swimwear Anywear, a multi-line sales firm for Calvin Klein, Gabar, Adrienne Vittadini and Cazimi lines. He said that possible new locations could include South Beach, Fort Lauderdale or Orlando.
Geti Margolese, vice president of Manhattan Beachwear, a New York manufacturer of the Hobie, Surfside, VM Sport and Via Marina labels, likes the continuity of the existing show, but thinks the issue is far from settled.
“It’s like the French separatist issue in Quebec,” she said. “If these concerns keep coming up, sooner or later it will pass.”