ENK: PIONEER OF THE PIERS
Byline: Wendy Hessen
NEW YORK — Elyse Kroll is one determined woman.
While the 7th on Sixth group scrambles to put together its first series of runway shows in November at the Chelsea Piers here, Kroll has already managed to conquer river country. Her group of shows, operated under ENK International, will be approaching their second season at the Show Piers on the Hudson — at 55th Street and 12th Avenue, after a seven-year run at the Plaza Hotel.
This year, Kroll made a bold decision to move her entire product roster to the Show Piers, a move that carried with it a fair share of controversy.
ENK produces the Fashion Coterie and Intermezzo women’s apparel shows, the Accessorie Circuit and several men’s apparel shows — Designers Collective, Mode Coast and The Europeans — which were just recently gathered under one umbrella and dubbed simply, The Collective.
The choice of the Piers was an especially risky one, since several other attempts to mount exhibitions there in recent years have gotten less-than-exciting results.
Despite the initial fears, the reviews for the first series of shows in the new venue have been overwhelmingly positive.
But at the time of the announcement, many of Kroll’s longtime exhibitors were apprehensive and initially said they wouldn’t make the move with her. Kroll was adamant.
After looking at “every imaginable place in town,” she settled on the Piers because “they had good bones.”
“I thought we could bring ENK to the Piers and not lose our identity,” Kroll said. “People expect, and are given, a certain amount of luxury at my shows.
“The most significant thing for me was finally making the decision to change formats. We did hotel shows for 17 years, and while we had created a niche for ourselves in the industry, I also felt [moving] was necessary to create some new excitement and mix things up a bit.”
Good bones aside, the Piers required a considerable amount of work before they met Kroll’s standards.
“I felt a real responsibility to make the environment very modern. What was especially appealing to me was the amount of outdoors you can bring inside. At a convention center, you can only see four walls, whereas the Piers could almost be turned into a resort of sorts,” she said.
Creating that resort was something ENK had never tackled before.
Unlike the Plaza, or any other typical convention location, virtually everything that was needed to run a self-contained colony of sorts had to be brought in from the outside.
“From the basics of electricity, air-conditioning and lighting to telephones, food, ice, waiters and even toilet paper, much of what is readily available at any convention center wasn’t at the Piers,” Kroll explained. “We had March and April to learn a new career — essentially building a community — and didn’t realize how complicated it would be.”
Among the improvements to the raw space, black paint was removed from the windows, to let the sun shine in, and replaced with a transparent, glare-resistant film; new garbage receptacles were added; the entire space was painted and the floors were all regrouted, and new fixtures were installed in the bathrooms.
The land and the Piers themselves are owned by New York City and leased to a private operator, Port Parties, which oversees all event production there. Another company, ITO, runs the terminals as they apply to passenger ships.
Kroll said that while the city didn’t completely underwrite the improvements, it did contribute some financial support and helped expedite the work through Port Parties.
The May Accessorie Circuit and Intermezzo shows were ENK’s debut events at the Piers, followed by the men’s shows in July and another edition of the Circuit and Intermezzo last month. The Fashion Coterie will have its first three-day run there beginning Sept. 27.
Unlike some vendors who were hesitant about abandoning the hotel format, Monica Belag-Forman, president of MAG by Magaschoni, was happy to make the switch.
“Having done a lot of different shows in both the U.S. and Europe, the booth format is much easier,” she said. “You don’t have to merchandise your line around an armoire and a television.
“In a hotel, it’s also harder to get buyers into a room. At the Piers, they go up and down the aisles all day. [The ENK shows] are the closest thing to a European show that we have here.”
Cynthia O’Connor, owner of the accessories showroom, Cynthia O’Connor & Co., has been doing ENK shows for three years. “I trusted that if Elyse picked the Piers, there was a reason and they would be a strong enough venue. ENK shows really do have a high caliber that is high-end and very good at giving buyers a clear idea of what is where,” said O’Connor, adding that while hotels provide a higher level of creature comforts, more business is done in an open-format show.
“I’ve seen bigger growth in open-format shows, especially in the area of new accounts, which has risen by 30 percent in the new location,” said O’Connor. “For me, it’s also much easier to make my designers happy in terms of space. We can tailor the booths to their needs. Many buyers have told me it’s a much more exciting and effective way to shop.”
Even the most reticent exhibitors have had to acknowledge the positive response of their buyers and the continued growth of new business at the Piers.
Karen Erickson, a partner at apparel and accessories representative Showroom Seven, was initially unhappy about the prospect of moving to an open-format show, but has become resigned to it after the results she saw there.
“We did incredibly well there,” said Erickson. “It’s less intimidating for buyers, but I still miss the privacy of a hotel show.”
“Elyse was the first to really create a hospitable place for buyers and juried potential exhibitors. It is costing more money to show per square footage [at the Piers], and we have to decorate our booths there, but — hey, Barneys is more expensive than Macy’s.”
For her part, Kroll said, “everybody has responded very positively.” She explained, “Because the retailers are happy, the exhibitors have been happy. With the last show, the Accessories Circuit in August, we finally got some kind of a rhythm going.”
Betsey Johnson and Anna Sui will be among the apparel companies experiencing their first run at the Piers during the Coterie this month.
“We’re excited about the Piers, although we were initially shocked about the change in venue,” said Kim Hingley, vice president of sales at Betsey Johnson. “But to be honest, we changed our minds because all of our accounts are thrilled with the location. It’s less intimidating, and we feel we’ll get more exposure and think it will be tremendous for new business.”
At Anna Sui, director of sales Joanne Yellin said she walked the Circuit floor and was pleased with the look of the show and the convenience for buyers.
“We’re in a service-driven business, and even though we may sometimes like to fight it, that’s the bottom line. What was unfortunate for this go-around is that we’re getting less space for the dollar compared to the Plaza. Our goal will be to do about 20 percent more business to account for the increase in cost.”
Milliner Eric Javits returned to the Circuit in May after opting out of trade shows for a while. Part of why he returned was because of the new location.
“I was glad that [the Circuit] went to the Piers. I like the layout and openness, and setting up was much less cumbersome there,” said Javits. “Buyers feel very comfortable shopping her shows. She took a more high-end approach, and a lot of the stores like that and they say the weeding out process has been better at ENK.”
O’Connor and several other exhibitors said the only downsides so far at the Piers are the midweek schedule for the August Accessorie Circuit and transportation to and from the Piers.
“We may decide to opt out of the Circuit in August and instead try the Coterie instead,” O’Connor said. “While the transportation got a bit better this time, I still know some buyers were troubled about the wait for taxis. One great thing was ENK having a series of cars waiting at the end of the day, and they were also really helpful in getting our things to our car.”
Kroll said she is continuing to try to come up with a solution for the August Circuit dates, but wouldn’t be specific about any possible resolution.
Transportation has been one of the few lingering problems ENK has had to face since opening at the Piers, and refinements have been made along the way since May.
In August, minibuses replaced standard commuter model buses for shuttles because the larger vehicles were restricted to using the lower level of the Piers, and therefore less accessible to attendees. The shuttle routes have been expanded, as well, to include stops at any other shows running at the same time. That practice will continue during the Coterie’s run.
Kroll said she now calls in as many as 25 cars from a local service to help speed attendees exiting the show at the end of each day. During an unexpected rainstorm at the men’s shows in July, free umbrellas were handed out. ENK has also hired Randy Glick, the Plaza Hotel’s former concierge, who arranges for cars, makes restaurant and theater reservations and handles a variety of other requests, Kroll said, free of charge to attendees.
“I don’t think anyone can ever be totally prepared,” she said. “We try to prepare for the worst. For this last show, we had a backup air-conditioning system in case we needed it. And, while we pray to God that we don’t have a bad snowstorm in January, hopefully our new relationship with the city will enable us to get plowed immediately. We also subscribe to a weather service with forecasts 30 days out.
“January is my next big hurdle. Part of the reason we moved in May was because it’s the prettiest time of the year. Short of building fireplaces, we’ll make it cozy.”
The men’s shows could end up taking place over Super Bowl Sunday, so ENK is considering creating a gathering place on the show floor where people can “hang out and watch the game.”
Kroll said a decision hasn’t been made about the atmosphere during the January women’s shows, but “whatever we do, it will definitely reflect the season.”
But maintaining a high level of esthetic quality and keeping most services free of charge for participants and attendees doesn’t come cheap.
“We feed all of our exhibitors, staff, press and retailers for three days, provide a catalog for each show and do a lot of advertising, not to mention all the other freebies, like flowers, chocolates and even pens,” said Kroll, who said the investment has paid off because every show so far at the Piers has sold out.
She claims that she reinvests a considerable amount of profit back into her shows, and although she wouldn’t be more specific, she did say it exceeds 30 percent.
“I’m making a major investment in my business right now, expenses are very high, and I have the same number of exhibitors. My profit is not as high as it was at the Plaza, but that fact will adjust itself eventually, probably within a year.”
Although Kroll is tight-lipped about the company’s annual revenues, she acknowledged that industry estimates of $10 million are in the ballpark. She was quick to point out that ENK’s revenues are solely generated by entrance fees, and the company doesn’t take a cut of other fees charged to exhibitors for operational expenses. Fees range from $2,500 to $3,800.
Kroll is said to be working on a far-reaching plan for 2000 and beyond, which has industry watchers speculating on everything from adding onto the Piers to getting the city to finance a separate building for midsize shows. Kroll would only say that while it is not possible to add a bubble structure to the roof of the Piers, there are several other options being considered.
It was her experience with trying to find a new location and the amount of repairs the Piers needed, as well as her determination to continue to grow, that prompted Kroll to initiate a series of dialogs with city officials about the contribution made to the local economy by midsize trade show producers like herself.
Midsize trade shows are defined as those with 100,000 to 500,000 square feet of show space. When full on both Piers, ENK shows occupy roughly 200,000 square feet.
“Last year, the midsize trade show industry brought $465 million into New York City, according to the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson,” Kroll said, noting that ENK alone is estimated to contribute $150 million to the city’s coffers annually. “And there is no appropriate trade show space for us. Half of my time is spent meeting with government officials trying to bring this subject to their attention and help them realize the kinds of revenue contributions we make to the city.
“I’ve been trying for a couple of years now, and it is a real challenge. But I do feel we’re making progress. I’ve spent a lot of time — and my own money — researching this issue. I believe we’re all working toward a new situation and am confident that I will see results sooner rather than later.
Kroll’s confidence allows her some big dreams for the future.
“The ultimate dream is to have a situation like the one that exists in Las Vegas — everyone could be under one roof. That’s a city that has been incredibly responsive to the convention industry,” Kroll said, adding, “The Piers are a stepping stone for us, a great transition to forward thinking.”