HIGH POINT – Early estimates from the High Point Market Authority show market traffic through Monday was between 35% and 40% of what it was last fall, making turnout at the nine-day event better than expected for many exhibitors.

Taken largely from data from on-site scanners, the 35% estimate is based on attendance by individuals at market compared with October 2019. The 40% estimate is based on the number of companies here this market compared with last October, which officials said was the highest attended market in the past 12 years.

An update on attendance through Wednesday – the final day of the Oct. 13-21 event – is expected later in the week.

However, the early estimates, presented to the HPMA board on Wednesday, show what to expect overall, as those final numbers are tabulated. Many exhibitors interviewed by Furniture Today at market also said they expected attendance to end up between 15% and 50% of normal attendance.

According to data provide to the market authority, attendance from the West Coast was the lowest – as anticipated – at 25% from last year, while the Midwest and Southwest were better than expected at 34%. Attendance from the Southeast, mostly drive-in traffic that included buyers from North Carolina and Virginia, was the highest at 50%, while traffic from the Northeast was 28%.

Officials attributed the low attendance from that region to quarantine restrictions in several Northeast states. In addition, North Carolina was considered by 11 states – including nine east of the Mississippi – to be a hot spot for COVID-19 cases.

“The hot list became a real negative in terms of buyers and reps coming to market,” said Tom Conley, president and CEO of the High Point Market Authority. “We felt this was going to be a drive-in market and that has proven to be the case.”

Market authority officials reported that protocols – including social distancing and the wearing of face masks – received very little push back from attendees. Attendees also were accepting of the daily health checks in individual buildings and the tents between Showplace and the International Home Furnishings Center.

Of the attendees, some 17 reported they had symptoms and one of those was COVID-19 positive.

“We had processes in place to move them back to their place of residence and make accommodations to make sure they safely got home,” said Tammy Covington Nagem, chief operating officer of the High Point Market Authority, adding that two others that were tested outside the market health screenings were “cared for in a very professional way.”

Officials noted that overall market attendance also was affected by high Premarket attendance in September, one of the strongest Premarkets in years, and possibly the pop-up event in June, which was the first event following the canceled April market where buyers could physically see new product.

“I believe the impact was substantial in terms of who attended those events,” Conley noted.

A key challenge – particularly related to funding received based on the overall economic impact of market – is that the market authority does not have the ability to capture data on buyer attendance for those events. In the future, it hopes to capture data from emerging events such as the planned First Tuesday event targeted primarily to brick-and-mortar retailers that want to visit showrooms the first Tuesday of each month as well as High Point by Design, which primarily will target designers.

“We have to find a way to capture that data,” Conley said, related to the importance of city and state funding.
He also noted that he is seeing increased pitches for virtual showroom tours.

“Every single week I get an e-mail from someone that wants to do a virtual trade show or allow people to get into their showrooms virtually,” Conley said. “We cannot move in that direction in my opinion. This is a business-to-business trade show that was founded on three principals: product, networking and education. … Those are what this market is all about, and those are things that will make the market move forward.”

But he added that with declines in the number of brick-and-mortar stores and declining number of reps, “the number of people that attend the High Point Market will decline unless we can find ways to bring those people here on a continual basis. If you add the economics of High Point by Design and First Tuesday and combine that with market, you end up adding one and one and one, and it may add up to five or six in terms of economic impact.”

And while the nine-day market was an exercise in exhaustion for many – including the author of one unhappy letter Conley read at market – officials say the schedule helped spread out attendance and convince everyone from state officials to market attendees, the market was trying to keep everyone as safe as possible.

“Nine days was a burden, and we will fight to not have to do that again,” said Dudley Moore, board chairman. “We will do our best to get back to a more manageable length of market.”

That said, the plan moving forward is to resume a five-day market schedule in April 2021. But officials agreed that High Point can combine the market experience with the other events to make it more of a year-round destination.

“If we can enhance the experience, that will affect attendance overall,” Moore said. “If people around the Southeast, the U.S. and the world recognize High Point for what it is, which is a design destination, … that is what we have to sell. At the end of the day, the High Point Market will evolve into something other than what it is. It will still be a twice-a-year event, but it will also be more of a year-round destination. The net/net is that it will grow.”

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