A week that was supposed to be bustling with news and information on new office furniture products and innovations in the world of commercial design will be a lot more reserved.
In line with virtually every other event attended en masse around the country, NeoCon became a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organizers of the marquee trade show for the commercial design industry originally postponed the event, slated for June 8-10, even as the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip states across the country in early March. Later that month, they finally pulled the plug on the live show at The Merchandise Mart in Chicago, dooming plans for the more than 50,000 expected attendees and 500 exhibitors.
The next NeoCon is now slated for June 14-16 of 2021.
Since its inception in 1969, NeoCon has become a high-profile launching pad for both leading and emerging commercial design companies from across the globe to debut new products, innovations and services, always attracting a who’s who of firms from West Michigan’s office furniture industry.
While the occasion brought out the titans of the industry, NeoCon was arguably even more beneficial for smaller companies, which utilized the high-profile nature of the event and steady foot traffic to gain exposure in the space.
“I don’t know if we’ve really been able to gauge (the effect of the cancellation) yet,” said Nancy Stryker, director of marketing for Holland-based office furniture manufacturer Trendway Corp.
Trendway does not maintain a showroom within The Merchandise Mart itself, but has a permanent space nearby.
“NeoCon is a huge time to meet with our dealers and continue to build those relationships,” Stryker said. “It’s a focal point for our industry. It’s a great time to gather all our dealers together and engage with them. Missing out on that is probably one of the most painful things.”
However, the NeoCon concept isn’t disappearing completely. In lieu of the live Merchandise Mart event, NeoCon organizers have created NeoConnect, an online hub that features access to exhibitor product launches in addition to panel discussions, webinars and other market education opportunities.
The NeoConnect hub — found at NeoCon.com — was established on June 1 and its information and programming will steadily trickle throughout the month.
Reaching customers where they are
Trendway did not develop any special programming for NeoConnect, but was strategic when it came to rebounding from an opportunity lost to show off its latest innovations to a broader audience.
“For us, we wanted to be more adaptable to what our customers were asking for and what they were needing,” Stryker said. “We had accelerated some product launches that covered the needs that the pandemic created for our customers.”
Single and U-shaped acrylic screens that can be retrofitted to existing open-plan office environments were one such example. The product met a surge in demand for increased barriers for open settings to minimize and eliminate the transfer of germs.
Stryker also said that an advantage for Trendway is that it is able to maintain close relationships and consistent engagement with its dealers, and can bring products to market without all the pomp and frills that come with NeoCon.
“We bring our dealers in periodically for large training events and we get those interactions with them,” she said. “We hold events in our showroom for our dealers. So, we have a more personal relationship with our dealers because of our size.”
Office furniture giant Haworth Inc., based in Holland, chose to dive headfirst into the virtual arena to fill the void left by NeoCon, providing a wide range of opportunities for digital engagement with potential customers.
This includes a series of webinars that is set to launch this week, featuring the likes of speakers Anders Byriel, CEO of global textile house Kvadrat, as well as University of Michigan professor, author, and innovation expert Dr. Jeff DeGraff, among others.
These presentations will lead up to the launch of Haworth’s new digital showroom, featuring more than a dozen new products.
Post-NeoCon, Haworth will begin sending samples and stocking them in the company’s physical showrooms.
“In April, we didn’t know if (the COVID-19 pandemic) was just a bad dream, but in early May, it was hard to see an end in sight,” said Kurt VanderSchuur, global brand director for Haworth. “We kind of decided we’d go virtual and do NeoCon that way.”
Virtualization came relatively easy for Haworth, which leans on technology to work with its design teams across the globe to launch products at the world’s premier shows. Haworth traditionally has a presence at other international shows such as Salone (Milan Furniture Fair), Orgatec in Germany and NYCxDESIGN in New York City.
“For product development teams, it’s really hard to do it all virtually — models and prototypes and the physical things,” VanderSchuur said. “You really test your rendering ability and your 3-D modeling abilities.”
Virtualization is a concept that VanderSchuur and the team at Haworth are really embracing. He said that the company would be unveiling new virtual features this summer but wouldn’t provide much more information beyond that.
Trade shows obsolete?
A wide range of virtual tools now give commercial designers the opportunity to reach a broad audience, providing detailed looks at their latest innovations without having to rely on in-person shows like NeoCon.
“Most of the visitors (to NeoCon) are designers and architects — and say you have a firm of 50 people and they send five people to the show,” VanderSchurr said. “(Through virtual features) you can reach everyone at that firm, where before you were just reaching the five people. You can speak to all 50. It makes it more accessible.”
Haworth’s debut into the digital world was when its team designed a virtual house for NYCxDESIGN, stocking it with products from its brands. VanderSchurr said that it received over 100,000 views, which confirmed to his team that this was an effective way to promote and sell products.
Still, VanderSchurr admitted that traditional trade shows like NeoCon still have a place in the industry, especially because of its tactile nature.
“In the end, our industry, we’re a tactile industry,” he said. “People want to touch and see. If they’re buying chairs, they want to sit in them and feel the textile. That’s the part that’s hard (to replicate virtually).”
Trendway’s Stryker agreed, pointing again to the face-to-face opportunity to foster relationships.
“My personal opinion is that nothing beats that live interaction and we embrace that and want that,” she said.