Tar Heel Tattler - December 2006

Ex-exec tries to run the tables to Vegas
By Edward Martin

Around High Point, Harvey Dondero is the modern equivalent of a cowpuncher who sold out to the rustlers. He quit as CEO of Lenoir-based Broyhill Furniture Industries in June. Three months later, he became CEO of World Market Center in Las Vegas, which is vying to overtake the High Point Market as the nation’s top furniture trade show. But this is more about the Vegas market shoring up shortcomings than a man trading a white hat for a black one. Besides, the High Point Market drew first.

In April, it hired a Chicago trade-show expert as its president. Brian Casey had honed his craft during 12 years at SmithBucklin, an association-management company, then started Next Generation Event Group in 2003. The High Point Market has furniture know-how in spades — it’s nearly 100 years old, and High Point is the traditional hub of the nation’s furniture industry — but the city isn’t the easiest place to put on a show. It lacks Vegas’ glamour and accessibility, and the market has been trying for years to convince buyers that it has not outgrown its roots.

Las Vegas, on the other hand, staged its first show in 2005 at the privately owned World Market Center and wants to prove to the furniture industry that it’s the place for business, not just to see shows and gamble. Enter Dondero. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I understand what our industry needs — permanent showrooms, accessibility, a whole different way of presenting our goods.”

Casey regrets Dondero’s defection but says the High Point Market will stay the nation’s largest, with an economic impact estimated at more than $1 billion a year. About 100,000 vendors and buyers — 20,000 more than had been estimated — registered for its show in April. “The real story is whether High Point continues to improve, and that mission’s not going to change no matter who shifts where or goes in what direction,” says Tom Dayvault, president of the High Point Chamber of Commerce.

Dondero is optimistic about the future, too. Registration for the Vegas show in January was running 58% ahead of last year, when attendance exceeded 50,000. It is set to open a second showroom and eventually will have eight.

He won’t say which will wind up as the dominant market. “As far as we’re concerned, there’ll be one best market. How many smaller, regional markets there’ll be, I can’t say.” It’s clear, though, he’s betting Las Vegas won’t be one of those.