Editor’s Note: For seven years, industry expert and D&WC
columnist Cheryl Strickland has sponsored the Custom Home Furnishings
Educational Conference and Trade Show. The conference has grown
every year since its beginning. The first show had 150 attendees,
five instructors and eight vendors. Last year’s event had 800
attendees, 43 instructors and 145 vendor booths.
This year the conference is experiencing an education explosion as it expands to two locations: one in the south (Greenville, SC, August 4 to 8) and one in the north (Philadelphia, PA, September 29 to October 3). In this Q & A, Strickland provides all the details:
D&WC: A national trend in trade shows recently is declining attendance. Why has your conference and trade show continued to grow and be a success?
Cheryl Strickland: First and foremost our event is an educational conference. There’s always a need for good education for both the beginner and industry veterans. Because I and my teaching staff have been involved directly in the business for so many years, we understand what people in the custom home furnishings industry need. We know the challenges they face because they contact us to help them. Over the years, we have become acquainted with so many experienced people in the industry. Fortunately, most of them are also willing to share, and they care about the people in our industry. This caring attitude is so important and is what makes our conference so special.
A unique feature that makes our conference so popular is the presentation of hands-on classes. Camcorders project the instructor’s demonstration onto monitors placed around the room so that all attendees can see the smallest detail. Many of our classes provide hands-on opportunities for attendees to actually make a treatment or try out a technique themselves.
Another very big advantage is that our conference is affordable, not only for the attendees but also for the vendors. Our goal has always been to keep the prices low. We are going into our eighth year, and we have never raised the price to attend.
Another key ingredient to our success is our vendor hall. We experienced phenomenal growth last year and increased the number of vendors by 50 percent over the previous year. The booths are very affordable for our vendors. I think another big reason for vendor growth is that our attendees are people who are seriously looking for resources to buy and not just people walking through to have a look around.
We will continue making changes to fit attendees’ needs. We listen very intently to what they want. We try very hard to set a mood for the conference that is caring and giving and very genuine. There is a lot of hugging going on and some attendees make industry friendships that last for years.
D&WC: Why did you decide to offer two locations?
Strickland: Immediately after the 2003 conference, we analyzed the attendee data and discovered that attendees came from four foreign countries (England, Japan, Bahamas, Canada) and from 45 states. But we realized that even though we had such a widespread draw, the greatest majority of the attendees were from southern states. After the disaster of September 11, fewer people are flying. There are many people in northern states who are missing the opportunity of coming to our conference. So to serve their needs, we decided to have an additional conference closer to them.
D&WC: Why did you choose Philadelphia?
Strickland: Because one-third of the population of the United States is in a big circle covering the northeastern section of the country and Philadelphia is about smack in the middle of that circle. It would be convenient for people from all over Pennsylvania. It is also easy for people from New Jersey and New York to get to Philadelphia. It is a little farther for New Englanders, but many of them routinely come to New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey because of all the activity in those areas. The bottom line is that we believe that we can reach and serve the educational needs of so many more people by bringing the conference to them.
D&WC: Would there be any advantage to coming to both conferences?
Strickland: Absolutely! There are so many networking opportunities that aren’t exclusive to just one conference. Coming to both conferences would allow attendees to see, meet and learn from twice as many people. Networking is a big part of our conference. Attendees really enjoy meeting other people and learning from them: how they got started, what their shortcuts are, what their tips are.
Also, we offer 74 classes to choose from, with 12 classes going on at the same time. Time may not allow attendees to take all the classes of interest at one conference. Because the curriculum will be the same at both locations, attendees can come to the other location and take the classes that didn’t fit into their schedules at the first show.
D&WC: What new benefits have been added this year?
Strickland: The “Education Explosion” will have many new features to offer participants this year.
1. The conferences this year will feature a new Showcase Gallery. Trade show attendees love to see and photograph beautiful custom furnishings. This Showcase Gallery will include numerous full-size innovative window treatments, bed coverings, accessories and small vignettes.
2. The four-day conference has always been held on Thursday through Monday. By request from many of the attendees this year the two conferences will be held Wednesday through Sunday, which will still encompass a weekend, but does not flow over into a second work week.
3. Another special feature is the Window Treatment Extravaganza, a fashion show that I personally will be presenting during the lunch hour on Thursday. There will be a variety of full-sized treatments to photograph. I will also share how they were made.
4. The popular 20-minute vendor demos will return to the conferences and will be free during the vendor hours. Since the 20-minute vendor demos have been so popular, the conference will offer new one-hour expanded versions, called Product-Oriented Classes presented by a few of our noted vendors and suppliers. These detailed classes are taught during regularly scheduled class times. Attendees sign up for these specialty classes just the same as they would any other. The classes will feature details about how to use and work with the vendor’s products and will have a particular focus, such as details on how to laminate roller shades or mastering software.
5. Due to many requests received from past attendees, we’ve added more professional design classes and will be featuring well-known design instructor Carol Chop. We will offer once again the Windows of Opportunity class with Margi Kyle sponsored by Hunter Douglas. This is a free, bonus class for any attendee, but attendees must pre-register.
The conference will once again feature our unique Working Workroom™, a completely operational workroom with sewing machines and workroom equipment set up in the center of the vendor hall. A 10-foot worktable will be available where attendees can get hands-on experience trying out vendor products and see step-by-step demonstrations presented by instructors from the Custom Home Furnishings School.
Complete details for this year’s shows are available on the conference Web site: www.chfconferences.com. A complete brochure can be requested by calling (828) 686-3185; (800) 222-1415.