Weekly Editorial

Can NeoCon and Design Days Coexist?

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, OI Publications • June 24, 2024

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With NeoCon and Design Days still fresh on our minds, let’s chat about the elephant in the room: The fact that there are two shows now running concurrently in Chicago. Can’t we all just get along?

After visiting both events a few weeks ago, I came away with the impression that both seem to be doing just fine. I visited Fulton Market twice during the NeoCon/Design Days period and both times, I was impressed with the number of people and the positive buzz. There were crowds in the halls of THE MART and there were crowds on the streets of Fulton Market.

Still, the schism remained the talk of both shows. I can’t tell you the number of people I spoke with who either asked questions about the viability of the shows or commented on how they wish both would simply bury the hatchet and get along. I agree, but the situation is a bit more nuanced than that.

It is important to remember that THE MART never asked for this split. For more than 50 years, THE MART has been home to NeoCon and in that time, it has invested millions of dollars in the promotion and development of that brand. It owns NeoCon. And I can’t blame them for wanting to protect that name and its investment in it. It also owns the Best of NeoCon competition. Again, after investing in the competition for years, I don’t begrudge them for wanting to protect it and keep it exclusively for companies leasing showrooms in the building.

Let’s also remember that THE MART and its parent company, Vornado Realty Trust, are in the business of leasing space in their portfolio of buildings. They are not in the commercial interiors industry, though they obviously have an interest in it and the shows that have grown up around it.

If you were THE MART or Vornado, would you hand over a valuable asset like NeoCon to companies that actively chose to leave your building? Would you allow companies that left to participate in Best of NeoCon? Those are very difficult questions, but up to this point, the answer to both has been a resounding “no.” It’s hard to blame them.

It’s also hard to blame the companies that left the building. A few of them — though definitely not all — show much better in their new Fulton Market spaces. I think all of them would like to be part of a broader NeoCon, if possible. But so far, the two sides have not been able to come together on an agreement.

Whose fault is that? No one. It’s just the way it is based on what I wrote above.

The danger, of course, is that if the split continues broadly beyond Steelcase and OFS — the latest to announce their intention to leave THE MART for Fulton Market — it could destroy the long-term prospects of BOTH events in Chicago. I heard from several people that they didn’t come to Chicago this year because splitting time between the two areas is simply too difficult. If attitudes like that continue, it could spell the end of both NeoCon, Design Days and the commercial interiors industry’s deep connection to the Windy City.

There is the opportunity for a fair and equitable solution. Perhaps Design Days manufacturers could work with THE MART to become something like affiliate participants and pay for either a shared space in the building (with the other Fulton Market attendees) or a small spot of their own. Maybe they could pay extra to be part of the Best of NeoCon competition. Maybe THE MART could sell the NeoCon brand to an independent party to run (hello BIFMA?) with the guarantee that its base will remain the building, while allowing satellite NeoCon activities around the city? I stress independent, because if it is sold off to a massive media company or show producer, it’s over.

None of this is really fair to THE MART, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. Organization of activities surrounding Design Days is better than years past, but it’s still not great. NeoCon organizers could help them with that if they worked together. They could also help with transportation and joint promotion.

That takes sitting at the table together to discuss these issues. I’m not privy to the long-term strategies of either THE MART or the organizers of Design Days. But it would help the industry greatly if the two sides could at least begin discussing what is possible. Based on both NeoCon and Design Days — I’m sure both broke attendance records (or at least came close) — the future for a cohesive, strong commercial interiors presence in Chicago is better off today than it was yesterday.

Yet the industry’s patience is wearing thin. Everyone is looking for a long-term solution to this very sticky problem. Let’s hope progress is made between now and next June. Our industry’s most important event depends on it.

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