(02.17.02) SUNDAY BIZ maestro FURNITURE market

By Gary Perilloux

Daily Journal

Imagine Jon Eric’s predicament.

The administrator of next weekend’s Gospel Music Expo 2002 saw the calendar fast approaching for the free event at The Mall at Barnes Crossing when an alarming prospect arose.

There was no room at the inn.

Thousands of hotel rooms within a 50-mile radius of Tupelo were booked for the Spring 2000 Tupelo Furniture Market, an event that draws 30,000 out-of-town guests twice a year.

“If we had known the furniture market was the same weekend, we would have rescheduled,” Eric said, “because we really believe in the furniture market and its impact on North Mississippi. We didn’t mean to clash by any means, because it’s a great industry.”

Though locals expect life to be busier for furniture market week, this week should be like no other before it.

Entertaining week

“Sometimes when it rains, it pours,” said Linda Butler, executive director of the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There are two times of the year we know we’re going to be booked (for hotel space). We don’t try to book anything at that particular time.”

And even though the CVB puts furniture market weeks off limits, a variety of other events don’t necessarily require hotel space and can even feed off the near-doubling of Tupelo’s population.

“Of course, we would like to spread these events out that are all here this weekend, but it doesn’t always work that way,” Butler said. “Our local people and the surrounding area can enjoy this entertainment, so we’re working with Rob Henson and the BancorpSouth Center to give them something to do over the weekend.”

Concert bookings usually dovetail with musicians’ schedules and available concert hall space, but there’s an embarrassment of music riches for furniture week.

Following a weekend of Tupelo Symphony Orchestra and Tupelo Community Concert performances, two of the nation’s premier folk-rock artists arrive this week: “An Evening With Bob Dylan” Monday night at the BancorpSouth Center followed by the critically acclaimed David Wilcox in a Friday benefit for Habitat for Humanity, also at the BancorpSouth Center.

Banking on spring fever to launch renewed activity in the home building sector, the organizers of the Home Building & Remodeling Expo 2002 will stage their show Friday through Sunday at the former Lowe’s on Barnes Crossing Road.

The Mississippi Black Business Association will salute area firefighters and police officers in a Saturday night banquet, and a series of monster truck shows will rumble in the Lee County Agri-Center next weekend.

All of which will work fine with this week’s furniture-related events, said V.M. Cleveland, president and chief executive officer of the Tupelo Furniture Market.

“Our furniture market people normally look to entertain the buyers that we have here inside their showrooms or with one-on-one restaurant sittings,” said Cleveland, who said that most events should coincide smoothly with the registration-only furniture market. “If you’re not tied into the furniture industry itself, I’m sure you wouldn’t compete with any of the activities we have here.”

The furniture market provides nightly entertainment for buyers and exhibitors at both the Tupelo and Mississippi Complexes on Coley Road, with food buffets, beverages and music.

“But if you’ve got your business done and you run back to the motel room, you may have time to go out and go to the concert,” Cleveland said.

Shuttle work

A key to making the entire week work, Cleveland said, is a leased fleet of about 20 vans and drivers the Tupelo Furniture Market employs to provide shuttle service to the Memphis and Tupelo airports, between the market buildings and hotel rooms and even to area shopping centers and stores.

“The shuttle service is one of our key marketing issues,” Cleveland said. “When we go to other markets, the other markets have some kind of infrastructure to help people get around, whether it’s mass transit or other transportation.”

In Tupelo, the shuttle vans play the role of mass transit for the week.

Butler said the Convention & Visitors Bureau works with the Tupelo Furniture Marketing Associaiton to provide $25,000 each furniture market to help underwrite the cost of the shuttle service.

“We work with V.M. and the furniture market,” she said, “with Kathy (Boring) and the housing department. (The shuttle service) provides vans that go to the hotels and pick them up at the furniture market. If they flew into the airport, we pick them up and take them to the hotel. If they need to pick up something at Wal-Mart, we take them there.We try to take care of all their needs with this shuttle service.”

At the market, the CVB will dispense refreshments, Elvis Presley-themed trinkets and lists of the many things going on in the city.

Unloading and showroom setups will begin early in the week but activity will increase significantly by midweek. Though the market officialy begins Thursday, deal-making starts sooner.

“We field registrations and everything else starting Wednesday morning, because there’s so many people coming to town and we have to facilitate their needs,” Cleveland said.

Bigger numbers

Crowds at the market’s 1.5 million square feet of showroom space should swell this February.

Pre-registration has been strong for the February market, Cleveland said, with a higher number of exhibitors expected.

Some turnover is a given for the market, but the market has topped out at 150 new exhibitors in past years. This week, 200 new exhibitors will come to Tupelo and the total should reach 1,000.

“We expect more first-time buyers at this market than we’ve had since the beginning of the market (in 1987),” Cleveland said.

New marketing efforts triggered that climb, Cleveland said, marketing efforts that will fill thousands of area hotel rooms and hundreds of host homes with furniture guests this week.

It’s a lesson in crowd control that the Gospel Music Expo’s Jon Eric has come to respect.

Eric hit upon the booking challenge when he tried to reserve a room for his master of ceremonies at the Best Western near the mall.

The emcee instead will stay with family in Ponotoc, and Eric has enlisted more than 30 churches to assist with overnight accommodations for 65 music ministries from eight states. Some will stay on buses and RVs.

In 2001, the expo drew an additional 3,500 vehicles and thousands of passengers to concerts at the mall’s Food Court. Up to 10,000 music guests are expected this year, a number – to top off an incredibly busy week – that will rival a sellout crowd for The Gaither Homecoming concert Saturday at the BancorpSouth Center.

“That was a fluke, too,” Eric said. “When everybody first found out about the Gaithers, they said, The Gaithers are in town! That’s going to ruin everything!”

To which Eric responded, “We’re going to be singing all weekend; you make your choice to be here or there – but it’s all about God, whether it’s the Gaithers or someone else singing.”

Or in the case of this week, selling furniture or building a house or driving a monster truck or …