The Mart Prepares for Your Arrival (and You Will be Impressed)

A new two story stairway greets visitors to the Mart.

A new two story stairway greets visitors to the Mart.

Mark Twain once quipped: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” The organizers of NeoCon probably feel the same as Twain. It wasn’t long ago the show was languishing. The industry was in a slump and many questioned the need for an annual gathering in Chicago to show off the latest panel system.

At the time, tech companies were gobbling up space in the Mart. From a creative standpoint, the industry was at a crossroads, not sure where the idea of work would lead it. At least one Merchandise Mart anchor considered moving out of the building.

Then something curious happened: The show started becoming relevant again. Merchandise Mart properties began investing in the building and assuring the industry it wanted NeoCon to succeed. It gathered an advisory group for the show, which gave it (and continues to give it) good advice about how it could be improved. And the industry found its footing as the economy expanded after the last recession.

For a show that was supposedly dying and a building rumored to be slipping into the hands of real estate hungry tech companies, NeoCon and the Merchandise Mart are very much alive. That shows in the flurry of activity happening at the venerable Chicago building.

Perhaps most important to show-goers, the Mart finished replacing its elevators. It also turned a few on the Orleans side of the building from manual operation to automatic, which should help people get between floors a bit easier.

The Merchandise Mart is always busy in May as tenants rip down walls, install floors and gather the furniture they want to show at NeoCon. But this year the early buzz is even greater as MMPI works on its own projects at the Mart alongside its tenants. When the show opens June 13, attendees will be greeted by a shockingly different Merchandise Mart — all for the better.

The changes will be evident immediately to those visiting the Mart. Workers are finishing a grand staircase that will connect the first and second floors of the building. It will open on the building’s main lobby and connect to a second floor bar and restaurant. The stairs will serve as a gathering place for the building with plugs for recharging and a theaterlike seating area that can be used by visitors to rest or participate in a presentation.

The building’s food court is also undergoing a major overhaul. Windows were uncovered that allow natural light to flood into the space. New (and more) seating and new finishes were added. Though it is still under construction, it is clear the new space will be a dramatic improvement over the old, dark food court. And don’t worry: You can still get a burger from the Billy Goat Tavern stand. The food court tenants are staying, though the frontages of the food stands have been improved.

Perhaps most important to show-goers, the Mart finished replacing its elevators. It also turned a few on the Orleans side of the building from manual operation to automatic, which should help people get between floors a bit easier.

Show organizers have consolidated the seventh and eighth floors, eliminating the eighth floor. All of the temporary exhibitors that used to be spread between the two are now on the seventh floor. That floor will be unrecognizable to attendees, said Byron Morton, vice president of leasing at Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. “There’s new flooring, wall systems, lighting, wayfinding and free wi-fi for exhibitors,” he said, noting more than $2 million is being spent to update the temporary floor.

Part of the eighth floor was taken by Allstate. The rest is being used for storage. The consolidation effort wasn’t easy and left some former NeoCon exhibitors on the outside looking in, but show organizers believe it gives the show the best mix. The seventh floor is completely sold out and, save for a few last minute scratches, so are the third, 10th and 11th floors that make up the permanent showroom space.

The Mart continues to attract new exhibitors and those who are expanding from the temporary floors to permanent spaces. More than 300 brands will be represented at NeoCon. Turkish furniture maker Koleksiyon is moving into a new permanent location, as is Canadian demountable wall maker Muraflex. Local Chicago textile company Architex is moving into a new space. The British invasion of NeoCon continues with the addition of Naughtone. Clarus Glassboards will have its own space as well. Others, like OFS, are undergoing a complete renovation. In all, 42 manufacturers are updating showrooms that cover 62,000 square feet of floorspace.

“The exhibitor quality and attendee experience is going to be better,” said Lindsey Martin, director of marketing for the NeoCon shows, adding that A+I, an architecture and design firm from New York, is responsible for creating the new look at the Mart.

The Merchandise Mart riverside park also was expanded by 40 percent this year. Attendees will be able to grab a bite from the food trucks that will line the drive along the Mart (the semi trucks are long gone) and eat in the park.

The NeoCon website is completely new, and show organizers added features to its app as well. Those registered will be able to add appointments and note exhibitors they want to visit, which this year will link directly with the app. Those with the app can also use it to submit seminar evaluations, check out speaker bios and use the social function to connect with friends and colleagues. If you downloaded the NeoCon app last year, make sure you update it to the current version.

Registrations for NeoCon 2016 are pacing at about the same as last year, Morton said. Expect about 50,000 attendees, which is back to pre-recession numbers. Those planning to attend should book a hotel room now. Hotel bookings are up 10 to 12 percent over last year at this time.

At one time, those who had been to every NeoCon proudly touted its anniversary. Now, there are very few left who have seen every show as NeoCon prepares for its 48th year. Those who have been to all (or many) of the events are quiet about it, not wanting to the show’s longevity to give away their ages.

“Even though we are a ‘middle ager,’ we are still doing fun stuff,” said Morton.

That includes moving the Guerrilla Truck Show to NeoCon this year. For the uninitiated, the Guerrilla Truck Show used to be in Fulton Market during NeoCon. It ran from 2005-2014 and was organized by Morlen Sinoway Atelier, a Chicago retailer of contemporary furniture, lighting, home accessories and custom area rugs. It was a show where artists, designers and architects used the backs of standard U-Haul trucks as a showcase for hand-crafted furniture, art and other exhibitions. Industry executives in the know used to sneak over to Fulton Market to check out the innovative exhibitions. The event even led to the discovery of a few designers who made their way into the office furniture industry.

After a year off, it is coming back, this time to NeoCon. The Guerrilla Truck Show will bring 10 U-hauls to the south drive on Tuesday for all to experience, said Morton. There will be a party Tuesday as well.

NeoCon is also hosting a New Talent Spotlight, which will showcase five up-and-coming designers and their work. BoF

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