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Cinde W. Ingram

Blizzard of activity sets off the Casual Conference

Casual Conference DempsterCasual Living Conference attendees take keynote speaker Neil Dempster’s trackball challenge.
There was a blizzard of activity - literally - at the second Casual Living conference, which kicked off Feb. 20 in Tucson, Ariz., and concluded Feb 22.

For the attendees who packed sleeveless dresses, sandals and golf shirts, and with temperatures plummeting, guests were surely rethinking their wardrobe choices.

With big, fluffy snowflakes falling outside the Westin La Paloma, some of the 160-plus conference goers stepped outside to snap plenty of pictures of an event that is truly a rare occurrence in Tucson. The snow postponed the golf tournament scheduled at the La Paloma Country Club as well as the PGA's Match Play at nearby Dove Mountain, but could not halt the Casual Living conference, the retail tour or the festive pre-event cocktails.

As Casual Living Publisher Norman Hamilton welcomed everyone to the conference on Thursday morning, he told attendees that they were experiencing a meteorological event that tied in nicely with the theme of the event - Outer Spaces.

Casual Conference OffenbergerBrian Offenberger shares best practices for marketing.
Starting things off was keynote speaker, resultant Neil Dempster, who had everyone rethinking their status quo. After he threw a loaf of white bread on the stage, he pulled participants from their chairs to do everything from hammer nails to complete a trackball experiment.

Riding that energy, speaker Brian Offenberger took to the stage next with 11 marketing best practices. He discussed search engine optimization and using Facebook to develop client lists among other ways to thrive and prosper.

After a short break, which featured coffee and treats, attendees settled in for Chad Harris, co-founder of The Garden Gates, who basically and without hesitation told the audience how to kill their competition ... "like an axe warrior." He explained how his French-influenced lifestyle company converts virtual traffic into real sales. His upbeat, high-energy presentation had everyone buzzing during lunch.

After the meal, attendees heard from Retail Makeover consultant Barbara Crowhurst, who detailed the fundamentals of store management. She advised retailers to "start working on your business, not in your business."

Casual Conference HarrisChad Harris of The Garden Gates shares his killer competitive business skills.
A panel of successful outdoor furniture retailers - Gail Williams of Sunshine Furniture, Geneva Wallace of Yard Art Patio & Fireplace and Jim Calhoun of Summer Classics - then shared their merchandising strategies.

Afterward there was an impromptu open forum where manufacturers and retailers discussed shipping challenges and a range of other issues.

Awards were presented Thursday night at an elegant dinner for Casual Living's Supplier of the Year and Retailer of the Year. Treasure Garden CEO Oliver Ma warmed everyone's hearts with his acceptance speech as did COO Margaret Chang, who stood at the podium by Ma's side.

Today's Patio CEO Chad Scheinerman accepted the Retailer of the Year Award, calling it an incredible honor. His moving speech recognized his dad Henry Scheinerman and Charles Revson, who co-founded the business in 1979 and worked together for more than 30 years. Scheinerman also thanked Today's team of employees "we consider our family" for their hard work and dedication, then acknowledged the influence of the late Merv Conn, vice president of marketing and sales of Mallin Furniture, whose Feb. 14 death stunned the casual industry.

Casual Conference WayfairWayfair executive Michael O’Hanlon describes how and why its online sales are growing.
The last morning of the conference started off with an eye-opening and thought-provoking presentation by Michael O'Hanlon, head of business development for Wayfair, one of the nation's hottest online retailers. He told the audience Wayfair works with 3,000 suppliers and 5,000 brands featuring 5 million unique products. The company did $600 million in sales for 2012. O'Hanlon said Wayfair offers manufacturers the opportunity to market their brands on the site, but also suggests where consumers can shop locally and has 150 brick-and-mortar retailers advertising on its site.

The Internet is becoming a major way of doing business in the furniture industry. About 90% of consumers are researching online before they buy, O'Hanlon said, and 7% are buying online.

Following his comments was the Rising Starts panel, which featured Today's Patio's Chad Scheinerman, Tropitone's Frank Verna and The Chair King's Joe Weisman as the next generation of outdoor executives who shared their thoughts on what is next for the casual outdoor industry.

Attendees came back after a short break for a wrap-up session and to contribute to final notes on the event.

Ideas and suggestions for next year's event are already being discussed. As Petey Fleischut, owner of Casual Marketplace, was heard saying at breakfast, "I love that I get to see people here that I only get to every six months."

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