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Hospitality's high style good news for manufacturers

The contract market continues to be hot for outdoor furniture manufacturers thanks to healthy revenues and consumer demand for comfortable outdoor gathering spaces.

"All of the economic fundamentals are in place and projected to stay that way for the foreseeable future," said Mike Echolds, CEO, Tropitone. "Our primary focus is hospitality but we serve all of the major niches. The club markets — golf, swim, tennis and country — are showing a lot of growth. Cruise ships are big as more and more people are cruising. Time shares and their derivatives are a very nicely growing segment of the market. Restaurants, multi-housing ... all around, the contract market is hitting on all cylinders."

With cash to invest, developers and property owners are looking for better quality products.

"Expectations are higher," said Tom Parker, president of TUUCI. "They don't want disposable furniture, they want to invest in furniture that will last longer and that extends to our shade equipment."

The concept of the outdoor room is also grabbing hold and prompting more focus on style and comfort. Consumers want the same amenities they have in their outdoor environments at home, or greater, whether they are lounging by the resort pool or in an outdoor eating area. As a result, resorts and hotels are adding deep seating and chat groups, and upgrading their dining and pool areas to make them as beautiful as they are comfortable.

Outdoor manufacturers are responding with collections that provide flexibility as well as design and durability. For example, Tropitone is introducing two new collections at the Hospitality Design Expo, May 10–12 in Las Vegas. Mobilis is first-of-a-kind molded seating, while Cabana Club is a complete stainless steel collection. Both contemporary designs are modular so they can be mixed and matched in an array of seating combinations.

Gloster will unveil an Eclipse deep seating group at Expo to go along with the Relaxer, which it introduced last year.

"The Eclipse Relaxer did very well, as did our Savannah Collection which we introduced at Expo last year," said David Meeks, national contract sales manager, Gloster. "We have a lot of flexibility with it in terms of different colors and sizes and we can make it to order, so we're doing a lot of customization."

Among TUUCI's top sellers in the contract market is its Titan parasol, available in 13- and 17-ft. squares, and its various pavilions, used in a variety of ways.

"The pavilions are an increasingly popular design element for the contract market," Parker said. "They can be used with chaises around the pool or to create an outdoor living or gather space. Hotels also view them as income generators, as they can rent them to guests who are willing to spend a little more for the privacy."

Outdoor Lifestyle is another manufacturer thriving in the current contract market. "It's been awesome. We have so many quotes and bids out right now that are turning into orders that it is just astonishing," said Kathy Haney, vice president of operations and sales manager, Outdoor LifeStyle.

Of particular interest are the company's Plantation, Portofino and Galway collections. Outdoor Lifestyle will also introduce its new stacking chairs, Quest and Oracle, to the contract market at Expo. "This is always a good show for us," Haney said. "Because we've shown there for so long, it's given us good credibility with the buyers." Outdoor Lifestyle dealers are also doing well in contract, she added.

As with commercial specifiers that buy direct, interior designers and property managers who buy from specialty dealers are moving toward a more upscale look.

"Especially at the higher end, they want deep seating to give the property a resort feel," said Doug Wheat, president of Hauser's Patio and Rattan, in San Diego and La Costa, Calif. "Also because of the nature of the market, we see more and more of the market wanting sling even though it is more maintenance than the vinyl strap."

Much of Hauser's past contract business was tied to new construction and large apartment to condo conversions. Given the slump in the housing market, Wheat doesn't know what his contract numbers will be this year. Smaller condo complex renovations seem to be stable however.

"That's a big part of the contract business for us," Wheat said. "The majors don't want to mess with the 30 and 40 piece orders, which are my bread and butter. We also do restaurants, which are opening and closing all of the time, and some hotel properties. I would expect my contract to be down a little this year, but I just don't know."

Top contract sellers for Wheat include those by Tropitone and Alu-Mont. Although Wheat doesn't hear much concern from his contract customers, the "green story" behind outdoor furniture is increasingly important to commercial specifiers. "I'm amazed at the change just since the first of the year," said Jane Koons, director of contract and international sales for Homecrest. "When we do presentations, the first question now is 'What is your green story?'"

She tells of a recent contract for bid in which companies that didn't fill out an eight-page form detailing their green story were not only denied the opportunity to give a presentation, their material was pulled from the potential client's library. "That's extreme but I think it shows how heightened that awareness is," Koons said.

Echolds concurs. "There is a tremendous awareness in the design community about environmental issues and how products relate to those issues," he said. "We keep that connection in mind, too, when designing product. It's not only good for the planet, which is one of our business principles, it is good business to do so."

Demand for environmentally friendly products isn't a problem for Homecrest, either. It posts its green story on its Web site and takes pride in exceeding EPA standards at its Wadena, Minn., factory. Homecrest is putting more resources into contract now to keep that factory running year-round. The Divano chat group, the new Lana stackable sling chair and Olive, a new collection designed by Paul James will be exhibited in Las Vegas.

Gloster unveiled its Eclipse relaxer last year, but expands the line at the Hospitality Design Expo this month.

Tropitone's new Mobilis Collection brings molded seating to the contract market.

Homecrest is putting more resources into the hospitality industry, and brought the Divano chat group to the Expo this month.

TUUCI's Titan Parasol is a best-seller in the contract market.

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