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Customization and deep seating open up contract market

As casual furniture manufacturers finalize introductions for the Hospitality Design Expo set for April 27–29 in Las Vegas, all signs point to another strong year for the contract market.

"Just considering revenue per available room, we will be up 25% to 30% over last year, and we were up 30% then," said John Mattson, director of contract sales for Tropitone.

 This oversized chair, created by the design team of Barton Mills and Tracey Barker of Back Lot Productions, Atlanta, is constructed for indoor or outdoor use.

 This oversized chair, created by the design team of Barton Mills and Tracey Barker of Back Lot Productions, Atlanta, is constructed for indoor or outdoor use.
 CMS Commercial Furniture

 CMS Commercial Furniture's new line of fully upholstered outdoor furniture combines durable aluminum frames with designer outdoor fabrics.

Mattson credits a good economy as well as the Tropitone package of good design, four-week lead times and quality product for the double-digit growth. Design in particular is key for selling to the high-end hotels and resorts, he said, with a trend toward contemporary over a more traditional look. Another trend is increasing demand for a custom look.

"Every property wants to be just a little bit different," Mattson said.

Brown Jordan is also getting more requests for a custom look. "We've noticed that more in the past year," said Steve Elton, who handles product development and marketing for Brown Jordan. "We're getting more requests for special colors and matching frames, for example."

Elton reports a very strong start to this year following a strong season last year.

"This is Brown Jordan's 60th anniversary this year, and one of our strengths in contract is that history," Elton said. "People like that they can add to the collections over time."

While the trend toward deep seating isn't as dominant in contract as it is in the retail market, it is beginning to expand the market for manufacturers.

"Places are now doing cabanas that are much more upscale than the typical pool areas, and they are going to cushion and woven goods as opposed to sling and strap," Mattson said.

Having deep seating in the mix of contract product allows outdoor manufacturers to compete against some of the indoor contract furniture suppliers as well. "We offer a more upscale look and still have all of the elements that the industrial-looking furniture does in terms of holding up, so it really has increased our business," Elton said.

Ficks Reed also attracts contract attention for its synthetic wicker deep seating. "We had a great year last year and expect this year to be good too," said Ellen Saenger, vice president of contract sales and marketing, Ficks Reed. "We've recently done some spas that are using our outdoor products indoors, because they don't have to worry about steam damaging rattan, and we also have some restaurants that are using the outdoor woven indoors," Saenger said. "So it does seem like they are looking at our outdoor lines more seriously for both indoor and outdoor contract use."

FiberBuilt Umbrellas' season is already so good that it has taken management by surprise. "November and December are usually very slow for us, but we just came off of the best December we've ever had to have a record-breaking first two months of this year," said Jordan Beckner, vice president, FiberBuilt. "March is usually the beginning of our season, so we are very excited about this year."


 Gloster, whose Vigo lounger is shown here, is introducing its first contract-specific collection at the hospitality show this month.

 From Silver State, the new Alaxi line blances classical luxury and style with weatherproof materials.

Although delighted with the business, Beckner isn't sure what is driving the spike. Some have speculated that it is the result of the intense hurricane seasons the past couple of years, but as he points out, Katrina's devastation aside, people usually have time to put their umbrellas away before a storm. He gives more credit to the robust market and the good response to the company's FiberTeak umbrella.

"There is a lot of money in the contract industry right now," he added. "We just came back from the club managers show in Hawaii, and we had a tremendous show."

While FiberBuilt Umbrellas focused on the contract market since its inception and is now looking toward retail, Gloster's position is reversed. Having spent the last few years concentrating on retail, it is now putting resources into building its contract business. It has recently hired three contract reps as well as a contract manager for the United Kingdom and Europe.

"A lot of our reps handle both retail and contract, but in some areas there is so much retail business going on that they don't have time to focus on contract, so we've brought in contract reps to provide that focus," said David Meeks, national contract sales manager, Gloster.

Gloster is introducing its first contract-specific collection at the hospitality show, a woven group called Savannah. Much of the Gloster line is suitable for contract, and the company will continue to market a mix of teak, woven and aluminum products to the industry making adjustments as needed, such as adding smaller tables.

"Most of our tables are larger at 72 inches for the consumer market," Meeks said. "That's really too big for the contract market, so Savannah will feature a 30-inch bistro table and 36- and 42-inch tables."

Others introducing new tables in Las Vegas include Ficks Reed, which is adding to its WeatherKing Catalina group, and Uwharrie Chair Company. Among Uwharrie's new products are the Champion round dining group, which ranges from 42- to 60-inch, and a new rectangle table group, a bistro table and adjustable chaises.

Furthering its contemporary offerings, Tropitone is introducing the Opus strap collection designed by John Caldwell at the Expo.

"We introduced Opus sling in 2003 and it was well received by the designers, so we decided to take that style for a contemporary strap," Mattson said. He added many resorts and hotels are putting pads on strap and sling to make the look even more upscale.

Brown Jordan's introductions include a stainless steel lounger with a unique hydraulic pump lift system and the Marina chaise that sports an inline skate wheel.

"It's a fun piece that we've already had some nice placement on," Elton said.

With the new season off and running, Elton is doing everything he can to maintain the momentum.

"The contract business is a different ball game than it was a few years ago," he said. "It is really busy, and I want to keep that pumping." 

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