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Tupelo vs. Las Vegas in battle for furniture trade show biz

A pile of large, discarded cardboard boxes grew just outside the exhibition space occupied by BG Industries. Owner Billy Bob Hunt and helper Paul Citrano stacked the boxes removed from the furniture they unpacked and placed for the opening of the fall Tupelo Furniture Market (TFM), still almost a week away.

“This is my sixth market here,” says Hunt, whose products comprise higher-end antique wood reproduction furniture imported to his Lafayette, La., business from manufacturers in Thailand, Indonesia and China.

He figures his investment for the four-day market, scheduled officially from Thursday-Sunday (Wednesday is an “unofficial” opening day), August 23-26, at approximately $10,000. That’s $4 per square foot for his 2,400 square feet of exhibition space.

“Las Vegas would be five times that,” says Hunt.

Exhibitors making those kinds of comments at the biennial, 20-year-old Tupelo market are music to V.M. Cleveland’s ears. The TFM president is looking for every boost in his effort to hold the upstart, two-year-old Vegas extravaganza at bay.

“We know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Las Vegas has sucked up some of our exhibitors,” Cleveland states. Less than a week before the current market, 800 exhibitors had been booked, down from the former 1,000 in the Tupelo market’s two million square feet of space.

The specter of Las Vegas, with its inherent glitz and glamour, looms large in Tupelo, which offers virtually no entertainment venues, a fraction of the restaurants in Vegas and hotels that are, well, just hotels. Tupelo’s closest gambling venue is more than 100 miles away in Tunica County.

“Buyers say there are a lot of diversions (in Las Vegas), while this is more of a pure market,” relates David Rumbarger, president and CEO of Tupelo’s Community Development Foundation. (Buyers are the retail store operators and representatives that purchase exhibitors’ goods. Exhibitors expect to see a plethora of buyers, no matter which market they’re at.)

Whether the buying purists will enable the Tupelo market to remain in its current iteration or they shun Tupelo in favor of Nevada’s charms remains to be seen.

So far, it seems the market itself may be the only entity in Northeast Mississippi affected by the exodus to Las Vegas. Linda Johnson, executive director of the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), says collections of the city’s 2% hospitality tax were not much reduced during the January market.

“Hotels that were full during the week may have felt a little decline as it got toward the weekend,” Johnson reports. She says the city’s 1,700 hotel rooms are supplemented during market by hundreds of local residents who rent their homes to market attendees.

Johnson notes that, while the CVB rolls out the red carpet for furniture market, “We’re also always marketing for other conventions and meetings.”

TFM’s January undertaking was actually moved from its traditional late February date. Cleveland says the rescheduling was precipitated less by the Vegas market, held in the last days of January and early February, than by a request by some buyers to be able to purchase and have new stock on hand in anticipation of the spring income tax-refund season and late-February Presidents’ Day sales.

“It wasn’t well attended,” says Cleveland, adding that TFM has been returned to its original dates.

He’s also adds some incentives to motivate buyers to the market. Three Hummers were to be raffled off during the current market, two to buyers and one to a manufacturer sales representative. That is in addition to the nightly dinner, beverages and entertainment, free shuttle service and numerous other amenities.

At least part of TFM’s downturn, Cleveland says, is attributable to the slowed national economy. “ But even with the housing market down and the stock market in tough shape, our phones have been ringing off the wall.”
Whether that relates to buyers making exhibitors happy remains to be seen.

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