TheMart: the court of retail

Interview with Byron Morton, VP of Showroom Leasing at theMART Chicago

In the run-up to the opening of NeoCon 2021, organized this year from 4 to 6 October, theMART in Chicago returns in its guise as one of the most important design hubs on the US scene. Inside its impressive Art Deco location, many showrooms have confirmed their presence in spite of the difficult historical moment. There are also many new entries that have chosen the Vornado property to open new spaces. Wagering on a big retail experience comeback.

Byron Morton, VP of Showroom Leasing at theMART Chicago
Byron Morton, VP of Showroom Leasing at theMART Chicago

Byron Morton, what were the strategies you have put in place to overcome this difficult period?
We have worked with our tenants to make sure their staff are safe and feel comfortable in the building. Since we could not be together in person for NeoCon 2020, we developed new ways to connect and provide much needed thought leadership opportunities to our community. We developed a rich series of virtual programming and created community-oriented content including a new blog to further engage with our tenants and attendees. 

What are the major difficulties you have had to face?
While we’ve faced many of the same difficulties related to COVID-19 as the rest of the world, our business has remained strong. Our showroom partners have remained strong and many, especially those in home furnishings, have thrived throughout the last year. We are confident in the future of theMART, our showrooms, and NeoCon.

theMART, Chicago

What kind of initiatives are you developing with the city of Chicago, and what are the new artistic commissions for 2021?
We have maintained our relationship with the city of Chicago to ensure that we can have a successful NeoCon in 2021. We are currently planning for an unrestricted show with necessary health guidelines and protocols in place. The current vaccine rollout makes us confident that we will be fully recovered for NeoCon 2021 in October.
Art on theMART – the largest permanent public art projection program in the world – transforms the 2 ½ + acre river-facing façade of the building into an illuminated canvas that features moving-image artwork nightly April-December each year. We are reopening Art on theMART with an all new Spring program on April 1, with a new projection called Astrographics, that emerged from a partnership with Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. It will be paired with works from the Art Institute of Chicago followed later in the spring with works from graduating seniors from Chicago Public Schools.
Designing a Better Chicago a collaborative initiative organized and supported by NeoCon® and theMART, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), and the Design Museum of Chicago – will present its second annual Design Impact Grant Program in 2021. The initiative provides project-specific grants to individuals and organizations using design or design principles to directly address pressing issues in Chicago communities. In 2020, DABC was thrilled to offer its Design Impact Grant to two exceptional organizations – Chicago Mobile Makers and Maplewood Housing for the Visually Impaired. It also recognized seven additional projects for their outstanding work, ideas, and efforts in the Chicago community.

NeoCon, theMART, Chicago
NeoCon, theMART, Chicago

NeoCon will be back on stage next October. Can you tell us what are the biggest news for the 2021 edition?
We’re back! NeoCon 2021 will be especially exciting because it will likely be the first time the commercial interiors industry has gathered in person since COVID-19 began. Attendees can expect to see new product launches from over 500 exhibitors and showrooms that will address the needs of the workplace, healthcare, hospitality, and public spaces in a post-pandemic world. We will continue to expand our digital platform with products, showrooms, and exhibit spaces at NeoCon as well as informative and timely conversations around “Designing A New” – our theme for the 2021 edition. We are also looking forward to a new refreshed iteration of Best of NeoCon 2021, the official awards program for NeoCon, honoring outstanding new products from NeoCon exhibiting companies.

Eleven new companies will open their showrooms in theMART, while other major brands have confirmed their presence at NeoCon. What kind of requests have you received from companies and your partners?
Our showroom partners’ needs have remained largely the same.  They need attractive space, a well-managed venue, and a high-quality audience to display their products for and tell their brand stories to.

theMART, Chicago

In your opinion, what are the most important changes that a retail space must face to regain its strength?
Retailers and showrooms need to be sensitive to customers’ needs and sensibilities in a post-COVID world. We believe that great merchandising is still key to success and that stores and showrooms need to do this in a way that makes their customers feel welcome and safe.

The virtual experience has become a key sector in keeping retail alive. Have you developed a new idea of “virtual showroom” in theMART to welcome customers?
We produced NeoConnect in 2020 and it was a great success. The lessons learned as well as the ability to reach a broader audience taught us that virtual programming is here to stay. NeoCon 2021 will feature virtual CEUs and live streamed keynote presentations (along with small onsite audiences), but the need to physically touch and feel product, to sit in a chair, to see the color of a fabric or a wallcovering, and to touch the feel of a surface or fabric cannot be replaced. NeoCon and theMART is the place where people can count on that experience!

How do you see the future of the retail? And work spaces?
We believe that retail and the workspace will return to a sense of normal. Especially for furniture and high ticket items, the product needs to be experienced in person. The workplace will return to its former importance in the lives of individuals and the cities they live in, supporting local businesses, restaurants, and hotels alike. The purpose of the workplace may change, from every day grind to a place where people connect, collaborate, and participate in the culture of their company.