Down, Not Out
By Bill Sendelback
PHOTOS: ©2020 GEORGE LONG PHOTOGRAPHY. WWW.GEORGELONG.COM.
Shaking hands was out. Touching elbows and air hugs were in, at the March 11–14, 2020, HPBExpo in New Orleans over obvious concerns about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Those concerns affected attendance and caused a few exhibitors to cancel, but even so, attendance was surprisingly good, and better than expected in view of the coronavirus threat. The mood at the show was optimistic and upbeat.
As attendees picked up their Expo badges, each was given a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Ironically, it was made in China.
Total registration was down 22% from the 2019 Expo in Dallas.
Total attendee registration down 16%.
Buying entities were down 19%.
Retail companies were down 17%.
Exhibiting companies were down 35% (mostly because of the many Chinese exhibitors (36) that were unable to make the journey due to the coronavirus travel ban).
Even with numbers down, attendance still compares roughly with the 2014 Expo in Salt Lake City. It appeared obvious that exhibitors and dealers alike brought fewer staff members to the Expo to reduce their potential exposure to the coronavirus.
*Numerical data withheld by HPBA; see percentages under Key Numbers.
A pleasant surprise was the number of educational passports purchased by dealers for the Expo, up 24% with very well-attended seminars and NFI classes.
“Obviously, attendance was down,” said Jack Goldman, the HPBA’s president and CEO. “Considering that so many other trade shows and events were cancelled, we feel fortunate. It was not a normal show, but taking into account the loss of the Chinese exhibitors, it was pretty close. The success of this show in the face of the coronavirus pandemic is a testament to our industry.”
“The show ended up exceeding our expectations,” said Kelly VanDermark, the HPBA’s vice president of Exhibitions and Events.
Both Goldman and VanDermark praised the staff of the Louisiana state-owned Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the office of Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards for working with the HPBA to make the show possible.
As the Expo became the last trade show in the convention center before the facility was shut down because of escalating coronavirus fears, the governor held off until March 16 further cancellations of large groups in order to allow the Expo to be completed.
Exhibitors that canceled because of coronavirus concerns for their employees included Travis Industries, Jøtul North America, and Pilgrim Home & Hearth. Travis, based just 20 miles from Kirkland, Washington, an early coronavirus U.S. hot spot, is offering a “virtual tour” of its Expo booth on its website. As concerns about the coronavirus grew, a few exhibitors did shut down their booths during the show and instructed their employees to get home quickly.
The consensus of exhibitors was that traffic was surprisingly strong the first day, slowed the next day, and was non-existent on the final day. However, most exhibitors said that all of their key customers were there, and with less traffic, they had time to spend with them.
“Being new to this market, we didn’t know what to expect,” said Richard Jelfs of Charnwood, a UK wood stove manufacturer exhibiting in the outdoor burn area, “but we were always busy.”
“We were very busy, especially the first day, and that was a surprise,” said Jerry Scott, senior vice president of Sales for RH Peterson. “Although we were located back in the far corner of the exhibit hall, we were busy,” said Holly Markham, owner of European Home. “We actually wrote orders.”
“We had a surprisingly good show,” according to Alexander Marcakis of Supreme.
“It was surprising that we had a very good first day,” said Ross Johnson of The Outdoor GreatRoom Company. “Traffic slowed the second day, but still was not bad.”
“My dealers are concerned that because of the coronavirus customers will not come into their stores and will not allow installers into their homes,” said Alison Coleman, vice president of Coleman and Associates, a manufacturers representative firm handling Canada and the Northeast U.S.
The Expo kicked off with the HPBA members’ annual meeting at which Dick Hoffman took the gavel from Joe Burns as the new HPBA chairman. The keynote speaker was Wayne Visbeen, an architect, interior designer, and retail space designer; he’s also owner of Visbeen Architects. He drew a full house of dealers, most taking notes, as he discussed “Optimizing Retail Space to Spark Growth in Your Sales,” highlighting improving dealers’ showroom layouts.
The convention center is huge, more than a mile long. If you entered the convention hall from the Riverwalk shopping center end, you walked all of that mile to get to the Expo. Fortunately, shuttle busses let attendees off just steps from the Expo entrance. The outdoor burn area, once more dominated by grills and barbecue products, was conveniently located just across the street from the Expo entrance.
New Orleans again proved a good location for the Expo. Reasonably priced hotels were close by, the many quality restaurants were convenient, and if Bourbon Street was your “bag,” the French Quarter was an easy walk. But the people of New Orleans helped to make this venue even more memorable. They were surprisingly friendly, outgoing, and helpful from cab drivers to waiters, to make New Orleans a welcoming location.
Family business was the topic of a podcast recorded at the Expo featuring Grant Falco, fourth generation owner of Falco’s, a dealer in Spokane, Washington, and Stephen Schroeter, co-CEO of Napoleon. The podcast was conducted by Tim Reed, retail sales leader of Fireside Home Solutions, and host of The Fire Time Podcasts.
Schroeter pointed out that, in a family business, “You have to be fully aligned and stand together as a family. Early on I felt cocky. It took 10 years to get a balance between the old and new generations in our company.”
“Family comes first,” said Falco. “We all want the same thing, so we have to be quick to apologize in a family disagreement.”
Noteworthy Hearth Products and Trends
While the popularity of linear styling continues to grow in fireplaces, the Expo revealed a trend away from the linear look. More manufacturers are sensing a demand for linear fireplaces with taller openings, and even a movement back to logs in those models. Typical of this trend is Kozy Heat’s Bellingham 52 gas fireplace featuring a 52-inch-wide opening, but with a 31-inch height.
Another trend prominent at the Expo is the movement toward more modern technology to control wood, gas, and electric hearth appliances. Electric fireplaces have had a wide variety of control over their flames, but now gas- and even wood-burning hearth appliances offer a much wider variety of control over all the functions of that appliance, including complete control from a smart phone.
Many electric fireplaces at the Expo featured a wider range of more realistic flames with more varied flame heights and flame patterns. Many new gas fireplaces featured multiple burners in each unit, for a very wide range of flame appearances and heat outputs.
While most manufacturers of wood- and pellet-burners highlighted their new 2020 NSPS Step 2 models, Napoleon Fireplaces introduced its new Smart Wood Stove with Napoleon’s completely automatic Eco-mode technology featuring a seven-day pilot-on-demand system. Napoleon also introduced its revolutionary Heat & Cooling Electric Fireplace. Both Napoleon products were Vesta Award winners.
Charnwood is a newcomer to the North American hearth products market; it introduced its Skye E700 micro processor-controlled wood stove. This product was a finalist in the Wood Products category of the Vesta Awards. Flame-tec, one of many control manufacturers, featured a rapidly-growing number of innovative control systems for hearth products and grills.
While most innovative new hearth products were featured in the Vesta Awards, some other interesting new hearth products were on display. RH Peterson featured its new Rumford Style Gas Log sets, with a burner and grate allowing the logs to be stacked vertically to “accommodate” taller fireplace openings.
Stoll Industries featured porcelain and glass panels to finish off fireplace openings. The company’s fireplace Build-Out Kits allow easy installation of a fireplace where none existed before. The surround options of those kits allow electric fireplaces to be trimmed out like a gas- or wood-burning fireplace.
European Home featured its jaw-dropping Gyrofocus White, a suspended wood-burning fireplace and core model from Focus, a very innovative French fireplace manufacturer.
Solo Stove exhibited its cylindrical, stainless-steel, double-wall, portable wood-burning fire pit that looks more like a shiny LP tank.
NSPS Review for Retailers
The HPBA has been surprised and concerned that many hearth product dealers still do not know about or understand the May 15, 2020, NSPS deadline, when Step 1 wood- and pellet-burners can no longer be sold. Rachel Feinstein, the HPBA’s senior manager of Government Affairs, hosted a NSPS review for dealers to explain the details of and what dealers should know about the fast-approaching deadline.
The HPBA had hoped that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would rethink the May 15 deadline, and allow an extended sell-through period for dealers to sell-off their Step 1 appliances. But as of March 11, the EPA crushed those hopes by issuing a statement that there will be no extended sell-through period. Step 1 appliances must be sold by May 15, 2020. After that date, Step 1 appliances cannot be sold or given away.
Even Step 1 appliances that may have met the NSPS 2020 standard emissions numbers cannot be sold, said Feinstein, unless those products are retested using the new 2020 test methods, and are recertified and relabeled. She pointed out that Step 1 models cannot simply be relabeled in the field.
Step 1 models used as showroom or warehouse heaters must be marked “Not for sale. Display only.” Feinstein emphasized that dealers who display or sell Step 1 appliances after the May 15 deadline can face fines by the EPA of as much as $6,500 a day per infraction. Either EPA or state authorities can conduct dealer inspections, including in dealer warehouses.
Step 1 models can be installed after the May 15 deadline if the product is paid in full and the transfer of ownership to the customer is made by May 15, 2020. Those sales must be final and non-refundable.
Also, the HPBA has worked with the EPA on a way for dealers to donate unsold Step 1 models and get a tax write-off and a 20% tax credit. The Appalachian Service Project (ASP), which offers free repairs for substandard housing in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, can accept donations of Step 1 appliances for use in those homes.
The donation and transfer of those appliances must be made by May 15, 2020. Interested dealers should contact Rachel Feinstein or John Crouch at the HPBA. The HPBA is looking for similar organizations or projects to which dealers can legally donate Step 1 appliances.
The HPBA offers a Retailer NSPS Toolkit on the HPBA website explaining everything hearth product dealers need to know to comply with the May 15, 2020, NSPS deadline.
Hearth & Barbecue Products Consumer Research
Trends in consumer use and preferences in Hearth and Grill products were presented to Expo attendees by Cameron Downs, the HPBA’s senior manager of Market Research. The association’s research is commissioned alternately every two years for each product category, so this presentation featured 2018 consumer research for hearth products and 2019 consumer research for grills.
“This is a member benefit,” said Downs, “designed to help you know consumer awareness and trends, and the market potential of each product category.” Using an outside research firm, online questionnaires were received from as many as 2,000 adults in the U.S. and Canada.
The 2018 Hearth Products Study revealed that as many as 90% of customers are “satisfied” with their hearth product. Asked about their intent to purchase a hearth product in the next two years, outdoor hearth products scored highest with 43% of respondents saying “yes.” Twenty percent plan to purchase a freestanding wood or gas stove, and 18% plan to purchase either a fireplace or a fireplace insert.
“Sales of outdoor hearth products are up because now there is growing interest in Outdoor Rooms,” said Downs. “Also, many of those products are available at cheaper price points, and many are easier to install.”
In the year 2000, research showed a “sharp turn” from heat to aesthetics as a primary factor in the purchase of hearth products, said Downs. Current research revealed that 33% of respondents use their hearth products primarily for “enjoyment and aesthetics,” while 26% said their hearth products were used primarily for secondary heat, 17% for short term heat, and 11% for long-term heat.
Downs also pointed out that consumers use both online resources and in-store visits to make buying decisions, with 83% of consumers using online resources to aid in their purchase decision.
The BBQ Products research reveals that 64% of U.S. households have a grill while 72% of Canadian households own a grill. Of that, 61% fuel their grill with LP, 41% use charcoal or wood, 10% use electricity, 9% use natural gas, 9% use dual fuels, and 3% use pellets.
The satisfaction rate of grill users is as high as 96%, with natural gas users showing the highest satisfaction. The research says 63% of consumers are planning a grill purchase in the next year, with 64% of that percentage planning the purchase of an LP grill, charcoal and wood were at 56%, electric and dual fuel were at 19%, and pellets and natural gas were both at 16%.
“Interest in pellet and dual-fuel grills is growing the fastest,” said Downs, “but charcoal, wood, and gas are still the major market drivers. Consumers are more focused on the functional benefits of a grill, but price is a bigger factor than in the past. The in-store sales process now is more important for the purchase. This is a mature industry, but there still is room to grow.”
Government Affairs Update
A Biomass Tax Credit is in effect offering consumers a $300 tax credit on EPA-certified wood- and pellet-burning hearth appliances with a minimum of 75% efficiency. This tax credit expires Jan. 1, 2021, but the HPBA is attempting to increase the amount of the tax credit and to extend the expiration date.
A proposed wood stove change-out program, the Wood Heaters Emissions Act, providing $75 million for five years, was introduced in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. “Unfortunately, these bills got ‘hung up’ in committees and died, but we are resubmitting them,” said Ryan Carroll, vice president of Government Affairs.
The HPBA is working to allow NFI certification to qualify for the occupational licensing being required of hearth product installers in many states and cities. The states of New Jersey, Missouri, and Oklahoma, plus some cities in Connecticut, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Vermont now accept NFI certification for hearth product installers in lieu of additional licensing.
Carroll pointed out the seriousness to the hearth product industry of the growing number of local bans on natural gas being piped to new homes in a questionable effort to reduce carbon emissions.
“Almost half of our states are pursuing the goals of the Paris Greenhouse Gas Agreement,” he said. “We believe natural gas is a better choice than electricity because, as just one example, electricity is only 41% efficient from its production source.” Some states have passed legislation prohibiting the ban of natural gas, he says. “Our industry must be part of the solution to this challenge. We must educate consumers, builders, and legislators on the benefits of natural gas.”
Eric Adair, the HPBA’s senior manager of Codes and Standards, pointed out that the ANSI Z21.97 standard for Outdoor Decorative Gas Appliances is being revised to require a barrier or specific labeling if the glass in the appliance exceeds 175°F. Adair also warned that some involved in the International Code Council are “out in force to push natural gas out.”
Get your cowboy boots shined, because on March 3 - 6, 2021, the Expo will be back in Nashville, Tennessee. See y’all there.