By Warren Shoulberg
Jeff Portman was talking about AmericasMart’s timing when it comes to expanding the Atlanta Market Center.
“When we expanded the gift market in the early 1990s, we had the savings and loan crisis. When we did the apparel mart expansion, it was when the Internet collapsed.
“Every time we’ve had an expansion, it’s been during some very difficult economic times.”
What Portman, president of the Mart, doesn’t have to say is that each of those expansions has worked out quite well despite the precipitous timing.
So, of course, as the world economy goes through perhaps an unprecedented period of turmoil, AmericasMart will throw open the doors of its brand new West Wing expansion this January, adding 1.5 million square feet of exhibition space and allowing the Mart to both expand on existing product classifications and bring in several new ones as well.
The January market, which will also bring the Gift and Home Market and the Rug Market together with the same timing, represents a dramatic—some would say gutsy—move for AmericasMart, which continues to position itself as a national platform for both the home and gift industries.
“Listen,” said Portman, leaning forward in his chair in the handsome conference room of the Mart offices atop the show complex, “You can’t base an entire business around whether we’re going into a recession or not. If you did, then you’d never build anything.”
What the Portman family—Jeff and his father John Portman, chairman and founder of the Atlanta Market Center—have built over the past 52 years is pretty impressive. From its initial days in the mid-1950s to today’s 7.5-million-square-foot complex, Atlanta has evolved into a major player on the home-show circuit and this latest expansion takes it one step further.
“We’ll have 13 new or newly located categories when we open in January,” said Jeff Portman. And with some of the new features in the building, which were created by a former Walt Disney executive, “It won’t be like any other trade show; you’ll feel like you’re on a Disney ride.”
With the expansion, Atlanta will be able to turn its attention to several key categories, some of which are expansions of existing segments, others representing virtually entirely new classifications.
Housewares and gourmet will be one of the latter, anchored by a dramatic demonstration kitchen Portman says is the equal of anything you’d see on the Food Network, including video broadcasting throughout the building.
While a modest start in the category, at least compared with existing shows, Portman said, “We think there’s a big future for us in housewares and gourmet.”
The Gardens, which was a breakthrough concept when Atlanta debuted it with an open floor plan and outdoor design elements, is being relocated to the new wing, complemented by expanded offerings in outdoor casual furniture.
The Gardens area is centered around a two-story fountain with fiber-optic coloring.
“If the old Gardens were an eight,” he says, “this new one is an 80.”
Another new area is home, including furniture, which will be located in existing space elsewhere in the Mart opened up by the expansion.
The new wing also includes significantly expanded temporary space, featuring the high ceilings and expansive open space that exhibitors want, coupled with state-of-the-art move-in and move-out capabilities.
“Nobody else can offer a plethora of product categories to give retailers everything they need under one roof and at one time in the finest facility in the world,” Portman said.
The one-stop shopping concept has been at the core of the AmericasMart strategy since that name was adopted in the mid-1990s. John Portman remembers when the shift happened.
“The major change for us came when I realized we were a marketing company and not a real estate company,” he told HFN in an exclusive interview at his panoramic offices on the Mart’s top floor. “We’re not just leasing a showroom.
“We had been a regional market before then, but we decided the future for us was to go national and international. And our growth has been driven by that ever since.”
Jeff Portman agrees: “If you’re a regional player, you’ll die.”
With Atlanta’s strengths as a transportation hub and many major hotels situated downtown, John Portman says AmericasMart “is the easiest market in the world. We’ve put it all together and created a department store for retailers.”
“We wanted to give a real take-away for our buyers,” said Jeff Portman. “We want to make sure they realize this market is the best value anywhere.”
As to what’s next, both father and son say anything’s possible. “In housewares and gourmet, it’s a beginning. We’ve been lucky to be right more often than not for the past 52 years.”
“When we were at 2 million square feet, I thought that was all we’d ever need,” says John Portman. “Is there potential to do more? Absolutely. I can’t tell you what, but it will be based around the retailer.”