Advocating For Specialty Sleep Products and Companies
Friant, CA – Today’s Specialty Sleep Association (SSA) is an organization that has evolved over the past twenty-two years out of three industry associations: the former Waterbed Manufacturers, the former Waterbed Retailers and some former members of the Futon Association International (FAI). In 1995 with the precipitous decline of waterbed sales and the expansion of new, innovative specialty sleep categories including airbeds, latex rubber beds, memory foam beds, futons, natural and all-natural beds and some gel bed applications, the manufacturers and retailers pulled together to create what today is the Specialty Sleep Association (SSA). Historically the various independent SSA trade shows and/or showrooms within larger furniture markets such as High Point or the Las Vegas World Market Center have served as the nexus or energy center for the SSA.
When the SSA was launched in 1995, the association and trade show were managed by an association management group and held their first show in New Jersey. The following year the show went to Scottsdale, AZ at the same time that the Futon Association held their show a few miles away in Phoenix. The SSA Board members realized that many of the mom and pop, and some larger, chain specialty sleep shops were also futon shops, so it began to make sense to downsize their management overhead and co-locate the SSA Show in the same city and time as the Futon Association (FAI) Expo. Then in 1998 SSA President Carla Williams met with FAI Trade Show Director Tambra Jones (who is now the SSA Executive Director) to discuss the SSA joining in with the Futon Expo. A plan was presented to both the SSA and FAI Boards to have the FAI include the SSA exhibitors in their show, under Jones’ direction. An agreement was signed, and the “Futon and Specialty Sleep Expo” was born. The FAI had held its annual trade show in a different city each year, but agreed to the SSA’s request that the new combined show be held on alternating years between Las Vegas and other East Coast or Midwest venues. (Even back then the SSA believed Las Vegas was the best place for their trade show.) The first combined show was in 1999 in Las Vegas at Cashman Field. It was a resounding success.
The SSA as we know it today, really began with the opening year of the Las Vegas World Market Center. In 2005, the Futon Association changed it’s infrastructure, Jones became the Executive Director for the SSA, and the SSA and the FAI separated into their own independent sections in the first pavilions (tents) available on the World Market Center campus. SSA operated out of the tents until 2008 when Executive Director Jones and the SSA Board negotiated a permanent showroom deal in the new Building C on the 13th floor, and later moved up to the 15th floor to become a key part of a mattress and bedding “go-to” destination. (The Futon Association also leased a permanent showroom in 2008, but subsequently lost the showroom and folded the association). Since moving into the permanent show location, the SSA has typically served as a host for approximately 30 manufacturers or suppliers exhibiting for mattress, bedding and home-furnishings retailers attending the Las Vegas market. According to Jones, who scans buyer groups entering the SSA Showroom, there are between 400 and 500 different buying influences or retail organizations, and hundreds more manufacturers and suppliers who visit the SSA Showroom each market. Although only one member of each group is scanned, the groups vary from one person to as many as eight people from a single store or organization – so the “people count” is much higher than that.
The SSA showroom has served so many in the industry, however most people don’t realize the history or impact this showroom has had on the mattress and bedding industry. “Often people in our industry simply just do not fully appreciate the critical role the SSA Showroom has played for retailers, manufacturers and suppliers for a number of decades. We put supreme emphasis on what we present in our showroom. There is a lot of hard work involved in sustaining and managing this show, and we depend upon and are proud of the support from our members,” says Dale Read, President of the SSA.
Fond Memories and Real Changes
Over the years, the SSA has played a vital role in the personal and business lives of active participants in the association and its twice-a-year trade show. We talked with Denny Boyd former SSA President and owner of Boyd Sleep who shared some of his strongest and most meaningful memories. When asked if he recalled meeting somebody significant in his life, Boyd replied, “Yes, I met Carla Williams (now Carla Boyd) …the love of my life.” Denny and Carla (who was with Blue Magic back then) worked together on the SSA Board. They actually met with Reed Business Publishing to suggest a permanent spot in Las Vegas for a trade show, where the SSA could be part of the organization to create and manage the show. Boyd shared, “Believe it or not they did not believe that Vegas would be successful.” When asked to name some of the historical founders or significant people in those early days of specialty sleep, Boyd mentioned Linda Lauer, Natalie Davis, Tony Bova, Michael Gerharty, Tim and Tom Young, Barry Ross, and Roanne and Tom Barron. When asked how the SSA changed the mattress / bedding industry Boyd opined, “The SSA (trade show) has been an incubator for many small and innovative companies offering a platform to show their products and to help them access the worldwide bedding industry and the retail market. "When asked if there are any real lessons to be learned from the SSA history, Boyd summed it up, “Change is constant. We need to stay ahead of it. We all need to innovate and market our products well.”
Carla Williams Boyd, owner of Sleep 2000, and President of the SSA prior to Denny, shared that her favorite memory was when the SSA hosted an amazing celebratory party at Pure Night Club in Las Vegas featuring the Pussy Cat Dolls. There was a huge turn out of SSA members, and Furniture Today Executive Editor Dave Perry attended as well. Carla remembers, “It lasted until 4 AM - we all danced, drank and got a little out of hand”. Carla also remembered the gathering and parties hosted by Blue Magic during the SSA trade shows, and in particular the SSA Show at the Sands in Las Vegas where they set up a Café’ on the show floor complete with Creole food and called it “The Blues Café”. She mentioned an old SSA favorite, the show held in a resort in Scottsdale, AZ on the resort tennis court. Carla called to mind two early giants of the specialty sleep industry: Blake Bell of Springs and Ron Larson of Land & Sky.
Scott Smalling, who founded ComforPedic® and now is Founder of the charity Relief Bed International, told us “The SSA provided me with a unique and strategic perspective on the specialty market. Mostly it served as another important piece of the puzzle that helped me sell my brand ‘ComforPedic.’” He said further, “The Specialty Sleep Association is the only platform for new specialty brands and unique technologies. It allows these companies to have a voice in the sleep industry. The showroom is a ‘Must-See’. If larger brands do not visit the showroom at market they run the risk of missing out on unique technology for their products or getting an early look at a newcomer.”
The Real Impact of the SSA
Read points out that the present Mission and Vision of the SSA are respectively: “To serve sleep innovators, both manufacturing and retail, by promoting members, product transparency, and education,” and “to be a trusted authority for consumers on product transparency and education for specialty sleep products.” Read explains that the SSA retailer-focused showroom is a central element for fulfilling their goal to present retail stores with the features and benefits of specialty sleep products. “The SSA has been an advocate for innovation and technology in sleep products for the sleep retailer for decades now. The SSA showroom is what gives us our primary platform,” says Read. Tambra Jones explains that the SSA Showroom has been an incubator or “retail-focused launch pad” for some of the biggest brand-names in mattresses and bedding. “If you walk around the market you will see large showrooms with widely recognized brand-names who started with us either at one of our regional shows (including our independent Las Vegas shows), or who were with us out in the tents, or have been with us in our showroom now at the World Market Center,” says Jones.
Jones went back to 1999 looking at early combined SSA/ FAI regional and Las Vegas shows and tracked tenants right up to the 2017 Las Vegas markets. “It might surprise people to know that some well-recognized mattress and bedding companies such as TempurPedic, King Koil Northeast (Blue Bell), Carpenter, Boyd Specialty Sleep, Comfortaire (now part of Sleep Number), Eclipse/ Eastman House, South Bay, PureCare /Fabrictech, Protect-A-Bed, Dreamfit, Magniflex, Blue Sleep Products, Glideaway, XSensor Tech (and a long list of companies who are not as recognizable) started in show exhibits with the SSA. These are just some of the many exhibitors we have helped launch and grow from our showroom floor.”
“Serving as the host and chief brand incubator is only one of the roles the SSA plays”, explains SSA president Read. Read lists a number of conversations, events and happening that have occurred as a result of SSA involvement. “Just at the recent winter 2017 Las Vegas market, we helped a key SSA member find, interview and then hire a new national sales manager. We helped an emerging ergo-focused mattress brand to meet, and then network with four possible mattress components and technology suppliers. Another time we helped a prospective international member offering a niche technology to meet with numerous mattress and bedding manufacturers. We worked closely with an international inspection and certifying organization to publicly announce a new global standard. We assist our members by writing and distributing press releases for SSA members working closely with eight key trade journal editors. We strive to offer a powerful speaking program for retailers having featured a variety of different educational topics over the past five years.”
Read offers two important examples of the vital role the SSA showroom and the association have played. About five years ago, a highly recognized top executive of the then Number Two mattress brand in the US came into the showroom and met with an emerging gel bed technology provider. That meeting was a first meeting of the two companies. Read says they met for at least half an hour. He does not know what happened immediately after that, but within a year that mattress company launched a major new gel bed and gel swirl mattress line that helped grow the mattress brand to Number One. A second story: An entrepreneurial pillow designer had a ten-foot booth in the showroom, where she introduced a whole new design and comfort level in pillows. A fast-growing top-of-bed company met that person in the SSA showroom. After a series of conversations, the top-of-bed company bought the pillow brand and together they did a major successful launch of this new pillow design bringing real performance, quality and comfort to the marketplace.
“We really do not talk enough about our education mission and our desire to bring the newest and most cutting-edge ideas to retailers,” says Read. Jones agrees, “The SSA regularly sponsors workshops and panels at the Las Vegas Market to bring important information to retailers, manufacturers and really, the Sleep Industry at large. I remember the FTC representative filled the room when we brought him to Market for a presentation which put a spotlight on the importance of correct product labeling and encouraged truth in marketing.”
The SSA continues with its Mission – striving to showcase innovative products, bring pertinent information to retailers and manufacturers, and promote marketing transparency. The BEDFAX® Verified Program, created by the SSA, is being developed as a tool for product transparency for mattresses, using a contents label that can be openly verified. Says Jones, “This is a program for manufacturers who are truthful in their marketing claims, and want to verify them publicly for their retail stores. The idea – in the end – is to help sell more beds. Our goal is to help the manufacturers provide the retail sales associate with a clean tool to use in their sales presentations.” Barry Cik, President of Naturepedic Organic is beginning to use the Bedfax® Program in retail stores who carry his mattresses. Barry says, “We devote a tremendous amount of effort and resources to certify our products with the kinds of organizations who value organic and sustainable components. The Bedfax Program fits right in with our company’s marketing transparency mission and we are excited to begin using it to full capacity.“
Anyone interested in the BEDFAX® Program is encouraged to visit the Program website: www.bedfax.org.
Jones wraps up, “The SSA is a small but committed organization. We are proud of our 13,000 square-for showroom and continue to work to improve the experience people have there.“ Read agrees, “Starting with additional glass doors for better visibility, new clean dividers, dedicated WiFi in the room, coffee for our members, and a renewed effort to reach retailers including powerful retailer information programs and speakers, the SSA is committed to strengthening and supporting both third-party, independent retailers and serving as an advocate for emerging entrepreneurial manufacturers and suppliers.”