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What a Peach

Atlanta ripens into the world’s largest footwear show.

The Battery’s lineup of food and drink is a short walk from the show floor.

The Atlanta Shoe Market’s numbers don’t lie. The upcoming edition (Aug. 12-14) will see 900 exhibitors (about 1,700 brands), covering 1 million-plus square feet of the Cobb Galleria Centre and Renaissance Waverly Hotel, making it the largest footwear trade show in the world, according to Executive Director Laura Conwell-O’Brien. In fact, this upcoming show sold out in record time, and now has a waiting list of 60 companies.

“I was able to accommodate about 20 additional exhibitors in the lower-level Shoe Court entrance, where Camuto Group, Jeffrey Campbell, and Ugg, among several others, set up shop,” Conwell-O’Brien says. “And we’ve already signed on for additional space for the February ’24 show that can accommodate up to 150 more 10’x10’ booths.”

Conwell-O’Brien has little doubt the space will sell out quick. But ever the pragmatic show organizer, the plan is to make sure there is no empty space. “If we sell out the space for 90 booths in the first couple of weeks, I can extend into the adjacent ballroom for another 60 booths,” she explains, noting it’ll be in the Garden Court between the Cobb Galleria Centre and Renaissance Waverly Hotel. “Adding 150 booths could be enough, but I’d rather have a sold-out show than have any empty space.”

Conwell-O’Brien’s approach to managing the show always has the bigger picture in mind. From day one, which now dates back 40 years, she has approached each edition with the mission to create a show that’s “easy to shop.” That starts with being under one roof—a feat she’s managed to achieve by regularly rejiggering floor plans and finding every nook and cranny to accommodate more exhibitors. It also involves consistency. Attendees know what to expect in Atlanta. “We don’t give them a lot of peripheral distractions, like a lot of seminars,” she says. “Sometimes that can get convoluted. People come here to work.”

That said, there will be the traditional Cocktail Party & Casino Night at the Cobb Energy Centre on the first night, and NSRA will hold its semi-annual retail education seminar on the morning of day two in a ballroom of the Renaissance Waverly Hotel. Those aspects are part of the show’s consistency factor, Conwell-O’Brien notes. “People know what to expect here. A show that covers every facet of the industry, from men’s, women’s, and kids’ to athletic, comfort, and high fashion.” She adds, “There is no other true shoe show. We have more vendors than anyone else, no question. We’ve become the national show, whether people want to call it that or not. And while we’ve always tried to enhance the show.”

For Conwell-O’Brien it’s a labor of love. While there is great pride in building Atlanta into the industry leader, that’s never been the driving factor. “I don’t think about it in regard to building an empire,” she says. “I love what I do. To me, it’s just giving back to an industry that I totally love.”

Part of that entails respecting the dates of other shows, as well as trying to best please the needs of the entire industry, as opposed to select segments. For example, not everyone (ever) agrees on the timing. Comfort lifestyle brands would prefer the Atlanta show to be earlier, whereas fashion brands like the customary second week of February and August. “I care about not overlapping FFANY dates, because I believe my fashion exhibitors need to be in New York then,” Conwell-O’Brien says, noting that the Atlanta dates are locked for next year and set through 2028. “I don’t think those brands would be ready in mid-January or mid-July. So we try and do what’s best for the industry, even though we’ll never make everyone perfectly happy.”

In the meantime, Conwell-O’Brien presses ahead. When she took the Atlanta show reins four decades ago, then housed in the Atlanta Apparel Market downtown, it topped out at 250 exhibitors and 100,000 square feet. It wasn’t until the show moved to its suburban digs in 1996 that it began to expand. Then it really hit a growth spurt once the surrounding area became a destination. “When we first moved here, there was nothing around our location, not even decent restaurants,” she says. “We had to create excitement with cocktail parties and whatever, but since Truist Park and The Battery have opened, the whole area has become a great destination. It’s another reason why we’re getting more attendees from across the country and internationally. They used to go elsewhere, and now they’re coming to Atlanta.”

On that note, Conwell-O’Brien has no plans to retire anytime soon. The Atlanta show is her baby. Plus, she’s in striking distance of a 50th anniversary. Of course, it’s not a “job,” if you truly love it. “I never expected the show to grow into what it has become,” she says. “I just wanted to do the best I could and always make it a good show. I feel very blessed.”

The March 2024 Issue

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