In 2001 three needlepoint designers in Texas came together to rescue a regional trade show that was on the verge of going out of business. They poured their energy into it and, over the next decade and a half, reimagined it as Destination Dallas, a premier show for needlepoint vendors and buyers all over the United States.
A Fading Regional Show Gets New Buyers
The Dallas Needlework Market had once been a thriving regional event for needlepoint shops in Texas and surrounding states. By 2001, though, the show had dwindled to just 29 vendors and 31 buyers and its owner was ready to move on. Local designers Debbie Woodard, Karen McVean, and Inge Wooley realized that not only was the show important to their own businesses, owning it would give them an opportunity to create something brand new: a trade show that was actually fun to attend, and that helped shop owners forge lasting friendships with one another.
“When Karen and I bought the show, instead of building it from the ground up, we like to say we built it from a hole in the ground,” says Debbie Woodard of Painted Pony Designs, a 30-year needlepoint design, licensing, and distribution business based in East Texas.
When Woodard vetted the 29 buyers, only 21 were actually needlepoint shops so the “hole” was deeper than they’d even anticipated. Wooley retired a few years after the purchase.
A New Vision Based on Fun
Vital to digging their way out was creating a warm, welcoming experience for attendees. “We knew we wanted to be something more than the regular hotel version of a trade show,” she says. “One of our major pieces of philosophy at the time was that we didn’t want a woman to come to our show and sit in her room by herself once the day of buying was over. So instead of it being a market weekend, we made it a party weekend also. For a long time, we had a tagline: Party with a Purpose.”
The weekend begins with a welcome party with either a DJ or live music, two free drink tickets, and free hors d’oeuvres. Sunday night, when many area restaurants are closed, there’s a themed banquet at the hotel. “Having a no speaker banquet was important,” says Woodard.
“The thing we were trying to do was make sure that people who come by themselves have things to do besides buy.”
The model worked. By 2003 they’d attracted 53 vendors and about 70 buyers and the rosters have grown each year since. In 2019, Destination Dallas welcomed 123 vendors. The vast majority were canvas vendors, with the rest being thread, bead, bag and accessory companies. New vendors this year included 15-year-old designer Madeleine Elizabeth, Bad Bitch Needlepoint, and Two Sisters. The buyer count in 2019 was 177 which was actually down (just by 7) for the first time, possibly because there’s now another needlepoint show, The Spring Needlepoint Show, in March in Orlando. Destination Dallas offers free stitch classes for shop owners as well as a few business classes.
For a long time, many needlepoint shop owners attended both the TNNA Winter Market and Destination Dallas, but in recent years most chose to just go to Destination Dallas. Woodard says bringing in national buyers has had a positive effect; shop owners who fly in and for the weekend tend spend more than those that drive in for the day.
Inga Wooley, Debbie Woodard, and Karen McVean.
Photo courtesy of Destination Dallas.
The Benefits of a Hotel Show
Destination Dallas is a hotel show, meaning that vendors exhibit their wares inside hotel rooms rather than in booths on a show floor at a convention center or hotel ballroom. Buyers at Destination Dallas do a mix of cash-and-carry and wholesale ordering. Hotel shows have pros and cons, but the Destination Dallas organizers feel it’s a format that works well for needlepoint because it creates an intimate, friendly environment that promotes relationship building; attendees are likely to run into one another in the lobby, hotel gift shop, and hallways.
A downside is the limited exhibit space inside of a hotel room which doesn’t allow for businesses like Painted Pony, which represents over a dozen artists, to display their entire line (Woodard used to rent six booths when she did convention center shows). But entering the hotel room feels like entering someone’s living room, and that friendliness is important to the show’s atmosphere.
Retail is Changing
The retail landscape has changed in the years since the three women bought the show. Woodard says when she opened her business 30 years ago there were five places to buy needlepoint canvases in Dallas. Now, there’s only two. “But those two shops are very strong. And they’re much bigger space-wise than the five before.”
“That’s the trend I’ve seen in needlepoint,” she says. “We have less shops, but we have stronger shops.”
With fewer shops, there’s less direct competition which also helps to ease new friendships into forming. The tension now seems directed towards online retailers who have yet to gain acceptance at the trade show. “The resentment I believe is they don’t have any overhead because they’re working out of their homes. They don’t have the employees. They don’t have all those things that a brick-and-mortar shop is having to pay,” Woodard explains.
Buyers enjoying the show.
Exhibitors show their goods in hotel suites.
A set of colored name tags delineate roles at the show. Internet-only shops wear a blue badge while brick-and-mortar shops wear a green one. The show guidebook explains that blue means “pause” while green means “go,” and implies that online shops would be kept out entirely if that were legally possibly. The guidebook states, “Why are there non-brick and mortar businesses at this show? Because we are not willing to violate Fair Trade Practices by Restricting Free Enterprise. This is upon legal advice, so we are following it. While we bar the retail customer from gaining admittance, we must open the show to needlework-related businesses that the government recognizes as legitimate. Unless you want to pay our legal bills, then let’s agree to move on from this subject.” Woodard acknowledges that the needlepoint sector has been slower to accept online retailers than other parts of the crafts industry.
Friendships are at the Heart
Still, among the brick-and-mortar shop owners who attend, she and Karen McVean have worked hard to build congeniality. “One of the things I’m most proud of is how many friendships and how much networking has taken place between our shop owners. I mean these are like little gangs of women now. They’re good friends. They talk constantly between markets. So I feel really good about that,” she says. “I’m not going to claim that we’ve, you know, knitted the whole industry together, but I’m very proud that we were able to help establish a lot of networking, a lot of connections. Dallas was at the forefront of that.”