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What You Need to Know to Prepare for NeoCon 2021


“NeoCon is back.

Was it ever gone, my friend?

It was. Pandemic.”

—Chris Stulpin (A NeoCon-inspired haiku, shared by Doug Shapiro, OFS)

In 2021, NeoCon is back. On a recent Clubhouse session, ThinkLab explored sentiment from designers to help our audience prepare for this year’s show.

Here's what you need to know to prepare for NeoCon 2021:

On-site attendance is expected to be 50 percent of 2019’s, but new digital approaches will expand that reach.

Byron Morton and Lisa Simonian from theMART shared, “theMART is currently estimating about 40-50% of 2019 numbers in registrants. However, much like any other event, a large percentage of people are expected to sign up in the last few weeks.”

The 2019 event drew 52,000 in-person attendees, however even if in-person crowds are smaller, digital registrants will create a new audience seeking new digital experiences. “So far, end user registrations have increased 5%, bringing the total to 22% of the overall attendees while A&D registration remains consistent at about 40% of registrants to date.”

Like other recent large events, theMART is now partnering with CLEAR, and will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.

Certainly, safety is top priority and event organizers know it’s their responsibility to make people feel safe and comfortable. “We’re very careful. We don’t anticipate any new regulations in October, but we know that people need to feel comfortable and we going to ensure that people feel safe.” Byron Morton (Vice President of Leasing of The Merchandise Mart Properties) confirms “We’ve been running the building this entire time through COVID-19 and so we are very familiar with protocols and our capabilities.”

Aware that many share an excited but nervous energy around travel, Morton reassures us that, “We will be requiring vaccinations or proof of negative tests. We’ll do what it takes for this to be as healthy and as safe of an event as it can be under Chicago mandates.”

The A&D community remains excited about the show, but what they seek this year looks a bit different.

Research shows that the average designer has 26 times the specifying power of the average consumer, and that number can be up to 111 times. So, we invited a few key firms who plan to attend to take the Clubhouse stage to understand what THEY are looking for from NeoCon 2021:

  • Anne Gibson, National Practice Leader—Nelson Worldwide

  • Meena Krenek, Interior Design Director, LA—Perkins+Will

  • Kelly Bacon, Global Practice Lead—Workplace Advisory—AECOM

In a nutshell, designers are feeling the need to get back in person, meet their teams, and do their work in a tactile environment. However, they remain cautiously optimistic about the current limitations.

Krenek shared “We are craving for the energy of being together and to see our tribe this special event for our industry. Perkins+Will started in Chicago so typically this is also a time for us to connect with our colleagues across the firm. This year will be different. Of course, most of my Chicago counterparts are attending, but many of the others won’t be due to their comfort level of travelling.”

“NeoCon setup was my responsibility when I was with HNI,” Bacon recalled. “That was early in my career as well, and I’ve been attending the show ever since. This year, my personal plans and feelings remain the same. I’m especially excited for the continuing education and speaker series.”

Gibson fondly remembered that her first internship at theMART started on the first day of NeoCon: “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a big deal!’ And it still is,” she shared. “At Nelson Worldwide, we also use this event as a way of connecting with our national offices, and as I have only recently joined, I was excited to meet more of my colleagues in person.”

It’s tentative if this can happen now, but she remains hopeful. “Comfort levels are waning, but as we all know, by next month things might change.”

What Designers Are Looking For at NeoCon 2021

Here are five key questions designers at the NeoCon 2021 show will be exploring:

  1. How can I create flexible layouts for companies who are in an experimental time right now?

“A lot of clients are thinking about flexible furniture,” Krenek said. “They need it to change really easily and quickly without getting facilities operations involved.” Many clients will be coming to the show with this top of mind. They are looking to see how they can best create environments for the hybrid work model.

  1. How do I incorporate technology to create hybrid equity?

“We are thinking about how to ensure remote workers stay just as connected as in-person staff,” Gibson said. “Equity of presence is top of mind, and we want tools and furniture that will support this technology.”

Gone—well, mostly gone—are the days when we simply put a screen up at one end of the room for presentations and perhaps the odd occasion of a remote dial in. The workspaces of the future need to embody a digitally equitable mindset in which technology is built into the upfront plans of a space.

Knowing that the digital and physical worlds will continue to converge, Bacon said she feels positive about being able to find the integration tools she needs. “I’m seeing that a lot of manufacturers have really listened and started to work with technology vendors, and it’s just amazing to see these partnerships happening.” 

  1. How do I create new levels of comfort that invite people into a space?

“We’ve been talking for a while about this, and now we see the tremendous value of allowing people to work in a space that is most comfortable for them,” Gibson said. “The challenge is to maintain this level of comfort and belonging as some return back to offices. We want to help our clients remain focused on desired behaviors and outcomes instead of task-based activities.”

  1. How can I help my client visualize the ‘art of possible’?

“NeoCon has always been a way to show our clients and end users ‘the art of possible’ and a variety of solutions,” Bacon said. This is her main objective during the live event, leaving the logistics and specifics of the assignment for afterward. “As we move out of an ‘either/or’ mindset and into an era of ‘both/and,’ I’m excited to see the installations and possible solutions for a fluid technological and in-person experience in the workplace.” 

The focus remains on a purpose-driven workplace for the future, and NeoCon is a huge opportunity to help clients embrace this change and see how real products can be applied to their spaces.                                   

  1. How to implement indoor/outdoor workspaces?

As the topic of wellness increased in the face of the pandemic, the exploration of outdoor spaces is still something increasing in importance to many designers.

“We’ve been working with clients and our real estate partners in finding ways to create venues that will satisfy this need.” Says Krenek. This really reflects the sentiment that end users need to stay in control of their environments and curate them, something they have had for over a year now. “This involves us looking at textures, shading, and other elements that people have gotten used to being able to adjust to their personal needs.”

The question remains: How do we create these spaces? Is it a matter of having furniture that can withstand the elements, or is it creating some sort of environment where the indoor/outdoor experience is blended?

Recommendations to Prepare for NeoCon 2021

Here are some additional helpful recommendations for participants and attendees:

  1. Consider the physical space beyond the show. 

Fortunate enough to be based in Chicago, Gibson will be maximizing the space even after October 6 and encourages others to do the same. “The showrooms are still up for a few weeks after the show, so why not use them?” she said. “It’s often a safer and more productive time to walk around because you can really focus and discuss products in more detail.” 

Gibson encourages manufacturers to consider creating experiences for local designers or national design teams Wednesday when traffic is lower or even in the weeks following the show.

  1. Consider on-site AND virtual programming.

NeoCon 2021 embodies a hybrid style, offering extensive virtual programming that includes more than 30 CEUs and livestreaming of daily keynotes. “We’re also definitely making it a complete virtual experience,” said Kelly Thomas, VP of Marketing at Interior Design. Knowing there is an eager audience, Interior Design will be capturing live sessions in showrooms to be broadcast on DesignTV. “This content will be available for much longer than just the days of the live event, and we hope this will generate energy and curiosity even further beyond that,” Thomas added.

Lisa Simonian, VP of Marketing, NeoCon, at the Merchandise Mart Properties, promises that for those who are attending in person, there is a full agenda. The DIFFA party will be Saturday night, the HIP awards on Sunday, and there are daily keynotes and events on the stunning outdoor terrace overlooking the river. As usual, the seventh floor will showcase emerging designers and the 10th floor will be the
Metropolis Sustainability Lab where you can start making active changes in our industry.

  1. Adopt a beta-test mindset.

“I think everybody needs to be in this beta-test mindset right now.” Gibson says. “And we will be for a couple of years until we figure out what hybrid means for each organization.”

Demonstrating a humble, open mindset is key until we figure out what is really going to work in space and with future shows. This year is about inspiring designers and end users alike to test and iterate new ideas. For manufacturers, now is a chance to reconsider the possibilities of what could be.

In a lot of ways NeoCon will have the same nostalgic sentiments, and in a lot of other ways, it will be completely different. In every way, it will be transformative.

NeoCon is here.

How will you be attending?

See you there, my friend.


Explore the programming at NeoCon here.

Expand your visit with Interior Design’s livestreams, seminars, and DesignTv.


Anna Lu is the project manager at ThinkLab, where we combine SANDOW Media’s incredible reach to the architecture and design community through brands like Interior Design Media, Metropolis, Luxe, and Material Bank with proven market research techniques to uncover relevant trends and opportunities for the design industry. Join in to explore what’s next at


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