Five years ago, the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), Ceramic Tile Distributors Association (CTDA) and Tile Council of North America (TCNA) came together to create Total Solutions Plus (TSP), an industry-wide educational and networking event targeted towards distributors, contractors and manufacturers. In 2013, the Tile Contractors’ Association of America (TCAA) joined the collaborative effort, and since then, the conference has flourished — reaching record numbers of attendance this year.

The goal of TSP is to bring professionals within the ceramic tile industry together to network and learn from each other every year. In addition to an array of educational events and networking opportunities, TSP also integrates each host association’s meetings and unique table top exhibits to showcase new products. The conference finds a different venue each year — from the West Coast all the way to the East Coast. The 2014 conference made its way to the southwest. It was was held at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa in San Antonio, TX, from October 25 to 28.

On the opening night, attendees were welcomed with a cocktail reception sponsored by Coverings, the annual international tile and stone exhibition, which is scheduled to take place from April 14 to 17, 2015 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL. The outdoor reception provided a relaxed platform for attendees to meet and mingle, following the day’s earlier activities, which included a competitive golf tournament on the resort’s top-rated golf course.

The following morning, Bart Bettiga, executive director of the NTCA, kicked off the first official day of the conference. “This is our industry event of the fall,” he said, noting that the event has reached an all-time high, with almost 600 people in attendance. “We focus on what the year has been and get ready for what our next year is going to be. We’re really working together at Total Solutions Plus. It’s a true leadership management conference.”

Alena Capra, the newly named Coverings 2015 Industry Ambassador — a new position created to establish a liaison between the show and the design community — followed Bettiga’s opening remarks to briefly explain what to expect at the next edition of Coverings and introduce the opening keynote speaker. Capra, who brings 12 years of experience as a residential interior designer to the role, is accredited through the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) as a Certified Kitchen Designer (CKD) and Certified Bath Designer (CBD).

The Opening Keynote address was given by best-selling author and Professional Speakers Hall of Fame member, Scott McKain. McKain, a professional speaker with over 30 years of experience who was recently named one of the 50 most influential marketing authors on Twitter and GenJuice by Social Media Marketing Magazine, entertained audiences with his interactive and enthusiastic presentation, “The Collapse of Distinction: How to Differentiate Yourself in a Crowded Marketplace,” which discussed how companies can differentiate themselves from each other in today’s competitive marketplace.

On the second day of the conference, Eric Astrachan, executive director of the TCNA, began the morning with his Keynote: “Standards, Science, Education, Advocacy — Today’s Critical Industry Issues.” His presentation gave updates about the ceramic tile industry — noting that sales and imports have decreased since 2013, along with consumption, while the average total cost per square foot has increased slightly. “Consumption should be up, but it’s down and nobody knows why,” said Astrachan. “Tile sales are also expected to decline slightly.”

Astrachan also detailed ANSI standard updates; changes to the 2015 TCNA Handbook, which include discussion about dry set mortar for “large and heavy tile” (LHT mortar) that was formerly known as medium bed mortar, new language about environmental classifications that describe levels of moisture and heat exposure, and new ACT program information; and new standards and procedures to expect in the upcoming future, including a Health Product Declaration that requires complete disclosure of every ingredient and residual material used in each product.

Learning more about the current industry

One of the most attended breakout sessions, “Best Practices of Successful Contractors,” entailed a panel of professionals, including the newly appointed NTCA president James Woelfel; former NTCA president Dan Welch; Brad Trostrud, vice president of Trostrud Mosaic & Tile, Inc.; and Jennifer Panning, president of Artisan Tile Inc.. Led by Bettiga, the four professionals involved discussed everything from customer relations and retention to contractors’ biggest challenges. “I try to be the problem solver of the job,” said Woelfel, when giving advice on how to successfully manage relationships with general contractors. “Know your standards. If you know that, it makes you look like a professional and that you know what you’re doing.”

When discussing how to differentiate yourself in today’s competitive industry, Trostrud said the performance and work you do is key. “If that goes away, it doesn’t matter what the relationship is, they’ll find someone else,” he said.

“I started going to lunch with general contractors, and it increased business [for me],” said Welch. “Spending time and taking time out of your day to go to lunch and things like that brings more communication and [in turn] more business.”

Another well-attended session, “Tile & Stone Maintenance Strategies,” led by Rod Sigman, CTC, CCTCS, Business Development Manager for Technical Installation & Care Systems, discussed various opportunities for growth and profit, in regard to sealing and grouting with tile and stone installations. “For every 100+ bags of grout sold, only 1 gallon of sealer is sold,” said Sigman. “Here is your opportunity for growth. A lot of customers don’t have all that information — that the extra dollar for the sealer is worth it.”

Sigman also discussed opportunities for profit, and how you can make additional money while also helping the customer. “At most, about 1 in 10 jobs that should be sealed actually gets sealed,” he said, explaining how to recommend sealer to a customer to help provide stain resistance, make the product cleanable, and stop it from getting dirty if it’s located outside. “If you don’t provide the right information, things will get messed up. Make sure you cover the basics, such as ‘sealer will stop this from getting dirty.’ Sell/recommend products designed to prolong their life and not damage your customer’s investment.”

Awards and presentations

During the Awards Luncheon sponsored by Turkishceramics on the first day of the conference, the TCAA, CTDA and NTCA presented awards to certain individuals that have made considerable contributions to the industry. The TCAA presented its prestigious Carl V. Cesery Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions made to the ceramic tile industry, to John Mason, who was instrumental in the creation of the Advanced Certifications for Tile Installers (ACT) program. Mason, a 45-year industry veteran who is newly retired, was a member of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers and served on many committees, including those for ANSI and the TCNA Handbook.

The CTDA presented its 2014 Hall of Fame Award, which recognizes outstanding CTDA and industry leaders, to Rick Baldini, partner at Sponga USA. The NTCA also presented its 2015 Ring of Honor Award, which is given to individuals who have impacted the industry through active participation, devotion and support of the NTCA programs and initiatives, to Richard P. Goldberg, AIA, CSI, NCARB, president of Professional Consultants International.

“I’m honored to be recognized by the NTCA for my contributions to the organization and humbled to be in the company of all the past distinguished Ring of Honor recipients,” said Goldberg, who has devoted over 33 years to the architectural and construction industry as a technical and forensic architect, and serves as a member of the TCNA Handbook and the NTCA Technical committees. “From an architect’s perspective, the NTCA’s dedication to improving the built environment is unmatched in the building construction industry.”

On the first night of the conference, there was a special table top exhibit and reception, where 66 exhibitors showcased a variety of new products and collections.

On the second morning following Astrachan’s Keynote speech, Donato Grosser, longtime industry professional who was vital to the creation of Coverings, was named as the 2014 TCNA Tile Person of the Year. This award is presented annually to an individual who has made transformative changes to the North American tile industry. “Most times, it’s a manufacturer [receiving this award], but that’s not the case this year,” said Astrachan. “[It’s going to] a quiet, self-effacement, humble person that’s been working in the industry for more than 40 years.”

Grosser, who is involved with many organizations and has been the U.S. consultant for Confindustria Ceramica for the last 30 years, is the founder and president of D. Grosser and Associates, Ltd. in New York. “I’m so happy to hear about such a distinguished recognition for my friend, Donato,” said Luciano Galassini, deputy managing director of Confindustria Ceramica. “My sincere congratulations to him; it is well deserved. Donato has been a consultant to the Italian tile industry for many years in the U.S., but his words and actions to promote tile consumption have been beneficial to all the players in the American marketplace. I highly appreciate the fact the North American tile industry today recognizes this work and dedication by someone who has done it behind the scenes in a fair manner.”

The final lunch and Keynote, “Laugh at Fear,” which was hosted by Ceramics of Italy, was given by comedian Frank Miles, who originally entertained audiences in Las Vegas for more than a decade as a juggler and magician, but found a different path leading powerful presentations after his near-death experience hang gliding. Miles entertained the crowd with various tactics such as magic, juggling, unicycling, acrobatics, music — and even fire eating — to illustrate how to overcome fear, handle stress and achieve desired goals. “Every fear has a handle,” he said. “You have to take risks if you want to win.”

Later that evening, TSP 2014 wrapped up with an outdoor cocktail reception — complete with an open bar and hors d’oeuvres sponsored by TILE Magazine and Louisville Tile — and a Western-themed dinner and dance, where attendees had the chance to throw on a cowboy hat, take part in some line dancing and indulge in classic BBQ favorites.