Leana Salamah of The International Housewares Association (IHA): “Rent has increased and that hasn’t been doing anyone any favors”

Rent has increased and that hasn’t been doing anyone any favors. What I know is that we’re probably not doing a good job as a society at creating and providing affordable housing. Over the past two years competing forces like COVID and home functionality (to keep up with the changed COVID presented) have been working […]

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Rent has increased and that hasn’t been doing anyone any favors. What I know is that we’re probably not doing a good job as a society at creating and providing affordable housing. Over the past two years competing forces like COVID and home functionality (to keep up with the changed COVID presented) have been working against the renter or homeowner. People who do have the money to spend went out and purchased bigger homes, which, in my opinion, assisted in driving prices up.

As part of our series about “Homes Of The Future”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leana Salamah.

Leana Salamah, IHA’s vice president of marketing, has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, including all aspects of fully integrated communications for trade shows, association and events. As a keen strategist and spokesperson, she is also well versed in all types of speaking opportunities from presentations to print to television. Before joining IHA in 2018 she served as vice president & account strategist at event marketing agency MDG (Marketing Design Group) and as senior director, marketing, communications & programming for the National Restaurant Association.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I started my career right out of college at a marketing agency as a PR associate. From there, after receiving my master’s degree in integrated marketing communications, I moved into media in an account executive role. I spent a lot of time at Chicago agencies working on B2B clients including food ingredients, telecom, and computer monitors/parts.

A few years after starting a family in 2008, I made the decision to go client side and focus on one brand. In 2010 an opportunity came up through my network to become head of marketing for the National Restaurant Association for their annual restaurant show in Chicago. That’s really where I found my passion for event marketing and I was able to be part of the product development in itself, which I love.

Coming out of the restaurant focus I then moved back into the agency side (more event focused) and was able to assist in the opening of a Chicago MDG agency office. I implemented my past experiences and skills and was able to grow that office from 1 to 12 people and built a client portfolio there. Even then, I missed being able to dig in deep on one particular industry/event. During that time I did a lot of things in the event speaking circuit. I was speaking at a conference in D.C. for event executives and Derek Miller from IHA happened to be there and introduced himself. At the time he was VP of Marketing for Housewares and I was looking at him as a potential client. Soon thereafter I found out he was up for the role of President and he was looking at me for the Vice President role as his replacement. After numerous conversations it seemed that this role was a great fit for me. Once he accepted the President position, he then brought me in for the VP role.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

While most shows give attendees a survey to get insights on their event experience, no one was asking why people didn’t show up to any particular event. We did a research study to try and understand why certain people weren’t coming to the restaurant show. We found that because the show was horizontal in nature it was too broad. A lot of people were not coming to the show because they felt it wasn’t specific enough to their part of the business. We realized that in order to get those individuals to come we needed to get into segment marketing, featuring champions in each of those segments to speak on their outcomes and insights from the show. Ultimately that turned into the “This Is My Show” campaign which is a series featuring different segments sharing what they get out of the show for their specific business having other viewers being able to learn from one another. The campaign was wildly successful and attributed to much of the growth.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

The “This Is My Show” campaign was definitely the tipping point for me. Everything, at that point, had come together for me. In all of the agencies I had previously worked for, I played in all different areas but was never able to take a project end-to-end for any given client or initiative. That moment was the big “AHA” for me when it all came together. That’s what I attribute to being my single largest success in my career and the moment I realized I knew what I was doing.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are actually a couple of different people who have helped me, but two, in particular, stick out the most.

The first one is Dawn Evans. She is someone I met at the second agency I ever worked for back in 2000. I developed this immediate connection with her. She was a graphic designer then. It became obvious early into our relationship that we were very similar. I spoke Dawn and she spoke Leana. She would take my strategy and make the creatives work for it. We’ve worked together in five different capacities, where I would go somewhere new and try my hardest to bring her along with me. We worked at two different agencies together and I even brought her over to the restaurant. As of today, she will start in October as my creative director for IHA. She fills all the gaps in for me. I can be in my head with ideas and she’s so good at bringing them down into actual strategies and making them into a plan on how we’re going to get it done. She’s been the yin to my yang for most of my career.

The other person I would cite is a woman named Mary Pat Huffman. As the Executive VP of Conventions for the National Restaurant Association, she is the person who taught me what leadership is all about. She taught me about servant leadership (as she would call it) and not looking at yourself as lording over people but looking at yourself as someone whose responsibility is to bring their team where you’re going by encouraging them to aim for something and help them to reach it, but not necessarily worrying about exactly how they’re accomplishing it. She also taught me how to bring my personality and casual nature into the workplace but to always act in service of the business and remember for better or worse we have to do what’s best for the business, even if it means making tough calls. She said something that always stuck with me about being a leader and that is, “If somebody resigns and moves into a lateral position somewhere else, I have failed them.” My goal is to consistently be preparing people for what’s next whether they stay with me in my organization or move on.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking?

I would have to say “The Art of Perception” by Amy Herman. Amy spoke at IHA’s CHESS event in 2019 and I immediately devoured her book. She talks about “visual intelligence” and about the notion that context has everything to do with perceptions but that we as human beings can become adept at using different angles, lenses, and contexts to teach ourselves to see things in different ways; this theory really spoke to me as a marketer. My whole job is really about empathy and about connecting with people by seeing through their perspectives, which are widely varied and frequently very different from mine. She talks about asking the right questions and, to me, that comes down to staying curious about the world at large. The technique of using art to demonstrate this is brilliant. It encourages discovery in a unique and engaging way and, I think, makes the concept itself far more accessible because most of us know we aren’t experts about art; therefore it breaks down preconceived notions of what we think we do and do not know.

Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

So the story that comes to mind is a fable; I found a version of it online that reads like this:

Asha was getting frustrated and tired of life, so she asked her father what to do. Her father told her to bring an egg, two tea leaves, and a potato. He then brought out three vessels, filled them with water, and placed them on the stove. Once the water was boiling, he told Asha to place the items into each pot and keep an eye on them. After 10 minutes, he asked Asha to peel the egg, peel the potato, and strain the leaves. Asha was left confused. Her father explained, “Each item was placed into the same circumstance, boiling water. See how each responded differently?” He continued, “The egg was soft, but is now hard. The potato was hard but is now soft. And the tea leaves, they changed the water itself.” The father then asked, “When adversity calls, we respond in the same manner as they have. Now, are you an egg, a potato, or tea leaves?”

The moral is about how we face adversity and how we can become less resilient, we can become more resilient or we can use the circumstances we are faced with to change the world around us.

Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote.” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote has been “Just because it’s not the way I would do it doesn’t make it wrong.” That is something I remind myself of constantly even with my kids and how they’re growing up. My daughter is wildly different from who I was at 13 and I have to remind myself it’s not wrong, it’s just different.

Homebuilding in the US has grown tremendously. We’d love to hear about some of the new trends and techniques that are being used to build the homes of the future.

Homebuilding has been taking off, but it is at a complete standstill right now. At IHA we talk about lifestyle: building a lifestyle and how you outfit or furnish your home on the interior to achieve this lifestyle.

Now, the notion of lifestyle is starting to work its way into the initial construction of homes. Some things that we’re seeing are sustainability and eco-friendliness. Homes are being built with these things in mind, such as solar panels being added to yards or roofs. Zero-waste designs are more apparent, where every material is being used, the materials themselves are sustainable and they either can be or already have been repurposed.

There’s also an uprising notion that health plays a huge role in the home, especially after the past couple of years. We are seeing that healthy options are now being built in from the beginning; air filtration systems as well as water filtration within the piping.

Another piece is the shift around the household and family makeup. The nuclear family is still a thing for single-family homes, but there are so many different types of homes that builders are looking into. Homes are being built with the notion that parents will eventually come to live with you, communal dwellings with a similar concept to dorms (separate bedrooms but certain shared amenities like a kitchen).

From tiny homes to multi-family homes, builders are absolutely considering those trends when building responsibly.

Can you share with us a few of the methods that are being used to make homes more sustainable and more water and energy-efficient?

Newer or updated homes are adding in things (like automatic lights that shut themselves off after not sensing motion in a certain amount of time), and updated filtration systems for water and air. Solar panels are more popular than ever these days, as well as recycled materials being implemented. Yes, everything can be retrofitted- but how cool is it that builders are considering these when building from the ground up? There are so many new sustainable and efficient additions homeowners can implement into their current homes or future builds, and I do not see that slowing down anytime soon.

There is a lot of talk about Smart Homes. Can you tell our readers a bit about what that is, what that looks like, and how that might help people?

When we think about smart homes, the most important thing to remember is smart for smart’s sake isn’t necessary. It might be cool to say something has smart functions but at the end of the day, some of the tasks smart items are meant to do can easily be done by me without wasting my time or energy. It’s those smart things that can actually solve a problem that really move the needle. When I think about smart objects, I think of things that allow me to “set it and forget it” like auto-censored lighting or the old-time classic, the crockpot. The multi-cookers that are out now, take functionality to an entirely new level where there are different cooking techniques that they accomplish for you, even without you having that skillset. The other smart home products I love are the ones that enhance our own ability to be good cooks. I’m not a good griller but one thing that terrifies me is opening the grill to take the temperature of the food. I was so excited when they came out with smart meat thermometers that I didn’t have to stand over the grill to read. I simply put the thermometer in the meat, walk away, and read it on my phone through an app. Smart cooking pans that tell the exact internal temperature are great too. Those are the types of smart home items that are innovative and enticing to me.

Aside from Smart Homes, can you talk about other interesting tech innovations that are being incorporated into homes today?

There is such a huge market and space for new tech innovations in the home. Aside from the ones I have mentioned previously, I would say additional tech innovations that are being incorporated into homes include sustainable and energy-saving appliances for kitchens such as refrigerators and ovens, as well as smart furniture from bidets to entertainment centers.

Can you talk about innovations that are being made to make homes more pet-friendly?

I love how our industry has pushed beyond basic pet products like dishes and leashes. They really dug in to understand what kinds of challenges adopting and living with a pet present, and found solutions to those situations. The Dexas Mudbuster is a favorite of mine. It’s a handheld cup-shaped device with silicone bristles on the inside that can be used to quickly, easily, and comfortably clear any mud, ice, salt, and snow from outdoor pets’ paws. You also now see pet crates that are comfortable rather than these metal cages, and litter boxes that open from the top to increase cat privacy and decrease litter spray.

Beyond pet-specific products, home environment products like air purifiers have advanced with regard to their ability to filter and eliminate allergens in the air, making pet ownership more accessible to sensitive people and allowing them to have company over without much worry about their guests’ comfort.

How about actual construction materials? Are there new trends in certain materials to address changes in the climate, fires, floods, and hurricanes?

At the moment, steel and lumber are through the roof, if you can even get it. This situation may create greater innovation in the materials we use, but I’m not entirely sure what those will be yet.

There have been small material changes based on convenience and care, such as composite wood for a deck, but that material wouldn’t be used to build an entire home.

Another interesting material change I have seen in a lot of housewares products (not so much in building materials) is the addition of antimicrobial properties. I believe this is going to be a huge feature for materials moving forward, whether built into the material itself or as an overlay onto the materials being used.

For someone looking to invest in the real estate industry, are there exciting growth opportunities that you think people should look at more carefully?

I think that some of these more lifestyle-oriented homes are really interesting. They speak to a certain type of consumer who is conscious of a particular way of life and is looking for a home that embraces that lifestyle. Consumers are more willing to pay a premium for homes that are built to their exact specifications or lifestyle.

Overall, the real estate market is inflated by all the people trying to move into larger spaces over the past two years due to more people working and schooling from home. As part of the IHA Market Watch program, we talk a lot about the fluid home, which is the home that can be one thing in a given moment and another in the next moment. Not everyone has the space they want to separate functions. Take a home office for example. Homeowners are transforming smaller spaces, like closets, into these separate work-focused spaces. Or they are opting for products such as desks that can fold up into the wall. No one wants to relax in a room they just worked in.

I also think the growth of customized and personalized options for future generations will be extremely appealing. In today’s world, there is this notion that you can be anything one day and something else the next. Today you may want a pink toaster but tomorrow you may change your mind and want a blue toaster. That customizability and fluidity will be huge in home buying, home decorating, and housewares. If made appropriately, cost-effectively, and simple, I could see the potential for not only the rise of renting homes and apartments but the rise of renting furnishings and houseware products that fill the home as well.

Let’s talk a bit about housing availability and affordable housing. Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

Rent has increased and that hasn’t been doing anyone any favors. What I know is that we’re probably not doing a good job as a society at creating and providing affordable housing. Over the past two years competing forces like COVID and home functionality (to keep up with the changed COVID presented) have been working against the renter or homeowner. People who do have the money to spend went out and purchased bigger homes, which, in my opinion, assisted in driving prices up.

At the same time, interest rates are low prompting more renters to try and enter the housing market. From what I have read on the housing market, there was a massive urban exodus during the pandemic. People pay rent for a very small space because it’s close to bars, food, and work, but with the pandemic, they have been in that space 24/7. Their needs change and they want the bigger space that the suburbs can provide.

And then there is the supply chain crisis, which has become an issue in itself, struggling to get products from the ports. The container space rates have increased, tariffs have increased, and it creates the perfect storm of huge demand on the housing market and a hugely depressed capability to create new housing. Even rehabbing older buildings has become more of a struggle due to the lack of supplies. We don’t have the materials or what we need, so the pressure is coming from both ends.

Is there anything that home builders can do to further help address these problems?

There’s not much the builders can do about the supply issues, I have to think if they could find a solution they would. The prices will continue to skyrocket until it’s out of consumer’s reach. I believe it will then come back down and normalize. The hope is that once that happens and the supply chain normalizes, prices and availability will go back to normal.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There’s a cartoon out there right now that’s about equality, equity, and barriers. It’s three people standing behind a fence. One person is tall enough to see above it, the middle one is just below the fence and the last person can’t see at all and is way below the fence. The second image shows all of them receiving one box and it reads, “Equity,” meaning everyone equally received one box. The tall person can see better, the middle person can now see, but the last person still can’t see. The next image reads, “Equality,” and shows a picture where the distribution of the boxes is even so that all three can see over the fence. The last image has the fence removed completely, in reference to removing the barrier, that once stood in their way. It spoke to me and it made me start to wonder how we can remove those fences (or barriers) all around.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can connect with me via Linkedin at Leana Salamah.

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