Mason's Musings: Some Post–Print 13 Reflections On The Past, Present and Future of Trade Shows

January 20, 2014

By: Dennis Mason

Back in the day, our industry trade shows were mechanical—a cacophony of presses running at top speed, buckle folders, and massive cutters. In the 1980s, electronics crept into the shows. Horizontal cameras were replaced by color scanners, layout tables by page makeup software, and hard copy by phototypesetting, but the press and bindery noise continued. At IPEX 1993, silence came with Indigo and Xeikon machines and the onset of the digital press era.


The quadrennial drupa in Dusseldorf benchmarks printing and is followed one year later by the US-focused PRINT show. PRINT 13, held in Chicago in mid-September, showed just how far the industry has come. Heidelberg—once dominating every printing show—was nowhere to be seen. Komori and a few others showed and ran large presses; manroland and KBA had small courtesy booths rather than live equipment demonstrations. Traditional press manufacturers were replaced by digital offerings from Xerox, Canon, Ricoh, HP, and others. The largest PRINT 13 booths featured digital printing and finishing solutions. One might conclude that the changing nature of print shows is a natural byproduct of slumping conventional printing equipment sales. But other factors are clearly at work.


At one time, legions of print personnel attended shows. When new equipment was in a printer’s future, they would send several people—even entire departments--to evaluate alternatives. Today, much of the comparing takes place online or in vendor showrooms. The result: smaller crowds at shows. Often, only a print shop owner or top manager will attend to conduct final purchase negotiations.


As fewer attend shows, vendors—who evaluate shows by the number of attendees and leads harvested—tend to purchase smaller booths or even forgo exhibiting. Predictably, smaller shows attract fewer attendees—a virtual death spiral for the show environment. Refined databases and social media make customer contact and lead generation a vastly different process.


When large vendors take smaller booths, those who formerly took the smallest booths can cut back only by opting out of shows entirely. Dozens of smaller manufacturers exhibiting 20 years ago no longer invest in booth space at shows. Some partner with other vendors in a single booth, but most simply aren’t there. To a certain degree, this reflects industry consolidation, but for many vendors trade shows have simply become too expensive. While booth space is relatively inexpensive, related travel and hotel costs are often several times that of booth space. Today, many smaller vendors prowl the show aisles, networking with customers and hopefully maintaining an industry presence without a booth.


The elaborate dealer networks suppling printers in the 1980s have faded away. Manufacturers now sell to printers directly or through wholly owned distribution organizations, thus considerably reducing the interaction and networking that formerly occurred at print shows.


The success of a shopping mall starts with large stores like Macy’s or Sears. Often termed anchors, these stores attract crowds. Smaller specialty stores then benefit from these crowds, particularly as people move from one anchor to another. Anchors are at opposite ends of the mall for this reason. If an anchor closes, the mall suffers. If it cannot be replaced, the mall often fails.

This concept applies to print shows as well. Historically, crowds came to see the big equipment. Complexity and noise, while a deterrent to conversation, validated the show experience, particularly for those new to the industry. But digital presses are not noisy. Their complexity occurs primarily on printed circuit boards and in software, thus softening the experience. Today, key vendors like Xerox and HP have grand booths but arguably not the same sensory overload as their offset forebears. As show anchors have shifted, so too have the fortunes of the smaller vendors that shadowed them. Many symbiotic relationships have been disrupted.


Some industries are already experimenting with virtual trade shows. Attending such an event involves using one’s computer interactively to move from vendor to vendor. Dialog with vendors is made possible through a microphone setup.  Literature can be downloaded or requested via email. The show experience under such conditions leaves much to be desired, although the reduced cost is attractive to vendors.


Probably, but they will surely be different. Vendors of presses and other large, expensive equipment are already inclined to sell in their own showrooms rather than at shows, motivated primarily by setup costs and the potential vulnerability of a hastily installed device. The reduced use of consumables such as pressroom chemistry and plates, as well as the proprietary nature of inkjet inks and toners, significantly reduces trade show commerce. The Internet and social media reduce the need for networking, while craft skills are of less importance to much of the printing process.

Perhaps smaller regional shows will find renewed popularity. The Graph Expo series may become a biennial rather than annual affair. Shows in big cities may move to smaller, less-expensive venues. But somehow, shows will probably endure. Our industry is too diverse and too complex to think otherwise.


PRINT 13 was a five-day show with three good days, one fair day, and the predictable last-day doldrums. Most vendors were neither disappointed nor ecstatic. Plans for next year’s event are already underway, but print trade shows clearly must continue to evolve. The inevitable industry changes are already manifest in the number and composition of print magazines serving the industry, in the type of equipment used, even in the number of printers comprising the industry.

Change is not bad—it is just different. Change disrupts the comfortable way we have become accustomed to working, but occurs nonetheless. The most predictable aspect of the future is that it will be different. To youth, the differences may be almost imperceptible. Those of us who have been around a while must adapt.

DENNIS MASON is the principal of Mason Consulting and an associate editor for GreensheetBiz.

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