Never Go to a Trade Show Again

By Noel Ward, Editor @ Large

Sometime last year you may have gone to a trade show. What did you see? Did it matter? Did it push you over the edge to actually buy something? Or was it a semi-justifiable excuse to get out of the shop for a couple of days? It's OK if your answers are Not much; No; No; and Yes.

No matter your answers, trade shows are not what they once were and are decreasing in importance. For example, the 2016 visitor tally at drupa came in around 260,000, down 17% from 2012 when over 314,000 showed up. And that was down about 75,000 people from 2008 and 2004. It was certainly quieter during my week there, with the upside that the lines for beer and sausages were shorter. According to the drupa folks, visitors from Germany stayed an average of two days, while those from other lands stayed about four. Given the vast size of drupa, this may indicate that many attendees primarily came to see new technology and maybe to get within handshake distance of making a deal.

Back on this side of the pond is Graph Expo, which took an Orlando vacation last fall after decades in Chicago. The leading question from everyone prior to the show was, “What’s attendance going to be like?” No one was positive. Still, 13,447 people showed up, including vendor staff and free-loading press and analysts. According the Graph Arts Show Company (GASC), existing customers, prospects, suspects and tire-kickers totaled 6,411. Not a lot, but all reports (and vendors I spoke with) say many attendees were in selection and buying mode, so some deals were made and many vendors went home happy. So Orlando actually worked, much to the surprise of many–me included.

But next September Graph Expo morphs into PRINT 17, returning to Chicago and the rapacious unions that haunt McCormack Place. The PRINT version traditionally attracts more people, but the key question is how many, and will they be in buying mode? Fueling this question is the precipitous decline in attendance from PRINT 09 in 2009 (28, 678) to 2016 (13,447). Add in the plunge in drupa attendance and one wonders just how important print trade shows are. While the bigger ones aren’t about to fold their tents, their value to vendors and attendees is increasingly difficult to measure.

Venues Matter
Two weeks before Graph I went to Labelexpo, also in Chicago, but at the Donald Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois. Some 17,400 people were on hand and all of Graph Expo could fit easily into that smaller convention center. With Graph on the verge of alternating between cities, I hope the GASC people take a closer look at options in the city where Graph has been for so many years. There are a lot of print providers who can drive to Chicago, going into the show for a day or two, and those are lost when the show goes elsewhere. Is GASC paying attention? We’ll see.

Venues also matter because large trade shows may have outlived their usefulness. Every equipment vendor has some type of main “customer experience center” or demonstration facility plus additional smaller operations around the US. For vendors, it is much less expensive to fly customers in, put them in a nice hotel, wine and dine them, let them try out a million dollar press–and maybe seal a deal–than to fork over the seven-figure sums and manage the endless logistics required by a trade show. Prospects and customers already visit the demo facilities on a regular basis, getting under the hood of machines they are considering, running their own files, and trying out the software. From the customer/prospect point of view, why would anyone fly to a trade show, stay in an overpriced hotel, and not be able to try out a machine that’s going to cost a five-figure sum every month? If you’re in buying mode, ask your sales rep for a trip to the main demo center and skip the trade show.

Another option is a vendor-organized visit to a print provider who uses the technology you are considering. You get to see the equipment in action and ask some questions of another printer–a peer. OK, this will be a “tame” customer that the vendor trusts, but these visits can be very helpful as you work through the decision process. And given the dollars involved, you need every insight you can get.

But if you go to a show…
Make it work for you. Preparation is key: If you’re still in the info-gathering process, do all your homework ahead of time. Talk in depth with the reps from each vendor whose machines are on your short list. Get a firm idea of all the costs including price, service, amortization, clicks (if they apply), and all consumables. Make appointments to see each vendor’s reps and other people (such as the software gurus) at the show and make sure you can spend the time needed to get a close look at each machine and its output. Look hard at all the machines that might fit your needs and get a better understanding of how they work and the value they may bring to your operation. Have your head of production along too, so he/she can better assess the prospective technology. This last point can be critical. Many business owners have told me their production manager swayed the decision by noting whether or not a given device would be right for a shop. This includes how easy (or hard) a machine is to operate: the production person will know whether the employee you have in mind to run the new press will be up to the job. This can help reduce surprises a month or so after the machine is installed.

Of course, you also should also do all these things if you find yourself headed to a vendor’s demo center. Go fully prepared and be ready to ask hard questions. No matter what machine you buy, it won’t be cheap and you have to make the right decision. So while you may never have to go to another trade show, you do have to buy the right technology, and preparation is key, no matter how you work through the decision process.
 

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