Seeking Full Disclosure: Who was Underwhelmed by PRINT 17?

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

Trying not to be snarkier than usual, I look back on four days at PRINT 17, remembering what it once looked like, thinking about what many I spoke with said about the show, and wondering what universe NPES lives in when they say this show went well.

To be sure, the educational sessions, on the floor and in meeting rooms, were very good. These are one of the prime reasons for attending a trade show and anyone who goes to a show without taking advantage of these opportunities is not getting the full value of their trip. There are few better places to gain an understanding of the trends in the industry and what they mean to individual businesses. But this story is not about those sessions.

As of Sept. 18, 2017 the NPES website claims 20,000 people attended the recent show in Chicago. It’s a nice round number but it’s probably not a final tally that will pull out some 4,500 vendor personnel and free-loading press and analysts. At some point we’ll hear how many “real” attendees were on hand—those who actually have a part in buying machinery, equipment or software. When we see that number, we can compare it to the 28,678 who attended PRINT 09. I’m guessing the “real” attendees at PRINT 17 might have reached 16,000. Maybe. Some vendors will also claim that whatever the final tally is, they were “quality” attendees. But on the other hand, I just spoke with one vendor who said he'd be amazed if there were more than 10,000 attendees, noting that head count could be as low as 8,000. I didn't ask, but I'm guessing his company might not be attending next year.

Some of the decline is a result of a shrinking industry, which is just a fact of life. Some of it comes from the expansion of vendors’ demo centers and the growing practice of vendors doing their own events, often targeting vertical markets. These can bring in prospects and suspects far more effectively than a general purpose print show. Similarly, online software demos reduce the need for some prospects to attend a show. As a couple of vendors in Chicago noted, "We can bring a lot of people to our demo center for a fraction of what we spend here. And close more business.” That's hardly breaking news, but it's a fact that show organizers can no longer ignore. "We spend money on these shows to generate new leads," said one vendor. "We didn't see that."

So OK, I know the industry is contracting and some print providers are still having trouble rationalizing large capital expenditures. Many want to see a wide range of equipment and software, especially when they aren’t far enough into a sales cycle to get a free trip to a demo center. But as show traffic shrinks it makes one wonder about the timing of shows and the venues used. Some people I spoke with thought Graph/PRINT should run on a 2-year cycle alternating with drupa. Some said it should be combined with another show, such as SGIA. Or just go to a smaller venue. Others thought it could go away and not be missed.

Venues Matter

Show organizers aren’t oblivious to these trends and such thinking, and the shows still represent substantial value to show companies and attendees. But vendors usually measure value in terms of new leads that turn into sales. This is notoriously difficult to accurately measure, but the dollar cost of a show is not. Which is where show companies should be paying attention. There is doubtless a multi-year deal with the unions and McCormick Place to hold Graph Expo and PRINT shows at McCormick, but after 4 days there this year with what sure seemed to be a thin crowd, one has to ask if those plans are really in the best interest of the industry, the vendors and attendees. In my opinion, the smaller the footprint of a formerly big show, the weaker the industry looks, and the fewer people that will attend. It can become a relentless downward spiral. We’ve all seen it before with other shows in this industry.

Is it time for another venue? Most attendees are probably indifferent about which conference center they go to in a given city, but it may matter to vendors who foot the costs of shipping, drayage and face the rapacious dealings of unions. For vendors, cutting costs is usually a good thing. In Chicago, the other choice is the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, adjacent to O’Hare. I’ve been there a couple of times for Labelexpo. It has an odd floor layout and the lighting could be improved, but it could easily contain a show the size of PRINT. There were about 17,400 people at Labelexpo last year and it was far from overfilled. In fact, it felt busy and energized. Finally, when you bear in mind that Graph Expo shows are historically about 75-80% the size of a PRINT show (meaning there will be fewer people wandering the aisles in McCormick next year) another venue starts to make sense.

The print industry and print trade shows are not about to go away. Over the past decade print providers have adapted to new technologies by adding digital presses and adopting software tools for color management, workflows and more. Print shows have to adapt, too, not just by shrinking but by using venues that make sense for the vendors and attendees. Chicago is the right city and McCormick Place once made sense for a big show, but general purpose print shows just aren’t very big anymore. Time to change it up.

What do you think?
 

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