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Commentary & Analysis

Rituals and Realities at Graph Expo Part 1

By Steve Aranoff &

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: October 27, 2006

By Steve Aranoff & Robert FitzPatrick, The EAGLE October 27, 2006 -- Once again, the printing industry of America came together in Chicago. Vendors and printers blew their budgets on hotels, dinners, travel, booth space, staffing and advertising. It is all thought to be necessary and, at “the end of the day,” worth more than the costs. Graph Expo was a giant bazaar where goods and services were traded. It was an exposition where the tools of the trade were exhibited. And it was a large-scale educational program. It was also a kind of cultural ceremony where people dressed up and played parts – The Eagle editors included – in a series of rituals that are largely unexamined. Many of the rituals seemingly have no relationship to sales, technology or education. Some of these rituals are rooted in the past, a bygone era of stable and well understood technology, confident and patient finance, and steady but not spectacular sales growth. Today’s far different realities are actually ignored or obscured by much of what goes on at the annual Chicago ritual. Some of the rituals are also driven by powerful forces that can’t be seen on the show floor, making what occurs seem odd or incomprehensible. Here are some examples. Hotel Envy The posturing of the annual graphic arts trade show in Chicago begins well before arriving at McCormick Place. It starts with the ritual of hotel envy. Hilton, Hyatt and Renaissance, for example, signify robust profit and unchallenged success, whether or not it’s actually been a good year and even if bankruptcy looms. Working stiffs, techies and those who don’t care, meanwhile, check in at Essex Inn and Congress Plaza, team up in smaller hotels or stay with friends. The hotel envy syndrome is manifestly obsolete since today’s cell phone, instant messaging and email era means very little time is ever spent at the hotel. Hotel envy is a carry-over from an older era of fat and comfortable sales. It survives from the old times of dealer parties, late night receptions, and long one-on-one conferences usually conducted at the hotel, the vendor’s signature setting. Now to impress someone with your hotel, the subject has to be tactfully woven into conversation. “You can reach me on my cell. I’m at the Renaissance.” Real Estate Rivalry Before anyone sets foot on the floor, another traditional ritual is played out -- real estate rivalry. Great costs and much concern are focused on the size and grandeur of vendor booths. And the first question that every attendee is expected to ask is, “Who has the largest booth?” The most lavish of all the annual rituals – the purchase and design of large, impressive booths and display of equipment – used to be about suppliers meeting market demand. Booths were like offsite offices, training centers and even factories. They were set up for making business deals. Equipment, especially the large printing press, was brought in to demonstrate a vendor’s capacity and commitment to meeting customer needs. Selling was personalized. Old friends shared a drink, maybe more than one. Shows were for closing deals generated from pent up demand. Indeed, the only financial question raised was whether the show actually generated any new sales at all, or just closed deals that were in the making already. The cost and size of the booth were beyond question. To question the investment was industry heresy. Certainly many booths at this year’s Graph Expo did function as a response to customer demand and served as a place to renew long term relationships. But the far more dominant force now is “technology pull.” Customers are being drawn forward, seduced, even mesmerized by the lures of new products that are often technically or financially unproven. Printers are being convinced that they need technology they didn’t know they needed. The new mission of technology pull makes the old rituals of buying large tracts of show floor real estate questionable. Would not a vendor road show be more productive where qualified customers can be targeted and true educational selling can occur? Above the din of machines running, how do you have an intelligent discussion about helping the printer’s customer use new marketing tools that recently invented digital printing or software offers? A traditional trade show was never built for such work and yet the old rituals of buying acres of show floor real estate and tire kicking and back slapping go on. And the booths continue to resemble car dealer showrooms. Absent End-Users Digital high speed printers are being sold in large numbers but they aren’t churning out enough “sheets.” This means that the print buyer market has not shown enough need for these machines’ capabilities, e.g., variable data. So the machines’ manufacturers are now helping the printing companies who have invested in these new machines to sell and market digital services and digital print products. At a packed press conference, Kodak, for example, announced a far reaching program called “Kodak MarketMover” in which Kodak will create and facilitate a referral and buyers’ network between and among printers and print customers. The bottom line motive is to increase not necessarily more Nexpress sales but more sheets coming out of the ones already in operation. If this is successful, more press sales will follow, according to this complicated and unprecedented new sales strategy. So, regarding the show’s most exciting new products, the parties that must be “sold” are the printers’ customers. Someone needs to sell these print buyers on all the new benefits that variable-data, short-run, digital printing can do for them. They need to better understand how flat bed and wide format digital printers and digital die cutting can create new and powerful marketing tools for their retail stores, their dealer promotions or their outdoor displays. They need to learn, as Dr. Joe Webb explained during his WhaTheythink.com breakfast program, that print is not an obsolete communication medium but an integral part of an effective brand campaign. Many marketing professionals are not yet convinced or simply don’t understand. There is a lot of selling and educating to do. The problem is that the printer’s customers, the ones who need convincing, are not at Graph Expo. Indeed, the exhibition ritual of Graph Expo is played out only between machinery and supply manufacturers and print providers. Print buyers are not invited. The absence of print buyers at the exhibition ritual is rooted in the past. When print dominated the world of communication and demand for printing equipment and supplies grew every year, why would print buyers need to be part of the dialogue? They only demanded capacity and efficiency. The most important conversation, therefore, was between graphic suppliers and print providers for meeting that capacity and demonstrating commitment to meet printers’ needs satisfactorily. Today, however, the true end-users are print buyers, not printers. The most important conversation for the expansion of print is not between vendors and printers. They are now part of the same sales organization, members of one sales channel. The big challenge of print is to engage the buyers of communication media. When will that show open?



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