Top of mind for just about everyone going to the Windy City for the 2008 iteration of Graph Expo is what's next. And that "next" isn't about the latest gee whiz concoction of printing hardware or software that does everything but help you lose weight.

This "next" is about the economy and what it portends not only for our industry but for the economies around the globe. Already many major equipment vendors have instituted spending freezes. One said to me the other day that he's never seen the budget restrictions as tight as they are today in over 20 years with the same firm. Another said, "Don't go ask for a new pencil unless the one you have is worn to a nub." Overstatement? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Just how much of the belt tightening is the result of a spendy drupa, mediocre real-world sales, or the malaise afflicting the economy even before the Titanics of Wall Street hit the icebergs of reality --or all of the above-- is open to question. Budgets always dry up at the back end of a drupa year, but the financial and credit markets falling off a cliff has brought many companies to run close to (if not in) crisis mode. "We really need to see some new lease paper in here," one vendor told me.

Modest expectations

Graph Expo in a drupa year is usually a pretty busy event, with printers flocking to Chicago to see much of the stuff that was shown at drupa. A great run last year combined with the anticipated momentum of drupa made it a no brainer for vendors to belly up to the bar and snap up space for this year's show. Which they did. Still, all summer I've been hearing second guesses from all corners about how busy the show will be. In the dog days of August the limiting factor seemed to be escalating travel costs, thanks in part to a softening of business and the piratical practices of airlines and hotels. Now, with the economy on the ropes, I'm hearing only modest expectations from most firms. When this happens, vendors usually point to the "quality" of those attending, saying the people that do come are serious prospects. This is in fact, often true. But the question is always whether enough of these serious folks are willing and able to pull the trigger on a new NexGenDigo VersaPrint 10000. We'll see.

I'm very interested in seeing, hearing and feeling the tone on the show floor, from both vendors and print providers. I'm going to be out and about with a video cam, trying to get some people to talk about how they see the gyrations of the financial markets impacting their businesses and what it might mean for the industry. Printers I've talked with in the course of some recent research are concerned, but are also saying they have business lining up for 2009 and seem generally (if cautiously) positive. I hope to find more of that while cruising the floor at McCormick Place.

What we will hear

What we can expect to hear print engine vendors saying is how digital print can be very helpful in a down economy. Companies of all types usually sharply reduce or even stop advertising and marketing when the economy goes south, thinking this to be a cost reduction strategy. This is, of course, shortsighted, and it has been proven time and again that businesses that continue to promote themselves in tough times tend to come out stronger. At Graph Expo the equipment guys will be saying that digital print is ideal for marketing in a recession (or whatever it is we are in now and will be in 2009) because it can be more targeted and cost-effective. This is certainly true, and whether or not many presses are sold at Graph Expo is in some ways less of an issue than is promoting the idea that digital print can be part of a strategy to sustain or even help build business in tough times. This may or may not be realistic, but every print provider with a digital press of any flavor should be looking for ways to use the technology at their disposal to give their customers an advantage in the market.

Is this software's year?

At the same time, I think this could be a great show for software vendors. Given that the current crop of digital presses are working pretty well, capital investments in iron could be deferred while printers invest in new software for MIS, cross-media, workflow, web-to-print, and more. From some previews I've seen, the software being show off in Chicago has the potential to make bottom-line differences for just about every type of print provider. If you're at the show, make a point of going to software firms' stands and to the software areas at the equipment vendors. Tell them about a problem you're trying solve and see what they have to offer. You may well be pleased to see that the answer is there and waiting for you. After all, some of the biggest breakthroughs in efficiency and productivity are enabled by software. In particular, I think comprehensive workflow solutions that link to MIS systems will get a lot of attention as print providers look for ways to process and track jobs more easily --and make sure they are profitable. Look for more interest in web-to-print offerings, too, as printers look for ways to make it easier for customers to do business with them. And cross-media tools should show strength as companies look for ways to make direct marketing go beyond the clutter of third-class opportunities.

So it's off to Graph Expo at the end of next week. WTT will be coming to you with articles from the best team of writers in the industry along with video from both our studio and the show floor. We'll be looking for print providers to talk with about the shape of the market and what they think of the technology on the show floor. Watch for us and we'll be happy to talk with you. Maybe we'll even make you a star! So stay tuned, and I'll see you at the show.