We’re all looking forward to Graph Expo 2008, and we’re all hoping to succeed in the various missions that bring each us to the show. But, what exactly is the purpose of this event? How accurately does the content of Graph Expo reflect the character of the industry that it claims to cater to? And, in light of the awful economic news of the last few weeks, how will it measure up as a source of what printers really are going need in order to survive the gloomiest set of circumstances to overshadow the industry since Print 01 was cut short by 9-11 seven years ago?

After listening to printers react to what I had to say about trade shows at a much smaller gathering last week, I realized that the answers to these questions aren’t as obvious as they ought to be.

I had the pleasure of addressing a regional printers’ group about developments at drupa 08 and the new technology we can expect to see at upcoming North American shows. It wasn’t a big affair—about two dozen people attended—but the atmosphere was cordial, and my audience was receptive. As is always the case at these peer-group evenings, the informal conversation before and after the presentation was as germane to the purpose of the meeting as anything the speaker came prepared to offer.

Four-color? For what?

As we sat down to dinner, I heard something from the proprietor of a small, local offset shop that surprised me: after many years in business, he still had no interest in investing in a four-color lithographic press.

He was doing quite well, thank you, with his half-size, two-unit litho machine and a small-footprint digital press that could handle whatever full-color work he was called upon to provide. Incidentally, he has only recently made the move to CtP, having waited until he was sure that the cost of filmless plates had dropped below the cost of his analog processes.

This knocked my assumptions about the technological evolution of printing companies somewhat out of the box, so I asked him a question that he was polite enough not to ridicule for the naiveté on my part that it implied. Didn’t he want to run with the big dogs? How could a well-established printing business like his not step up to a capability that everyone these days expects a printer to have?

He just smiled. Then he told me about three printing companies in the region that had put themselves out of business by competing for 40" color work when there wasn’t enough volume of that kind to keep even one of them from going under. This was a red-in-tooth-and-claw market that he wanted no part of, and if steering clear of the feeding frenzy meant continuing to operate in a technologically restricted way, so be it.

Another printer had turned a niche—short-run printing of a certain kind of ceremonial card—into a national activity by promoting it online and by putting in regular appearances at trade shows of the service industry in which the buyers of these cards do business. He spoke about it modestly, describing it as an opportunity that he’d been lucky to see and luckier to be ready to take. No highfalutin theorizing or strategizing was involved—just a keen, well-grounded intuition about what current customers wanted to buy and what others like them might want to buy as well. A nice story.

Hard to argue

Neither of these printers has plans to attend Graph Expo, and, looking at it from their perspectives, I can’t see that either of them needs to. That’s not an indictment of the show, but I think it does point to some ways in which the relevance of the Graph Expo and Print events could be strengthened.

It might seem impertinent to critique the printing industry’s leading trade expositions on the basis of relevance. Of course they are relevant—that’s attested to by the votes of confidence from Graph Expo’s 600 exhibitors and its thousands of pre-registered attendees. But, I believe that opportunities do exist to help the shows connect more meaningfully to printing businesses like the ones whose owners and managers I spoke with last week.

First, there’s the opportunity to change the inevitable heavy-iron, speeds-and-feeds, biggest-this, fastest-that flavor of the majority of the exhibits. I’m convinced that most printers don’t care much about these things—that what they really want to know (below) has little to do with the performance characteristics of the equipment per se.

Does anyone come to Graph Expo thinking that it’s possible to buy an inferior press? Or one that won’t perform at least as well as a competitive model selling for the same price at the stand across the aisle? Product quality is a given, and an experienced printer can tell the basic capabilities of a press pretty much by looking at it. There’s not nearly as much fascination with specifications as the exhibitors would like to believe.

Keeping it real

What’s needed is a shift in emphasis that only the exhibitors can bring about. Instead of mounting an exhibit keyed to press size, why not offer one keyed to business size instead? Rather than build the stand around applications— packaging comes to mind—that are more about the manufacturer’s aspirations than anyone else’s, wouldn’t it be better to show the equipment in context of the kinds of everyday work that customers typically are doing?

It wouldn’t take big equipment, or even a lot of equipment, to make the point to printers such as the one who insisted to me that four-color litho still isn’t for him. A compelling exhibit for small-, medium- and high-volume operations could be built around three correspondingly sized presses—or just one press capable of operating efficiently in all of these ranges, as many half-size and even full-size sheetfed presses now are. Ironically, the shows are moving in this general direction anyway as the biggest press manufacturers elect to display fewer pieces of equipment each year.

But, this puts the press vendors in an ideal position to do more with less. It’s all in the presentation. With equal doses of realism and imagination, how difficult would it be to set up a trade show exhibit that looks and feels less like a trade show exhibit and more like a working print shop? If you build it, they will come. You might even sell them a four-color press.

Not nearly niche-y enough

The other big opportunity is on the educational side. This year’s Graph Expo has an impressive seminar program—nine categories containing 70 sessions, most of them on technology- or process-related subjects. But, only eight sessions are devoted to sales and marketing, and, to judge by their titles, none of them seems to have the kind of niche-specific focus that worked so well for the printer who told me about the success of his specialty-card business.

Printers who want to broaden the scope of their offerings need more information about vertical markets than the Graph Expo and Print shows have been giving them. Sessions about these markets can be added to the seminar program, but the exhibit floor can do its part as well.

This year, Graph Expo has a large number of special-interest areas including a wide-format pavilion and a mailing and fulfillment center. In the future, a pavilion for niche-specific market opportunities should take its place alongside them. The exhibits within this pavilion would be collaborative—joint displays by equipment manufacturers promoting printer customers who have successfully cultivated vertical markets. The educational value for other printers would be high, and the appeal to print buyers in these markets would be obvious.

Verticalizing printing trade shows is not a new idea, but the equipment-centric nature of the Graph Expo and Print shows has made it a hard sell. The time has come to acknowledge, though, that the events are not primarily about equipment or technology any more.

They are idea factories in which presses and other machines are indispensable props, but not the ultimate reasons why anyone comes to McCormick Place. When a trade show convinces a printer that new possibilities really do exist, the equipment sales naturally follow. That’s the theme for the Graphic Arts Show Company—and for those of us who publicize its events as editors or commentators—to begin sounding.

What they want

During Q&A at the dinner meeting last week, I turned the tables a bit by asking the group what answers they most wanted to hear from exhibitors at Graph Expo. There were two things:

Price. How much will I have to pay? If it’s digital, can I buy it outright, or do I have to pay for clicks? (Note to self for coverage at the show: ask what it costs. Get the terms. Put it in the story.)

How much time will I have to recover the investment before my competition can purchase something new and better from the same manufacturer that I bought from?

Printers can get the answers to their questions at the Graph Expo and the Print shows, but I’m not sure how many of them know it. The shows continue to be vital and important events. But, their need of some retooling and repackaging seems clear.