February 9, 2005 -- After Xplor 2003 in Atlanta I wrote a column entitled "The Rx for Xplor," describing my thoughts on some of the things the Xplor organization needed to do to keep its trade show and conference alive. I said Xplor needed to partner with another organization and should focus on its core strength of education. It seems others at Xplor shared this assessment, evidenced by the Xplor Variable Data and Digital Color Printing conference track that ran last week in Miami Beach in conjunction with Graphics of the Americas (GOA). The next step, announced on February 4, was that the 2005 Xplor conference scheduled for Orlando, Florida in November would shift 90 days out to co-locate with GOA in February 2006. Initial reactions from press, analysts and vendors has been generally positive. Most agree that the co-location builds on the core strengths of each organization: GOA's exposition prowess and the conference depth of Xplor. Tom Wetjen, senior vice president and general manager for graphic arts at Xerox, notes that Xerox has long supported Xplor because of its educational focus and is pleased to see the new alliance. Likewise Alain Flament, formerly president of Nipson America and now heading the company's global marketing efforts, was also positive about the new agreement, noting that is should be good for both organizations. Questioning Value The partnership reflects the shifts in the industry and its trade shows. Vendors and companies sending attendees to events are questioning the economics--and the value--of trade shows. Vendors are investing in other ways of reaching customers and prospects, reducing the amount spent on traditional events and being more selective about which ones they attend. Print engine companies are investing in demonstration and training centers at which customers and prospects can examine a product in far more detail than is possible on a hyperactive show floor. At the same time, businesses that once sent several people to shows are sending fewer, while expecting a return on the investment involved in taking key people out of the office and packing them off to another time zone. After all, the boondoggle potential looms large at many trade shows. As a result of these factors, many smaller shows have faded. And they won't be back; they're gone for good. Education is Key More importantly, the ongoing convergence (yes, I know the term is over-used) of the digital and non-digital sides of the printing industry has made education a major issue. Issues associated with mailing, design, database management, variable data printing, and wide format printing are becoming key business issues for print providers, creating a demand for knowledge and education. This is demonstrated by topic-specific "pavilions" at print trade shows and the growth of specialized conferences focused on how applying various technologies addresses business challenges. Most of the latter have no show element beyond a few table tops. By co-locating North America's most international trade show with an educational conference that also draws an international crowd, GOA and Xplor seem poised to address the needs of vendors (a broad, "quality" audience) and attending companies (solid educational value beyond the trade show floor). "The event market has changed, with increasing pressure on the educational value and return on investment for every dollar spent," explains Skip Henk, president & CEO of Xplor International. "Co-locating with GOA in February 2006, gives attendees one venue that maximizes their educational dollar and provides access to the latest products. At the same time, exhibitors will have access to a larger and more varied customer and prospect pool." International Flavor The international nature of the two organizations is also important. Xplor, for example, is growing fastest in Germany and Brazil. At GOA last week, execs from HP, IBM, Nipson, and Xerox all told me their companies consider Brazil the most vital market for digital printing in Latin America, followed by Mexico. Both are easy plane rides from Miami. And one imagines that Xplor members in Germany might just welcome a boondoggle, ah, conference, in Florida in February. "We believe providing this unique conference and exhibit experience not only benefits attendees and exhibitors, but serves as an example to the industry at large," said Mike Streibig, president of the Printing Association of Florida (PAF) the conference organizer of GOA. While other shows and conferences have also joined forces, this partnership is as much a shared vision as it is a means for both organizations to better serve the needs of a convergent industry. Xplor's strength as an educational conference often limited its success as a trade show. Even so, it has certainly declined since its glory days, a victim of factors including internal politics, wavering member and vendor support, arcane trade show policies, global economics, and simply being the last show of the calendar year. Critics have been predicting its demise for several years, yet it keeps on going. This alliance is certainly a step in the right direction for Xplor. GOA has had some down times as well, but has come surging back and is clearly successful, with increased vendor support and over 22,000 visitors last week in Miami. Its trade show successes, though, have been tempered by the lack of a strong conference. Having the educational forum of Xplor would seem to strengthen GOA, while GOA's larger audience should bolster Xplor's show floor. Providing the value the disparate mix of vendors and attendees require in the conference sessions and on the show floor will be a challenging task, but it is one I think both organizations are up to. I am optimistic about this alliance and it's certain to make the first week of February 2006 an interesting time in Miami Beach.