Tales of Two Conferences By Noel Ward, Executive Editor May 23, 2007 -- The road has been calling long and loud lately and I've spent most of the last four weeks doing what amounts to a lap of America, covering five states, eight cities, five rental cars, far too many flight segments, and 19 nights in hotels. The trip has revolved around several speaking gigs, two of which took place at the annual conferences of industry trade associations. And there's more road time to follow, some of which I'll be reporting on here. First up was the Imaging Network Group (INg), a 15-year-old trade association of mostly medium size transactional and direct mail service bureaus. INg members are connected to and communicating with each other all year long but gather for four or five days each spring for live discussions of a wide-range of business and print-related issues. The members' presentations have the hands-on feel you'd expect from men and women who not only lead their companies but have a deep understanding of how all the moving parts work. This year, lively interactive discussions covering sales and marketing, best practices, quality control, human resources, strategies for equipment adoption, mailing and postal issues, and more filled the days from Wednesday through Saturday. Nuggets of knowledge INg members tell me they come to the annual event primed to gain new insights into these and other issues, but say they invariably come away with unexpected nuggets of knowledge, new ideas and different approaches to challenges they can apply in their respective companies. A recent member survey indicated that members believe INg membership provides a tremendous return on investment. And it must, as the majority of members keep coming back year after year and many have developed personal as well as business relationships with other members. In some cases they watch each other's backs. The most notable instance was when a member in New Orleans was all but washed away by hurricane Katrina. Other members leapt into action to run their colleague's jobs and get him back up and running, while the partnership with vendors helped ensure he had the technology and related support he needed as he rebuilt his operation. When an INg member's operation was washed away by hurricane Katrina, other members leapt into action to help him get back in business. INg is supported both by membership fees and several partner companies that are industry leaders in equipment and software. The present partner roster includes Bowe Bell & Howell, Exstream Software, IBM Printing Systems, Kodak Versamark, Océ, Solimar Systems, and Xerox. Executives from these partners attend each conference and are active participants throughout the event, not only updating members on their technology but participating in discussions by sharing their industry knowledge and experience. As one partner told me a couple years back, "Where else can I go and spend four days with customers or prospects and get a real understanding of their business and also get to know them as individuals? INg is a tremendous value." The venue this year (it changes annually) was the Hyatt Tamaya resort in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico, about half an hour into the high desert northeast of Albuquerque. I spoke to members about a number of trends in the industry and gave them a recap of the latest equipment and software the major vendors rolled out in April at the On Demand show in Boston and how these may fit into their businesses. Numerous discussions followed, both regarding points in my presentation and also with me asking questions to gain a better understanding of the current issues these business owners are facing and how they are dealing with them. Their markets, like every other one in the print industry, are in flux and these successful owners are on the hunt for ways to ensure they maintain their success in the face of change. The overarching value of INg is the sharing of ideas and thinking that helps each of these companies throughout the year. Any transactional or direct mail service bureau that's looking for a way to network formally and informally with similar companies and find new ways to help maintain and grow their business should be sure to check out the Imaging Network Group. The organization's web site is currently being rebuilt so if you are interested in learning more but can't find what you are looking for on the site, contact INg's Executive Director, Angela Kamarata at [email protected] Across the high desert My next stop was 45 miles away in Santa Fe at the spring meeting of the Library Binding Institute. I was up early on a Sunday to drive across the desert to the compact capital of the state for to talk about the dynamic growth of digitally printed books and how it is changing the landscape for binderies. Binding is the last step in the manufacturing process and while library binding remains important to a few niches in the market, most LBI member firms offer a range of bindery choices. But digital printing is changing the landscape and members are already seeing shifts in demand and know they need to adapt if they are to continue to offer the services their customers require. A variety of offline discussions showed me how LBI members are looking for ways to integrate digital printing into their mix of services with an eye to delivering more value for their customers. The overarching value of INg is the sharing of ideas and thinking that helps each of these companies throughout the year. For example, a member who produces fairly complex training manuals and related materials is interested in not only doing the binding but also the print production and is investigating the type of equipment he needs to make that a reality. A couple other companies already have some digital printing capabilities and are looking for ways to expand the scope of what they do. Binderies are on the cusp of significant change and the people I talked with realize the time has come to change the way they think about their businesses and how they can serve their customers. LBI is similar to the Imaging Network Group in a number of ways. It is a small trade association, supported by vendors, that provides members support throughout the year and enables them to share ideas and address a range of business issues beyond the mechanics of wrapping a cover around a book block. There are lots of these small trade associations out there and when I speak to their members the questions they ask show that there are plenty of people out there in the printing industry who are still seeking the best ways to integrate digital printing technology into their operations and manage the new processes the create. I've found the same in speaking recently to groups of in-plant and CRD managers and a variety of commercial printers. While plenty of print services providers have adopted some type of digital printing, many are still having trouble integrating equipment and software into their operations and wrestle with the challenges of workflows, datastreams and PDLs, and the changing needs of their customers. There are no silver bullets that address all these issues, but small associations like INg and LBI, with active members who continually look for and try new approaches--and then share what they learn with their colleagues are one of the best ways for print providers to find solutions to the challenges of change in a digital world. Shared knowledge and experience is a wonderful thing. Two more Tales are coming up soon. So stay tuned. Please offer your feedback to Noel. He can be reached at [email protected] See More Exclusive Articles Noel Ward is a consultant, speaker and writer focusing on digital printing strategies and content development for print and electronic media. He conducts technology audits, market research, and competitive analyses to build strategies companies use to optimize their document creation, production and distribution processes. One of the best-known writers in the industry, Noel creates and produces white papers, case studies, speeches, presentations, marketing materials, and electronic newsletters for several industry-leading companies. He is editor and publisher of the electronic newsletter Digital Asset Directions, Executive Editor of OnDemandJournal.com, Director of RealTime Trade Show Coverage for WhatTheyThink.com, and Editor of The LeadINg Edge, the newsletter of the Imaging Network Group. A believer in using technology to gain efficiencies and competitive advantages, Noel's business motto is "If you're not the lead sled dog, the view doesn't change." tales from the open road