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Noel Ward

Real World Digital

By Noel Ward

About Noel

Noel Ward is Managing Director of Brimstone Hill Associates, which specializes in marketing communications in the printing industry, including video production. He can be reached at 603-672-3635 or via email at His website is, and he has a YouTube channel.

PRINT 13 and What’s Wrong with Trade Shows

Billed as the largest print trade show in North America, PRINT 13 took up most of the south hall of McCormick Place. Most vendors I spoke with called it a good show, but admit that the real analysis comes after they follow up the leads and see how many deals actually close.

Throughout the four and a half days, the flow of attendees moved in fits and starts—crowded, then sparse, fairly packed in the stands of the big players but less apparent in many smaller booths. The “Weave Factor,” my personal measure of floor traffic, was not all that high because I could move easily through the milling hordes while crossing the show floor. Still, vendors said many people coming to see them were in buying mode, looking for information and getting ready to pull the trigger on software and equipment. A consistent feeling from execs at several companies was, “There’s a lot of pent-up demand at this show. People want to buy, they see the value of newer technologies.” And no wonder. After a few years of not buying, many print providers need new machines and software, and see that the gains in productivity and performance over stuff that’s five or more years old can be substantial. Checkbooks are being opened, which is a very good thing.

This pent-up demand fed the vibe of eagerness at McCormick, giving off a sense that the industry, along with those who survived the Great Recession and the ongoing decline of print are ready and willing to move forward. These survivors are focused on the future and are figuring out how to grow and thrive in the new age of print and cross-media communications. This attitude and the vibe of the show affirm that print continues to rock!

That was the good part. Now for the stuff that will generate critical calls and e-mails from a variety of people.

The other thing I kept hearing from vendors, analysts, and press is that the show is simply too long. Almost universally, I heard people saying there is no conceivable reason for a U.S. print show to run for four and a half days. I was on the floor from the opening bell on Sunday until 1 PM on Thursday. I saw the traffic and talked to lots of people. Here’s what I saw and heard:

Sunday: Good traffic from the noon opening until about 4 PM. And this with a half marathon, a Bears game and good boating weather on the lake. But by 4 the crowds were thinning fast. Vendors were pleased with the turnout, and it was a lot better than two years ago when there were a paltry 200 people waiting to get in.

Monday: Good traffic all day, even along the edges and in some of the back booths. A good time was had by all.

Tuesday: Thinner traffic overall, but still busy in the morning, especially in the big stands of the print engine purveyors. But in those, half the bodies can be employees, so it’s hard to be sure just how busy it is. Far fewer people in the afternoon.

Wednesday: Light traffic, especially after noontime. Want some quality time with a vendor? Maybe cut a good deal? This was the time to come by. Lots of vendors standing around waiting for someone—anyone—to come by.

Thursday: Lots of high school kids scoring posters and trade show tchotchkes, with a few potential prospects wandering around. Everyone sentenced to stay until closing was tired, bored, and chafing at the bit to get in a cab and head to Midway or O’Hare.

A few sentiments came unprovoked from vendors I talked with. All I ask them are basic questions like, “How’s the show for you?” and “What do you think of the show this year?” And here’s what they said to me:

“Three days is more than enough.”

“Why do they make PRINT out to be a big deal and charge us more because it’s PRINT? It’s really just a longer GRAPH EXPO.”

“Why do they change the name every four years? It’s not like PRINT makes it something special. Call it one thing every year.”

“The half day on Sunday is great. But shut it down on Wednesday.”

Some elaborated on the economics of a shorter show. It goes like this: Even a smallish company might have 12 to 15 people on hand. Lopping off one night saves costs for hotel, a dinner, a breakfast and a lunch, or between $300 and $400 per person. While hardly extravagant, it’s still not chump change for many exhibitors, and is money that can be spent in more profitable ways. All the vendors do this math, are frustrated by the waste it shows, and their next thought is whether the show is really worth the expense when a day and a half is often wasted time.

By Wednesday afternoon, vendors were pointing out that unlike previous years, no one could reserve a spot for 2014. To have a reasonable chance of getting the booth position they want for next year they had to pony up the money to join NPES and then hope they had enough “points” from their previous years exhibiting to get their desired spot. One vendor I spoke with—who was pleased with the show and eager to book a larger and better location for 2014—was not happy, calling it “a shake-down to grab money from non-NPES members.”

In an age when even complex software can be demonstrated online and equipment vendors have often lavish demo centers and showrooms, print trade shows are struggling to remain relevant. Doing so requires adapting to the needs and preferences of the companies that pay the big bucks for floor space. One needs to look no further than IPEX to see how not being relevant can rapidly thin the number of vendors—and consequently attendees.

In my opinion, changing the name from GRAPH EXPO to PRINT every four years makes no sense. Calling it one thing and sticking with it is better branding, too. As for a schedule, have the show run Sunday through Wednesday but like this: Sunday noon to 5. Monday and Tuesday 9 to 6. Wednesday 9 to 3. As is done at drupa. Let the kids in on Wednesday to clean out the print samples. And be done with it.

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