"Do We Need Graph Expo Every Year?" That was the provocative question addressed in an Andy Tribute commentary, and official response from GASC, appearing on WTT earlier this week. It's a timely topic, especially given the current state of the U.S. economy and the printing industry. In conversations with several industry vendors that annually exhibit at Graph Expo and, once every four years, at PRINT, they are openly questioning how to get the most payback from their shrinking marketing and sales budgets. Many have asked me to express my personal opinion on this admittedly touchy subject.
As Ralph Nappi
, president of the Graphic Arts Show Co. (GASC), which organizes the trade exhibition, indicated in his response to the commentary, “The heart of the issue...is the ROI that exhibitors and attendees realize from these shows.” I couldn't agree more.
Unfortunately, though, ROI justification is very different for an exhibitor that signs up for a 10,000- or 20,000-square-foot booth versus a company that pays for 200 square feet. Larger exhibitors typically have the added costs of bringing equipment and supporting staff to the show. The investment for a small stand is minor in comparison, but that exhibitor still reaps the benefits of the crowds generated by the “anchor” exhibitors. Larger exhibitors have also invested heavily in demo centers, road shows and even their own targeted, mini-trade shows as ways to interact more intimately with customers and prospects. So, the opinion of whether the show should be held every year may even vary from one supplier to another.
Either way, Ralph Nappi finds himself in a very tough spot. As President of GASC, he also serves as President of NPES, the association that represents industry manufacturers. If Nappi puts on his NPES hat, he may feel compelled to do something even more drastic than the $3 million stimulus package that was created to keep several PRINT 09 vendors from pulling out of the show completely, or cutting back on their square footage commitments, and/or from electing to scale back or not bring any equipment to the show.
Nappi well knows that most, if not all, of his NPES member companies are being crushed by this recession. Just look at the financial results of the major suppliers to our industry and that tells the whole story. They're struggling largely because printers, finishers and mailers have severely curtailed their new capital equipment expenditures and because credit markets for financing remain tight.
As a result, industry suppliers have been forced to take drastic measures due to declining sales volumes and stock prices, including staff layoffs, salary cuts, furloughs, and employee healthcare and 401(k) reductions. To them, it’s all about survival—waiting for the economy and, hopefully, the industry to rebound. In these harsh times, their backs are truly up against the wall. If they aren't confident that they will attain a suitable ROI from exhibiting at Graph Expo or PRINT, they are going to be forced to either cut way back on their presence or not exhibit at all.
Likewise, if Ralph Nappi puts on his GASC hat, he must also factor in the viability and survival of the Printing Industries of America and the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL), in addition to NPES. Printing Industries of America and NAPL rely heavily on the GASC income from the show (which is split evenly by the three organizations) to provide the numerous industry programs and services that he outlined in his response.
This ties back into the recent consolidation discussions between Printing Industries of America and NAPL, which have stalled thus far. Could GASC pass along an even larger stimulus package to exhibitors if the profits from Graph Expo and PRINT were only split two ways, rather than three? There’s no doubt in my mind that both Printing Industries of America and NAPL offer many valuable programs and services to their respective memberships (which combined, however, only adds up to about one-third of the total commercial printing establishments in the United States). With the current economic climate, and forecasts for a very slow recovery, though, is that enough to warrant their share of the show's profits?
An agreement by Printing Industries of America, NAPL and NPES to consolidate what had been three major conferences into one starting in 2011 is a great start, but, hopefully, it’s not too little too late.
Tribute mentioned that no major equipment manufacturer wants to be the first one to rock the boat by not supporting our industry's largest annual trade show. But, based on current market conditions, lack of buying activity and the hard financial realities that many of our industry suppliers face, can one really blame them if they decided not to participate?
Printers are facing these same financial hurdles every day, and are being forced to make tough decisions that impact their employees and their customers. The difference, though, is that they enjoy relative anonymity when finding ways to make budget cuts.
They don’t have to worry about battling the perception that not supporting a trade show, conference, event, industry publication or Website is a sign that they're not supporting the industry they serve. Or, that not exhibiting or taking a smaller booth at an event as important as Graph Expo or PRINT raises concern among their printer customers that they're on shaky financial footing and may not be around to support them long-term. They also fear that their industry counterparts might use their absence as a competitive advantage by raising those kinds of doubts in the minds of printers who attend the show.
In reality, it’s not fair to ask manufacturers to bear so much responsibility for subsidizing industry initiatives. It’s the responsibility of trade shows, conferences, industry Websites and, yes, our trade publications to generate a return on their investments.
Trade shows are an ideal setting for printers to come and review all of their buying options under one roof, so I believe there will always be a need for them. As an editor, Graph Expo provides me the best single event anywhere to stay current with technology offerings and to make contacts. Even so, it appears some printers are currently taking the attitude of "Why attend, if I'm not looking to buy something soon anyway?" Let alone the fact that corporate travel budgets have been slashed, as have staffing levels back at their plants.
Tribute's commentary also indicated that the "format of the show has hardly changed over many years." I couldn't disagree more. I think the GASC has done everything possible to broaden the event's scope into complementary markets, including packaging, wide-format printing, mailing and fulfillment, promotional products, environmental sustainability and, in 2010, newspaper printing and publishing. Marketing for the show has been intensified beyond commercial printers toward other printer segments, such as book printers/publishers, in-plants and package printers/converters. And efforts to draw attendees have also become highly personalized through PURL and e-mail campaigns, versioned direct mail pieces, preshow planners and even a lead-generating, interactive online floor plan. Nappi, Chris Price and the rest of the GASC sales and marketing team tried everything to get printers to attend PRINT 09 in Chicago other than driving them there themselves.
Nappi hit the nail on the head when he asked: "Does a market this size (U.S. printing industry) not justify at least one industry event a year?" Depending on whether you’re a printer or a vendor, the answer may vary. Would there be less equipment purchased in the printing industry if Graph Expo was held every two years versus annually? I'm not sure anyone can answer that question, especially given these unprecedented economic times. While it could be argued that an annual show may seem unwarranted for the next few years due to this Great Recession, that doesn't necessarily hold true from a long-term standpoint, especially after the industry has had time to stabilize.
Either way, we’d love to hear your feedback. Post your comment below to get the dialog going on this critical industry topic.
Or if you’d like to share a longer take on the topic, “Speak Your Piece” was introduced as a new feature of PIworld to be a forum for industry members to “take a stand, share an observation or just relay an item of interest.”
Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to submit a post about Graph Expo or send along a topic and short description of a post (text, video or audio) on any other topic that you’d like to submit for consideration. Mark Michelson, Editor-in-Chief, Printing Impressions magazine.