Mega Trade shows and ROI

Is Bigger Better? Or will David slay Goliath again?

TradeShow Logos

The future of trade shows and what model is most effective has come under question. Inkish interviewed 16 players in the print industry, located from Africa to Europe to the United States, to get their take on a future vision. Each has a stake in the ongoing relevance and advancement of the print industry. All spoke candidly; a few asked to remain anonymous for this article.  

 “Honestly speaking, even before the Covid pandemic, trade fairs had lost most of the role they had       enjoyed in the 20th Century.”  Rafael Pañuela—CEO, ManRoland    

Print-industry trade shows have been a tradition since the first drupa exposition in 1951. The time and expense of prepping for a show is costly. Often in the millions for large companies, the proportional expense hits smaller players with equal or greater impact, so the Return on Investment (ROI) has to be worth it. Yet many trade show exhibitors had difficulty identifying any ROI. 

“Big shows have no measurable ROI modeling; the focus is on visibility compared to competition. A 30,000 attendee show delivers few qualified leads.” Hampton Hale—VP Programs, Konica-Minolta Business Systems 

 Hampton Hale of KMBS runs sales teams in four different verticals, one of which is print. Other market segments have shown exciting results in smaller shows with 500 to 2,000 attendees. The same team has conducted several shows with regional focus and found that attendees are more qualified, and the product portfolio effectiveness is much greater than the mega-shows. This model yields a measurable ROI for the exhibitors and a better experience for the participants. 

 “The Trade Fair model IPIA supports and produces is for the smaller providers, with technology and equipment resellers as exhibitors. Education will take a larger role in the whole experience.” Brendan Perring—General Manager, IPIA 

The UK print association, IPIA (Independent Print Industries Association), a UK print association, is equally adamant that smaller shows deliver better results for both attendee and exhibitor. A significant ROI from these shows is essential for the participants in order to know where they are and to rely on for growth of their customer base. The simple truth in a post-pandemic world, with shifting work schedules and ongoing travel restrictions, is that smaller businesses will probably be able to afford regional shows only.  

“I am a huge fan of tradeshows...have a huge badge collection. But the effectiveness has dwindled over the years. So, if no demo center...do a traveling roadshow...city by city. Like a circus.” Slava Apel—CEO, Amazing Print

For the shows it produces, IPIA takes care to prepare exhibitors properly. An ‘Idiot Kit,’ provided in advance, contains basic sales and presentation advice; has proven effective. Perring observes that exhibitors in larger shows are trying to sell existing technology. The notion of showcasing innovation—the original intent of large expositions—is all but gone.  

“Big players came to the shows with sales in their pocket.”   Eric Holdo—CMO, Funnel Amplified 

Attendees, especially from smaller businesses, find the greatest value in access to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). The charade of putting “Sold” signs on presses insults the intelligence of the attendees. It masks the failure of the show as a place where sales are made. Holdo expands on this point: “Associations need to step up their role in structuring relevant experiences for the smaller businesses.” Nearly everyone Inkish spoke with echoed these thoughts. “Marketing as a service is critical to the survival of printers. Adding creative ideation and graphic design skills must be a larger aspect of any print exhibition.” 

Some exhibitors do identify an ROI from trade show exhibitions. Some find them profitable marketing and sales events. 

“We certainly see a Return on Investment from Trade Shows, in particular the International Shows such as Drupa, and LabelExpo. These shows provide a good foundation for customers to see the equipment performing and where like-for-like comparisons can be made between our equipment and that of our competitors.” Bruce Allen—Managing Director, Ipex Holdings Ltd. ZA 

 But these experiences are few and far between. Yet the benefit of connecting with clients face to face is significant. The chance to speak with prospects outside their workday schedules is invaluable. Even with all the competition down every aisle, no business can ignore the opportunity to emphasize their differentiation.

In a recent video interview by Inkish, Mark Subers (President, Events, Printing United Alliance/NAPCO Media), cited a focus study conducted one-on-one with major players in the print industry that showed intense interest in large shows. The reported 94.7% response rate supports the notion that the mega-show is essential. When Subers announced cancellation of the October 2021 Printing United exhibit, he stated with confidence, “HP committed to double the exhibition space for the Las Vegas 2022.”  

“I must be among the 5.3% that is not really interested in the trade shows. The one thing I do enjoy are the talks and break-out sessions where experts (SMEs) are invited to present. When it comes to technology, I much prefer 1:1 sessions and visits to customer sites to seeing it live in a print environment.” Tertius Van Eeden—Managing Director, Print on Demand, ZA 

Make no mistake, trade shows are a revenue-generating business. First for the exhibit organizers, then for the exhibit hall where the show takes place. Funding comes from major industry players: HP, RICOH, Canon, Konica-Minolta, Heidelberg, Komori, ManRoland, EFI, XEROX, Hunkler, Durst, FUJI, AGFA. In fact, it is the big players who must take part or there is no ‘Mega-Show.’ Are they still willing to support the old model?  Poor ROI? Canned sales made before the show? Millions of dollars and resources dedicated to what is often—all too often—reduced to expensive group dinners and parties. 

 “Little to no actual sales take place. Mostly networking and boondoggle drinking and dining.” Erik Holdo—CMO, Funnel Amplified 

Another industry insider expressed a cynical take on the cancellation of shows: If the industry’s majors wanted the show to happen, it would have. The big players did not see enough value when Covid-19 squelched attendance. In their collective opinion, the big shows no longer held value compared to the effort and expense. Even with 30,000 attendees, too few are qualified to evaluate the equipment or sit high enough in the corporate hierarchy to make on-the-spot financial commitments. The pandemic was the crisis that led to an opportunity to make changes—and they did. 

 “The big exhibitors are generally uninspired with big shows now. However, the smaller exhibitors have relied more heavily on shows in recent years. Manufacturers through Associations will concentrate on shows and conferences that educate creatives and designers on print techniques and capabilities, upstream influencing. The industry still wants to meet and be in community—but they are looking for ideas and inspiration.” Thayer Long—President, Association for Print Technologies 

It is important to note that creative and design associations primarily provide education tracks in the show agenda. These focus on creative trends, new channels for design opportunities, business practices and, yes, innovative thought leaders. In one example, the AIGA exhibition website promotes topics along these lines:  

Design, Resources, Inspiration, Professional Development, Membership & Community 

Not relying on major vendor funding results in shows that are not inexpensive for attendees. Yet they remain well attended events. HOW Design Live cost per attendee is $900 to $1,200 USD. AIGA Design Conference charges from $500 to $700 USD per attendee. Often, the employers will fund the cost of tickets and travel because they want their employees to stay up to date. Why hasn’t this mindset penetrated more deeply into the print exhibitor portfolio of show offerings? Will they put more emphasis on innovation? Will print exhibitors take note? Perhaps relying less on vendors and focusing more on the attendees will provide the value that speaks to their needs.  

At Design and Creative focused shows there is a vibe of encouragement and guidance both for dealing with the rigors of running a business and training on the latest technologies. Almost every person who spoke with Inkish expressed a consistent desire to see more education programs on understanding and integrating marketing into the printer’s product offering.  

 “Historically...it was probably the only platform for manufacturers to release their new technology to the industry at large. The digital age has changed that.  We have access to more information on almost any subject, than ever before, and that in my view has impacted significantly on the benefits of trade shows. “ Paul Cox—Owner, Ronnie Cox Graphic supplies, ZA 

The future of trade shows is a challenge of relevancy. Among the questions facing exhibition producers are determining who their audience is and what message needs to be conveyed. Creating a viable ROI model that delivers real data will be a core issue for the mega-shows. This leaves the door open for the exhibition producers that can be more nimble, the associations that are more connected to people who make up the majority of this industry.  

Much will be revealed in the next few years as we measure the ability of the print industry to respond and reposition. Will Print Service Providers make the transition to Marketing Service Providers?  Large exhibitions will not go away entirely. Print is definitely not dying. It is an identity issue, a story of becoming a component of something larger and more relevant to current needs, and Inkish remains eager to see how the challenge shakes out.

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