“You can’t beat a live event!”

Updated: May 20

I’ve worked in the print industry for more years than I care to remember and have exhibited or visited just about every print trade show in the world, including 6 times at Drupa, and like all salespeople, I remember saying, “you can’t beat a live event”.

Over the years, I have worked for some big companies with massive turnovers and expense budgets and I used to love the new corporate suits, shirts and ties, staying in posh hotels and having great nights out with all my colleagues. Sometimes not getting back to my room until the early hours of the morning to have a few hours' sleep only to do it all again the following day.

It occurred to me though, what about the people that came to the show, “the visitors”, my potential customers? Most of them were small to medium business owners that had to take a day or two off work to travel to the show – sometimes incurring a lot of costs in travel, maybe hotels and meals, and it was probably being paid for by themselves as they didn’t have an expense account like me.

We expected them to incur these costs for the pleasure of visiting my exhibition stand and to learn about the products or services I was offering. Before the dawn and expansion of the internet and digital marketing, they had to rely on physically visiting a location which could be hundreds of miles away to discover the latest trends and technology within the industry.

Now of course they can do their homework from the comfort of their own home or office-desk with little or no expense. This saves them valuable time and expense on trips where there may be no guaranteed success of discovery. Only when they have narrowed down their interest to two or three suppliers will they then contact them to arrange further discussion or even to physically visit the suppliers or another company using the same equipment or service. This also helps the supplier to save costs and to know that for the client to call or even visit them, they are a pre-qualified sales lead which means that the time and money spent on the potential sale is well worth it. A more targeted sale if you like.

Nowadays, it's madness to think that the B2B market is any different than the B2C market – If you are looking to purchase a new car you wouldn’t necessarily wait for the next big car show and spend a day walking around lots of manufacturers. You would go online, check out all the specs and then go to the manufacturer’s showroom to discuss a price, have a test drive and then make your final decision and maybe even then, purchase it online.

I’m not saying that live events serve no purpose, of course it’s great to attend these events to meet up with people that you do business with on a regular basis and to socialise with your suppliers and customers, but my question is, does anyone really attend these events to purely buy equipment? Has anyone really gone to a show anywhere in the world and purchased a piece of capital equipment after first seeing it at the show? Yes, we always see machines at shows with signs on them saying “This machine was purchased by ABC printers at the show”, but I’ve always thought that if I had a salesperson working for me that had a customer on his patch who was looking to purchase a machine, and he or she didn’t know about it, I would have probably fired them!

And then there is the amount of trade shows that happen every year. Most Print Service Providers that I know who are mainly based in the UK, may visit a trade show at some point, but only in the UK and if you are a printer based in Cornwall, the thought of spending a whole day to drive to Birmingham to spend 3 or 4 hours walking around the NEC isn’t that appealing. I know people do, but it’s a standard metric in the exhibition industry that you only expect to see 50% of people who register for a show to actually attend.

I remember that when I visited my first Drupa back in 1995 I had to join a queue of maybe 200 people for nearly an hour just to get into the Heidelberg Hall which was the size of 4 football pitches packed with machines. Their stand was massive and had a web press printing a daily national German newspaper. As there was no internet at the time, if you wanted to see what machines Heidelberg had to offer, or any other manufacturer, you had to go to a trade show and spend days walking around all the stands, picking up brochures to enable you to make an informed decision on what machine best suited your business.

But today it’s totally different. When I was involved with IPEX, we saw visitor numbers dropping so much so that IPEX, which was the second largest print event in the world after Drupa, was closed as demand for truly international events proved too costly for the OEMs and PSP's to attend. If you look at all the major trade shows in the world, they are all shrinking. Even shows like the major events in Chicago which I remember took up every hall of the McCormick centre, the last time I visited, about 10 years ago, it was about 75% of one hall.

The question is, do our customers have to attend trade events? The simple answer is no, but I ask myself why and what has changed over the last 20 years? The answer to that is, our buyers.

Today’s buyers are Millennials, who tend not to wear suits in the office, they don’t need to take a day out of work to source equipment suppliers, they use software every day and they understand technology and the benefits of automation and how it can simplify life and save time. This new type of buyer doesn’t understand why they should spend a whole day or more (at their own expense) travelling to and from a venue to look at a £100K piece of equipment they might be interested in purchasing. They do their research online and then contact the manufacturer and arrange to see the machine in operation somewhere close to them, normally at another printer.

A lot of machine suppliers tell me that print is a “touch and feel” and to a degree I agree, as I’m of an age where I still sniff print! But really, surely everyone involved in print knows that the samples you see at a trade show are of the highest quality, setup in the perfect environment and realises that every machine and every shop floor is different and at the end of the day, equipment is purchased on functionality and budget depending on a print shop’s business.

Many of the readers will be my age and would have supported trade events all their working lives and still believe that trade shows are the future of equipment sales. However, the world is changing, and the industry will need to think about the best way to promote themselves to a modern generation that is tech savvy and time poor. A combination of digital marketing, more targeted live events, and a smarter way to generate sales leads with a better understanding of ROI in the generation of these sales leads may be the way of the future, if it hasn’t started to arrive already!

I know this blog will be received with mixed reactions and I shall look forward to reading your comments.

Blog by Wayne Beckett - Event Director - Printing Expo Online

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