The future of exhibitions

I’ve followed the recent goings on in the exhibition sector with some interest. First the announcements from some of the major players in the industry over recent months that they won’t be exhibiting at the next Ipex in London, then Drupa informally announcing it might move to a 3-yearly cycle then officially confirming it wouldn’t. Ricoh has recently reconfirmed its attendance at Ipex 2014, as we believe it is, alongside Drupa, one of the world’s two print industry exhibitions with a truly international reach. Both exhibitions are a critical platform for our business as we seek to become the number one player in the digital printing space.

However, what recent events have demonstrated for me personally, is less about the merits of Drupa versus Ipex, as in my view they are both great shows, but more about where the exhibition industry goes (and not just in the print sector) in general over the next few years. Today’s exhibition organiser has to continually find new ways to engage and challenge time poor, budget conscious exhibitors and visitors. They also have to compete with other highly effective mechanisms for data capture and how that information is digested, many of which didn’t even exist a decade ago.  Professional online demos, forums, interactive seminars, focused open days, complex data capture and CRM systems, niche application shows – the list goes on – many of these have made huge strides in their use of technology and the way it can be applied to customer data capture over the past few years and this has put pressure on the traditional exhibition sector.

And let’s face it, very few visitors turn up to a show these days, unannounced and just buy a machine.   If we’re all honest, can any of us recall the last time a new customer whom no one had seen before, turned up on an exhibition stand and made a large capital investment ‘just like that’. Sure it happens, but it’s pretty rare nowadays.  The investment is too great in these straightened times and the sales cycle is often months’ long, starting with a detailed negotiation with multiple suppliers, understanding the intricacies of the technologies and assessing the strategy behind the investment. Then there’s building the strength of the on-going relationship and the securing the added value each manufacturer can bring to the table.

So what could happen to improve the situation?
A culture change with regard to the value of exhibitions and where they fit into the sales and marketing mix for today’s manufacturer would be a good start.   Some of the smaller niche exhibitions such as CrossMedia, EcoPrint and Packaging Innovations have started to do this and focused on content rich seminars and ‘real world’ examples and applications.  But even many of these small exhibitions are, like their bigger cousins to an extent, stuck in the numbers game as they need to demonstrate growth to encourage exhibitors.

Ironically, we are all aware of the numbers game played in terms of visitor stats and I think it does the whole industry a disservice and devalues what good exhibitions offer in terms of content, networking, the latest technology on show and so on, because when the statistics come out there’s a part of all of us that says ‘it failed because it didn’t grow’. At some point, someone could break ranks and say it’s not about the numbers any more, but in fact, more about ‘who visited’. But that takes courage and a re-orienting of the prevailing exhibition culture for both organisers and exhibitors.

Are we bold enough to take on the challenge?

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