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FESPA 2015: respect for rationale

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James Matthews-Paul

Written on 15/05/2015 | Posted 2 years 9 months 6 days ago

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FESPA has taken a long look through the telescope, stepped back, and is planning a new trajectory through the stars to inspire and guide its audience.

FESPA has tweaked its outlook to encompass a wider range of technology FESPA has tweaked its outlook to encompass a wider range of technology

Once, I asked somebody where she believed she stood amongst her professional peers. She said that she believed she was second best. Why not number one, I asked? With a wry smile, she told me that she was comfortable at number two – because from number one the only way is down.

FESPA must now be the second largest print exhibition in the world, and while nobody at its pre-show press event would be drawn on how it should react to drupa’s new triennial cycle – or how Ipex might react, once it has emerged from its state of Trappist self-pity – its organisational team had plenty to say for itself. Its 2015 edition will see it adopt a modular strategy that better fits its mission to create an appetite for wide-format print and reflects the desire of businesses in this space to understand a cosmic and slightly bewildering array of technologies that may or may not apply to them. 

The best example for this is 3D print. It’s the sexy buzzword du jour and every printer will have cast their eye upon it to formulate their opinion. From excitement to rank disinterest, I have heard a range of opinion on the matter and none is conclusive or formulaic. Two print shops with similar production floors have expressed this perfectly: one director went out almost immediately to buy a commercial 3D unit with the intention of creating simple promotional products, while the other rolled his eyes and called it a distraction.

Ultimately, each knows their audience. As with a magazine, the innards of an exhibition are provided for a visitor to see what’s on offer, accept, reject, and pick out relevant lines of enquiry thereafter. Hence, FESPA has created a galactic approach, one showcasing the interconnectivity of these technologies; its planets represent individual production areas, sibling exhibitions and content aspects, each of which has been rationalised and now orbits in happy rotation. It’s clear that Neil Felton, chief executive, divisional director Roz McGuinness and their team are presenting a different vision of print and its adjacent or crossover markets, concentrating on making their product a suitable launchpad for businesses to reach new and different heights instead of pushing dogma and market position. Wide-format’s space race will benefit from this leadership. 

In the cases of Ipex and regional shows, we’ve seen exhibition organisers fail to market properly to areas outside their traditional remit. Without approaching potential customers in the vertical markets of design, décor and retail directly, they fail to indicate that the technology they agglomerate is relevant and, therefore, that manufacturers have the opportunity only to preach to the converted. Doing so, however, is a long-term investment that broadens the scope of the exhibition and renders more value both to the vendor community and the wide-format shops that continue to dominate the demographic of attendees.

FESPA knows that it is playing a long game in trying to attract designers, architects, brand managers and agencies but its mission is a noble one. It’s a move which takes the telescopic view of where the industry needs to head and how the interplay between its events and association areas is positive. ‘Building the demand for print’ is an objective that can only be accomplished by understanding the context of print’s new role in a multi-channel world, and its integrated approach to the dominant and different process areas that come under its umbrella will help this pitch.

FESPA Digital 2014 saw the show rationalise the array of features it had tried to mount in 2013, where some were more successful than others. Indeed, this was one of the major successes of last year’s event, which was FESPA’s most consistent and focused to date. Instead of trying to prop up numerous additional sub-events, applications showcases and content hubs, a number of sensible alterations promise to make it much more clear to 2015 visitors what they should visit and why, and remove some of the scheduling clashes that have frustrated those with an appetite to learn and explore in previous years.

FESPA has redrawn the constellations to suit the states of production, potential and perspective in the modern market

Being a ‘big year’, FESPA already incorporates the major areas of Digital, Screen and Fabric, with European Sign Expo (ESE) woven together in a similar, seamless style to the 2014 iteration. There’s a sense that boundaries between these areas have been lifted, reflecting the realities of fabrication within the industry’s business population and a sensible migration away from the idea that production is delimited purely by technology. We’ve been waiting for Fabric to reach greater maturity for some time and there are signals that FESPA is truly beginning to grasp the particular delineations between apparel, soft signage and industrial textile production, with content and scope suited more appropriately to this than in previous years.

Of particular note is the introduction of Printeriors, a hybrid offering comprising a showcase with a one-day conference taking place on Thursday 21st May. It might list as exhibitors the usual suspects – Kornit and HP on the equipment side, Sihl and Neschen from media – but these at least cover the major production methods required for entry into this space from companies whose users have seen particular success therein. The seminal schedule underlines that notion that FESPA has genuinely attempted to reconcile that gap between designers, who see printers as a cumbersome necessity, and printers, who are frustrated by the lack of awareness amongst their design commissioners. The majority of speakers come from the creative space and not from production, with the keynote being handled by Red or Dead co-founder Wayne Hemingway.

Converting the learning opportunity to be outside-in is likely to be a successful tactic in industrial print, too, where FESPA has trailed key rival InPrint in its presentation of the market. Rather than attempt to square up directly to the show run by its former colleagues, FESPA’s Industrial Print Showcase and lunchtime learning and networking sessions reflect the investigative approach it is taking elsewhere. “We are showing that our exhibitors are already working in this space,” comments McGuinness, who says that the three main points of focus are décor laminates, printed electronics and automotive, which are sensible crossovers when considering the main production capabilities of the audience. A collaboration between Ricoh, Stratasys and 3Dion will present a broad introduction to 3D printing, which seems rational considering that most in the display space are still wondering how, exactly, this technology will actually fit into their everyday lives.

Knowing when to step back from an ambition is one of the most difficult pragmatic steps to take in the management of any business and particularly in one that is under constant pressure to present a market view and deliver against it. FESPA’s purchase of the carcass of ScreenMedia Expo and its attempt to convert the tanking digital signage show into one that also incorporated analogue display systems and processes was noble but misguided; in both 2013 and 2014 it didn’t manage to attract the digital world, in part because it did not understand the dynamics of that market, which still does not see sign and display as a channel that presents significant opportunity. Instead, FESPA has rationalised European Sign Expo to focus on the ancillary equipment that aids and abets print and relocated digital signage to an element of its educational hub – a deeply sensible move which, again, is representative of the actual state of the industry. 

Cynics may gauge the spread of FESPA 2015 and see a negative story, but I see one that is deeply pragmatic. It is clear that the team hasn’t rested on its laurels since the colossal success of 2014 and has opted to redraw its constellations to suit the states of production, potential and perspective in the modern market. As the industry searches for leadership to address the pressing issues of efficiency, recruitment and influence outside the sector, it would appear that FESPA is now truly addressing this need.

What, then, does Felton assume drupa thinks of FESPA? “We’re seen as strong in our niche; they like what we do but I don’t think they’re taking decisions with other exhibition organisers in mind.” Neither is his team, which is adamant that a more flexible and rational approach is required in order to serve the market that it co-opts. The biggest play of strength that FESPA can make to drupa is to nourish the community it has built and ignore the Messe, creating its own cartography and orienteering its audience accordingly rather than obsessing over its position. It is likely, in so doing, that its stars will align. Who cares about being number one when you have a galaxy of choice? My consultant friend didn’t – and neither, I suspect, does FESPA.

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