Ipex boss more confident than ever despite troubled year

After the spate of high-profile withdrawals from Ipex 2014 over the past year, which began with HP last June, regular readers of ProPrint could be forgiven for thinking that the show is on its last legs. However, Trevor Crawford, Ipex event director at show owner Informa, is confident that not only will it be a success for the exhibitors that have kept the faith, but that it will the most visitor-focused event in the show’s 100-year history.

Darryl Danielli Just over a year ago, Ipex 2014 was 75% sold out and perhaps even reaching 100,000sqm on the show floor. What happened?

Trevor Crawford We were almost a victim of our own success because we set off with two-and-bit years to go, much earlier than usual, as we were moving to London from Birmingham and we know that people don’t like change, so we wanted to help get them over that. So we got to Drupa and we had the most amazing booking program we’d ever had. But then it all fell apart.

Danielli Why do you think that happened?

Crawford A number of reasons. But there was a time when all of us had detailed three- or five-year plans, but the world has changed and now many businesses don’t even wrap up their budgets until they get into the year. What that demonstrates is that there are more people involved in every decision now, and decisions are spread across so many different regions. People generally leave it late until they make that call. From an exhibitor point of view, it’s probably going to be Q4 this year.

Danielli Do you think exhibitors might come on board that late?

Crawford Yes. In 2010, in the final three-month run-in to the show, we took the best part of 3,500sqm in bookings, which was three times that of 2006, and this time I think it will be even greater. It’s because people will make late calls, not because they doubt that we can pull it off, but just because of the nature of the market.

Danielli A four-year cycle must be a killer though, because so much can happen between shows.

Crawford In a way, if you have an annual or biennial event, it’s a lot easier. Especially when you’re in a flat market, because you’re always in people’s faces. But when it’s a quadrennial event, it’s difficult for venues and, to be fair, it’s probably difficult for big exhibitors, too, as they don’t really know what footprint they need until they’ve spoken to every part of their business. Also there’s the challenge that people move around jobs much more than they used to, so on each cycle you might be dealing with different people and they don’t necessarily ‘know’ the show in the same way as someone who has been around for a while.

Danielli So is every Ipex like a ‘new’ show?

Crawford I think it is now, most certainly this time around. But that can be good thing too, because I love launching new shows, it’s what gives me the biggest buzz.

Danielli Is that why Ipex 2014 feels like a new show then, because you’ve had to change everything?

Crawford Yes, well, we’ve got heritage and we’ve got legacy, but that can’t really impact your strategy. Also, we’ve had some pretty difficult times of late, as you know.

Danielli But there’s an impression that Ipex 2010, against all the economic odds, was a good show. But then some people seem to think that Drupa 2012 didn’t quite deliver and Ipex suffered as a result as the big exhibitors suddenly started scrutinising their show spends.

Crawford Possibly, but the bottom line is that for whatever reason, the international funding of Ipex has dried up. So we had a situation where HP and Heidelberg walked away and then there was a domino effect, and we’ve been trying to manage the fallout of that. We walked out of Drupa with the single strongest order book in our history. That’s because all of us, Informa and the exhibitors, delivered a phenomenal show in 2010 and everyone was buying London, buying new international audiences, buying cross-media. There was a buying frenzy. So when all of a sudden HP pulls out, Heidelberg, Xerox pulled out; then it created a domino effect and I think it gave a few people the excuse to save a bit of money. At the time, it was so far off, it was difficult for people to focus on it.

Danielli Isn’t that part of the problem with being an international show though? Your funding comes from international budgets and the decision-makers are too far removed to see beyond a potential cost saving.

Crawford Possibly, even to the point that some of them have never even been to the show. You could probably write a book on the year we’ve had, perhaps a film…

Danielli …not sure I would watch it to be honest, sounds like a tearjerker.

Crawford Fair point. You can overcomplicate things though, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the what-ifs and what we could have done. You can’t think like that though. Largely we did all the right things. What it boils down to is a seismic shift in international funding. It has certainly gone for us and we’re now focusing on different pools and I think that’s where our successes will come from.

Danielli It seems that you were pinballing from one setback to the next, then getting the messaging wrong. Is there anything you would do differently?

Crawford Honestly, I don’t think there is anything we could have done differently.

Danielli But what about the whitepaper that seemed to be interpreted by some people as Ipex turning its back on litho?

Crawford I don’t know, maybe it was slightly misinterpreted; but I don’t think we ever said that litho was dead or that we were going to become a digital show. I think we should be – and are – technology-neutral. It is fair to say that there won’t be a lot of litho on the floor, but we’re gaining ground. We have Printers Superstore, we have Presstek and we have post-press supporters of litho and it will remain terribly important to the show.

Danielli If you look at vertical shows, such as Fespa and LabelExpo, they seem to have been immune to the big show backlash. Do you think there’s an opportunity to be a purely digital show?

Crawford There’s definitely room for vertical shows.

Danielli But there aren’t any purely digital shows, with the exception of Hunkeler Innovationdays…

Crawford Digital has moved on and that’s part of the reason why we don’t run Digital Print World now, because digital is part of the mainstream. The average printer is not going to focus on just one particular technology. So I think there’s absolutely a need for generalist shows.

Danielli Do you think that the days of the big international shows have gone?

Crawford I think the big international shows are having a rough time; some will change shape, but they will always be important. But we’ve had to make Ipex a lot more relevant. We need to focus on the things that will make the show an unmissable opportunity – like the content stream we’ve invested in so heavily – because if we get that right, then everything else will fall into place.

Danielli Has Ipex ever faced this scale of challenge before though?

Crawford Yes, we’ve always reflected the challenges facing the industry, and the industry has been through some pretty tough times. But when I sit down with printers and ask if they’re still going to be coming even though X, Y or Z has pulled out, they look at me like I’ve insulted their intelligence and say, ‘Yes, of course I’m going to come’. And that’s why we commissioned the research last year, to get a better understanding of what they need from us; which is insight and help grasping opportunities to grow their business. It’s not just about coming to the show and opening up their cheque books…

Danielli That would be nice for the exhibitors.

Crawford Of course, and it will still happen. But we have to be about more than that; it has got to be about the takeaways that benefit their [the visitors’] businesses.

Danielli But balancing customer and exhibitor needs is incredibly difficult.

Crawford It’s a fine balance, but it still has to come down to delivering a show that meets the visitors’ needs first. The events business is about getting buyers and sellers together, and you can engage the visitors by working with the exhibitors to inspire them, help create new ideas, give them tools to identify new opportunities, and I know we can do that. It has been a difficult time, but I really believe that we will come out of this stronger, certainly in the value we offer to visitors.

Danielli Is this a reaction to the withdrawals though, or was this always planned?

Crawford We probably would have made the changes anyway; we would have had to evolve at some point, but perhaps not in 2014, if I’m honest. Before last summer we had been talking about the show being more content-driven for 2018 anyway. We’ve reached a point where there’s been a change in mood from the major manufacturers and they can’t sustain spending tens of millions on the big shows. I don’t know if building those massive ‘gin palaces’ at a show necessarily goes down awfully well with customers either, in the present climate. Possibly not.

Danielli That’s an interesting point, why haven’t the big boys just scaled back their spend rather than opting for the nuclear option of withdrawing completely?

Crawford I think some have; we’re in a position now where the exhibitors have right-sized their stands, they’ve right-sized their investments and their mythical return on investment is there.

Danielli Mythical ROI?

Crawford I don’t think it’s ever been about ROI, it’s a convenient term that people turn to. If you actually start digging into the ROI story, then you quickly realise that no one really understands it. I don’t think shows are about ROI at all.

Danielli I guess it is impossible to track, I mean, would an exhibitor track back a deal that might have been 12 months in the making to that first demo at a show?

Crawford Precisely. We run 120 shows worldwide, and if you look at them you won’t ever hear ROI mentioned apart from in print. Ever. What you’ll hear is ‘I need to be there, I need to be seen as part of this industry, I want to demonstrate our investment in R&D, I want to sell things and I want to be seen to be supporting my customers’. But equally, you won’t have people spending millions of pounds to be at those shows. Don’t get me wrong, we were happy to take that money at the time – but I think there has been a big wake-up call to exhibitors and to us to be fair. It doesn’t mean that these shows aren’t important; it’s just that how exhibitors engage has to be different.

Danielli Based on what you’ve said, would Ipex have a better chance of long-term survival as a UK, perhaps biennial, show?

Crawford We’ll survive whatever. The business of print is global. And even if some manufacturers fund Ipex as if it were a UK or European show, that’s certainly not how we feel. Even though it’s going to be a smaller show, footprint-wise, we’re spending more money on promoting the show and have devoted more resources and money to putting together a great content program because I still know that going forward the show will deliver on an international stage. If some people approach it as a UK show, then that’s fine, we’ll deliver that audience, but we’ll also deliver an international audience – I’m confident of that.

Danielli What about the international shows, like Ipex India and the Serigrafia show that Informa bought in Brazil? How are they faring?

Crawford We’ve put our international shows, with the exception of Serigrafia, on hold so that we can focus our efforts and funding purely on Ipex 2014, because it’s too important. Serigrafia is a colossus, it is an amazing show and I think the biggest show for the wide-format, screen-printing and sign industries in the world. It’s the only show I’ve ever been to where visitors queue up every morning and when the doors open the exhibitors applaud them. It’s incredible, you really should go.

Danielli Can I borrow the Informa jet?

Crawford There’s isn’t one unfortunately, unless you count Ryanair.

Danielli The big question is, though: will there definitely be an Ipex 2014?

Crawford Of course. Without question. It makes me smile when anyone asks that question, and they’re asking it a lot less these days. We’ve got a large tenancy with Excel and I have the backing of Informa, which is a massive PLC, and Ipex is incredibly important to them. We’ve already got 200 exhibitors on the show floor.

Danielli What footprint are you on now?

Crawford 15,000sqm net, not including aisles or Ipex areas, and that puts us on about 70% of our new budget. The overall footprint of the show will be 46,000sqm gross. So by any standards, this is still a very big show.

Danielli Have you slimmed your budgets in terms of what you’re spending though?

Crawford No, in fact we’ve increased our spend in every area. We haven’t penalised people for downsizing, but for those that have withdrawn and were liable for cancellation fees, we’re reinvesting that into the show. Of course, if those exhibitors come back, that money’s there for them, we’re not closing any doors. We’re boxing clever in other areas too.

Danielli How so?

Crawford We’ve also reduced our rates by 25% to all the original exhibitors that signed up and are showing faith in the show, which is a massive amount. We’re also offering free lifting, free internet, we’re giving half-price stand power and free exhibitor catering off-stand, a free lead-retrieval system and a £250 ($425) furniture allowance. This represents a big hit for us, but it shows how serious we are about making this show work for exhibitors and visitors.

Danielli So do you think the past year has made Informa listen a bit more?

Crawford It will have a positive impact; I think we’ve always listened, though, as a business. When Ipex delivers next year, a lot of European heads will go back to their HQs and say, ‘Hey guys, we now need you to support us and Ipex, because they delivered.’ And we will deliver. We’ve got a critical mass and I’m much more confident today than I have been at any time in the past year. Of course, there are still concerns, but that will just make us work all the harder to make Ipex 2014 a massive success for exhibitors and visitors alike.

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