Nexpo 2008: The Big Empty?

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By: Jim Rosenberg

By the time Nexpo ?08 arrived, it came as no surprise that the sagging industry?s annual trade show had drawn its slimmest attendance ever. But don?t blame the vendors, whose support not only makes the show possible but also contributes a major share of the Newspaper Association of America?s income.

In one way or another, all the vendors that might have been expected — and several that were new — were setting up in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center by late last week. They showed up with something to meet every department?s changing needs: systems to prepare and deliver content for multiple media, equipment capable of efficiently printing a greater variety of products at higher quality, and post-press products to achieve similar goals for inserting and packaging.

As is the practice when the trade show or publishers gather in the nation?s capital, Monday?s general session opened with a military presence — this year, the Marine Corps Band. But would a lone bugler playing ?Taps? have sufficed?

Such was the mood on the show floor, thinly populated by hundreds of milling, anxious vendor reps and mere dozens of newspaper employees. With the exception of demonstrations of one of the very few pieces of large equipment, each day looked like the last, shortened afternoon of the five-day ANPA/TEC, Nexpo?s predecessor.

If the vendors aren?t to blame for the poor turnout, neither is the NAA. The industry?s serious and protracted decline was warning enough. But more than in other down years, companies that sell what it takes to make and move the news on paper or on screen want to know how the NAA will cope with the shrunken show in the future. Nobody imagines a quick turnaround, and it?s been almost 20 years since the event was truly crowded.

Five weeks before the show, 264 persons had registered for Nexpo — little more than a third the number a year earlier. Vendors say NAA informed them at that time that although it expected total attendance for Nexpo and the nearly concurrent publishers? and American Society of Newspaper Editors? conventions to hit 1,000, maybe more, that number would be less than Nexpo alone in 2007. The numbers always rise in the last weeks, but even a 10% bump wouldn?t take the Nexpo-only total to 300.

NAA will not release attendance figures before the end of the show Tuesday.

Since the early 1990s, vendors have responded to reduced attendance with reductions of their own: fewer personnel, less heavy equipment (especially operating machines), smaller booths, and fewer, often shared social functions. This year, however, one often-discussed possibility was realized: Two major vendors chose not to exhibit at all.

German press maker Koenig & Bauer AG and Flint Group were Capital Conference sponsors, with personnel on hand and meetings scheduled. They just didn?t have booths. Faced with little interest in Nexpo and the giant Drupa show next month, the decision came town to allocating resources — equipment, staff, money, time — according to KBA North America Vice President Gary Owen.

?It wasn?t a quick decision; it wasn?t arrived at easily,? says Owen, noting that KBA had been talking to NAA for some time. Owen is quick to add that the move was not intended to harm NAA, and that sponsorship preserved its exposure and its relationship with the trade association while conserving the manufacturer?s budget.

Drupa loomed large in the calculations. ?Do I get a much better bang for my buck,? asked Owen, by going all out at the quadrennial event in Duesseldorf or the annual event in Washington, ?where we know and they know attendance will be low??

He continues, ?It was time to do it. We just feel we definitely made the right decision. No regrets.?

Still, for exhibitors who say the notable exhibit absences send a message to the NAA, Owen was equally emphatic on a further point: ?Our plan is to be back full strength, full stride next year.?

Though unrelated to newspapers? needs, this year?s very low attendance dramatized a change that has been building for years: trade shows no longer play the role they once did in finding business. It isn?t just U.S. newspapers; it isn?t just Nexpo.

Danish post-press equipment maker Schur Packaging Systems has pushed hard into North America in recent years. But it didn?t bring its new inserter to Nexpo, and it?s not bringing it to the much-closer Drupa. Shown at Ifra last fall in Vienna, the improved prototype will remain in Denmark until it ships to the first customer, according to U.S. Sales Manager Gerry Russell. The expectation, he says, is that interested visitors at Drupa will be invited to see the machine working at that first site. The company?s owner, says Russell, saw no return for its investment in transporting equipment to Drupa in 2004.

?It?s become too outrageously expensive to bring equipment to a show,? says Dan Kemper, president of Schur?s U.S. company. ?We can take the same amount of money and talk to everybody at their place.?

For vendors, the commitment ?is huge,? Quipp Systems Marketing Manager Leticia Gostisa observes, pointing to the time, people, and third-party charges required to build, transport, set up, dismantle, and return equipment.

Kemper argues that while the NAA can say it needs Nexpo to support its operating budget, for all practical purposes ?they?re running a business just like I am. Why shouldn?t they [also] feel the pain??

Even those without big machines feel the same way. ?It?s the cost and the time, and in the end, customers pay it,? Michele Mottini, research and development chief at Italy?s Tera Digital Publishing, pointed out, suggesting that NAA and the Ifra consider alternating years.

It was one of several familiar and similar suggestions made by many. Holding the show every other year, according to Owen, would benefit the NAA, attendees and many exhibitors, especially those who bring out the big iron. For the big-ticket items, Owen and others note, both technology changes and customers? considerations before purchases have long lead times.

Another editorial-solutions developer from overseas, first-time exhibitor 4Cplus, was not particularly disappointed by the turnout. ?We did some groundwork, and lined up 15 to 17 meetings [and] about 60% of them have turned up so far,? Vice President Ashish Aron said at the show?s midpoint. Adds General Manager Kapil Arora, ?Our expectations were never very high, We came here as a branding exercise.?

Both were surprised, however, that the show was held over a weekend, noting that Ifra is usually held during the week. Both expect a higher turnout next year in Las Vegas.

There seems little agreement on how a biennial show would work best: a full show every other year; an annual show primarily of software, with larger equipment every other year; alternation of Nexpo in the U.S. and the Ifra Expo in Europe; a biennial Nexpo exposition only, with a revived SuperConference in off years; or even combining Nexpo with the annual Graph Expo. As many newspapers realize they must move into some commercial work, ?what better place to do it than at a commercial show?? asks Sam Wagner, president of Web Offset Systems.

But there is no drumbeat for the SuperConference, NAA and Ifra are still said to have cordial but not close relations, and when he and others offered to pay double for booth space every other year, says Kemper, the NAA rejected the idea.

Kemper would like to use a booth for private meetings on the show floor. In fact, for less than the cost of a Nexpo exhibit, he says, his company could host a nice affair for existing and prospective customers. Conceding that pulling paying attendees from the show is problematic, Kemper notes that Nexpo ?09 will convene in Las Vegas? Mandalay Bay hotel and convention center, not the city?s main convention center. So, inviting certain attendees to a private event in that hotel would not be asking them to leave the Nexpo venue, or maybe not even their hotel.

Exhibitors with big gaps in between meetings with serious shoppers could once hope to lure enough interested visitors to account for at least some unanticipated future sales.

But this year at Nexpo, laments Russell, ?If you?re waiting for walk-in traffic, it?s an awfully long day.?

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