Just before 10 o'clock on Tuesday last week more than a hundred people near Birmingham held their collective breath. At 10.00am the doors to Ipex 2017 opened and visitors entered Hall 5 of the NEC. The show had begun and printers had turned up.
UK printers should have been prepared for the reduced size of the event, cut down to half of the available floor space, but those visiting from further afield were not. Most overseas visitors (and they came from Africa, Russia, India and Japan) had expected an exhibition spread over several halls loaded with the latest technology with multiple machines running and had booked to stay for several days on this account. Instead they found a show with enough to interest the visitor for most of a single day. Had this been the Midlands Print Show, this would have been fine. Unfortunately it was called Ipex.
The first of the four days was 31 October – Halloween – and the ghosts and memories of past Ipexes haunted this iteration of the show from beginning to end. Conversations in the copious coffee areas compared this year to the remembered glories of previous exhibitions.
Early arriving visitors were welcomed with a slow motion dance by students from the London College of Fashion, decked out in clothes that had been produced from digitally printed textiles for the occasion. But few of those watching would have known this.
Pre-show marketing had promised 20,000 visitors and that the hall would be filled. The final count will come nowhere near this and the hall was only half occupied. “We have to shoot for the stars,” says show director Rob Fisher addressing the shortfall, “but hopefully what we have delivered is putting Ipex back on the map after 2014. The show has the right feel and vibe to it.”
If exhibitors had been concerned about visitor numbers in the run up to Ipex, the amount of business done and leads gathered more than dispelled this. Most companies could point to unexpected deals with both UK and international visitors, to meeting prospects that they had not previously identified and could engage in proper conversations with them, particularly so if that company had carried out its own pre-event marketing.
So Friedhelm International could point to the first British sale of an MBO K80 folder to Anglo Printers. Duplo was constantly busy both with its established multi-finishers and with the DuSense digital enhancement press which it had heralded. Apex Digital Graphics ran demonstrations every two hours through the day on the RMGT9 928 LED UV, packing out the aisle next to the machine each time it did so. Presstek was running demos to order on its 34DI with a similar LED UV unit and was rewarded with strong interest from companies that had never previously considered a Presstek.
Everyone spoken to commented on the credibility of the visitors, comparing favourably with those that had attended the Print Show in Telford a few weeks earlier. There the visitor profile had been smaller companies with limited budgets. At Ipex the demographic was a larger company with litho as well as digital printing.
If the numbers are not known or at least not disclosed, Informa is confident enough to talk about staging Ipex at two-year intervals, with the next promised for 2019, probably in the spring that year. “We are no longer in the same league as Drupa and we have a great relationship with the venue,” Fisher says. He promises an official announcement early in the new year after consultations with those exhibitors that had committed to the show this year and the companies that had declined to attend. A four-year interval is also possible.
“We want to develop and grow Ipex. This was always going to be the hardest year because of what had happened in 2014. In the seven years since Ipex was at the NEC, the landscape has changed dramatically in that time. Perhaps we were over ambitious this time.”
This indicator of this o’er reaching ambition was the vast black curtain drawn over the end of the exhibition, behind which lay the other half of Hall 5, empty save for some packing boxes and a conveyor unit that had had to be replaced or was surplus to requirements. On the show floor itself the press pen was vast, serving fewer than a dozen journalists, the presentation theatre was allocated generous space and it was unclear if some areas were stands or public space.
A vast networking cafe and bar area was used by exhibitors for meetings because they had opted for the minimal amount of space on their own stands to keep budgets under control.
Unfortunately it seemed as if the organiser had also kept a tight rein on expenditure. One idea had been to demonstrate what a terrific industry printing is to young people. Few would argue with that. But Ipex cannot bring sub-16-year-old school children into the hall because there is moving machinery: attempts to communicate with universities, colleges and other education establishments missed their mark and other than the cohort from the London College of Fashion, real students were missing. They were at the NEC in their thousands last week, attending the National Graduate Recruitment exhibition and streamed past the entrance to Ipex without a glance.
The fall back was to try to guide printers about how they should engage with young people, presumably not by following the Ipex example. And there were seminar sessions about the apprentice levy and what skills will be needed by businesses in future.
The main theme and direction for the show had been given as Print in Action – Ipex calls it the show’s USP – where the technology could be placed in context by keynote and other expert speakers discussing trends and opportunities for printers. The audience for such sessions never threatened to exceed the space available, some being more sparsely attended than that even.
But the missed opportunity must surely have been to demonstrate Print in Action with some actual print. The themed sessions on the way that brands are using print, for example, should have been accompanied by a display of real Print in Action samples together with information boards explaining the trends and the technologies used to create the items. Ipex talked about showing how print was changing, how it will be used in future and what printers can do to exploit this future. It did not do so. It was not as if space was constrained.
Likewise there was no information to explain what the slow motion dance at the entrance was about to the bemused onlookers. Dare we suggest that a printed leaflet handed out as they watched might have explained things at little cost?
Perhaps audiences at the theatre sessions could have been bolstered by use of SMS to alert visitors who had indicated an interest in a particular presentation, or at the very least a loud speaker announcement of electronic displays in the public areas. These might also have been used to show what was happening on social media feeds. Ipex had made great play of its social media footprint in the marketing to get visitors to Ipex, but seems to have forgotten to engage once they were there.
Most exhibitors will not have been aware of this. At shows they tend to be confined to their stands and do not experience the event in the way that visitors do. And the visitor experience was lacking. Ipex is no longer going to stand shoulder to shoulder with Drupa on the world stage. It had instead the opportunity to make the visitor’s experience a memorable one, akin to a guest at a boutique hotel rather than a Travelodge, in the same way that print, as no doubt many speakers explained, is all about the experience, its tactile nature and the engagement it creates.
Ipex 2017 talked the talk. It failed to walk the walk.
Exhibitors enjoyed strong interest at the NEC last week, possibly because visitors had fewer stands to call at and managed to see them all. However, the visitor experience was more uneven with many coming away unimpressed by 2017 compared to Ipexes of the past.
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