Can virtual events replace trade shows? – The Bobst June 2020 press conference

Trade fairs have been under pressure in recent years. Cancelling most events in 2020 is making vendors considering their stance towards trade shows once more. So far drupa has been beyond discussion as the one trade show in which a vendor needs to exhibit to be taken seriously in the printing industry. Product and technology development plans have been timed for this show to maximise impact. Now drupa being moved to 2021 wreaks havoc to many plans and a good share of vendors decided to hold virtual launch events instead.

Two major vendors bailed out of drupa 2021 recently and opted for virtual events. Xerox cited insecurity around large events during a pandemic. Bobst announced that it was cancelling its participation at most trade shows, including Drupa, citing several reasons: A change in strategy to forego trade shows (except selected few in Far East) in favour of virtual events and experience centers, environmental reasons and that 2021 is already “full” for Bobst.

Virtual press conferences

As the first of the major vendors which cancelled their drupa participation for 2021 Bobst held an international press conference on the 9th of June. Several articles have been written on the launches presented, but I would like to focus on the underlaying question: how well does a virtual event as a substitute for a trade show participation.

First kudos to the event organisers. According to Bobst more than 100 journalists and analysts joined. The virtual press conference was well organized. The stream contained a mix of CEO Jean-Pascal Bobst talking, mixed with slides and him drawing on a flip chart (you still remember what this is?) to explain some workflow details. There was ample time for questions, also expertly moderated by Francois Martin.

Still – getting technology developments explained via a couple of slides always gives me the feel that I want to walk over and kick the tires of the new product at the booth or demo site. Given the wide range of listeners to a call it is impossible to give enough detail for the exports while not to overextend the ones that dabble in this field of expertise (or in the print industry as a whole). Crucially, as an analyst I want to learn about the important points that are not on polished vendor presentation slides, like pricing, availability, tech details, pros and cons and more. I find being able to stand in front of a piece of technology and talking to product managers, sales guys and technicians incredibly helpful. This is usually the opportunity to examine print samples as well. And you have a bit of time to let the first information settle and recall the points you want clarified.

Why cancelling drupa and other trade show participation

It might be no surprise that the number of product related questions in the Q&A session were rather limited. Much more focus was on the effects of Covid-19 and the reasoning for the drupa withdrawal.

Bobst gave several reasons for not exhibiting at drupa, although the company exhibited at every drupa since its inception. I would like to have a look at the arguments and whether virtual events can replace trade shows. According to Bobst it is not about the money, although I would say it always matters given the expenses involved. It seems that this statement is more to reassure customers that the company is not too tight to spend on critical marketing activities.

Being able to serve customers better by virtual events and experience centres was cited as a reason to skip drupa. Bobst mentioned that it invested heavily into their experience centres and customers can bring jobs and see the full Bobst portfolio in interaction, while at trade shows only portions of the machine portfolio can be displayed. This is certainly true although we do not know whether the centres mentioned have the full portfolio. Also, the demo centre set-up lacks the opportunity to link up with other companies which might be necessary upstream or downstream.

I am always happy to see more focus on sustainability and especially when companies take actions rather than paying lip service only. A virtual event is certainly more environmentally friendly than a trade show visit, but that excludes the chance to see the machine in action and talking to stakeholders directly. Visiting experience centres could give that opportunity, but it would be a lot more detrimental to the environment when needing to visit each vendor separately I could see at drupa in a day. Even if setting up the show will cost a lot of resources for the exhibitor, seeing dozens of vendors within walking distance should be quite efficient to each show visitor.

Finally, Bobst mentioned that the company would have a quite crowded event calendar in 2021. I am not sure how this relates to the message that most trade shows would be skipped in the future.

As Bobst stated that shunning trade shows is not about money we are curious whether we a re going to see a flurry of activities in other media channels in the future. Bobst did not comment on the money that would have spent on drupa, but having planned a substantial presence in hall 10 the funds freed should be substantial.

Product news

Some of the product announcements should not go unmentioned here however. Bobst reported shortly on the inkjet print subsidy Mouvent in which it invested heavily for four years. The company is doing well in labels (no mention of textile here). Production is being ramped up currently. Pressed on inkjet for corrugated Bobst referred to September/October timeframe in which more announcements are supposed to happen.

Interesting is the remark that “Bobst became a major software company”. This is result of the aim to increase the efficiency in label and packaging production, especially by improving the connectivity between processes. Bobst Connect is the backbone to exchange information between devices and report back to a MIS. It is complemented by TooLink, a chip that can be placed on dies and other tools to recognize them automatically and automate the set-up.

Bobst strategic pillarsThe Master CI is a new top line flexo press complementing the entry level Vison CI launched last year. Waterbased inks are now possible in addition to UV and solvent inks. With ECG an extended colour gamut can be achieved. Start-up waste is low: the length of the machine. Another machine length of substrate is need to get up to full speed. Target market is flexible packaging.

My Opinion

Bobst is doing a lot of things right in focusing on environmental targets, connectivity, automation, industry 4.0 practices and growth & investments in strategic segments. It is also obvious that a vendor cannot indiscriminately participate in trade shows and that sufficient returns needs to be achieved. Like print also trade shows have to compete against new media channels and electronic alternatives.

Currently we are living under extraordinary circumstances and some restrictions will impact our lives for some time to come. Still I am not sure that virtual events can replace trade shows. Apart from teleconference fatigue – which most of us should experience by now – the most efficient way to get information on many vendors in a short time is to visit a trade show. Furthermore, recapping slides adds less value to my commentary than trying to find out additional detail on products and strategy by looking at devices and samples and talking to different people.

While inviting, wine and dine customers and prospects at open houses has some merits too, I am sure that many customers find it useful to see different solutions exhibited at the same event (understandably an effect that vendors find less desirable). Also, the social aspects are important which I spare to list them all. As a manager put it to me lately: “If you know somebody who can make million Euro equipment sales by remote only, I would hire him in an instant”. There is a time and use for virtual events, but real trade shows are hard to replace.

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