Heidelberg and drupa-not

Laurel Brunner's picture
Laurel Brunner

What a blow for the organisers of drupa 2021. Heidelberg Druckmaschinen has pulled out of the show, apart from its Touchpoint Packaging initiative.

The drupa website has a rather sad video wherein Kerstin Haase, head of the packaging segment at Heidelberg says that Heidelberg will work with partners to contribute to the initiative. She says on the drupa site that “definitely Touchpoint Packaging is a must-see at drupa 2020 [yes, really] that visitors should not miss” The unfortunate slip of the tongue says it all.

Heidelberg will no longer participate in drupa 2021, preferring instead to develop its own bespoke events at facilities like this one on Wiesloch, Germany.

The pulling out announcement was buried in news about Heidelberg’s intention to develop new ways of communicating with customers, because “innovation cycles are becoming shorter”. For the company this means pulling out of all trade fairs for next year including drupa 2021. Given the state of the company’s finances steering clear of tradeshows is most likely to be Heidelberg’s reality for the foreseeable future,.

Mightier yet
Heidelberg is still the world’s biggest printing press manufacturer and for many drupas past the company has occupied Hall 1 at the show. Indeed Heidelberg used Hall 1 as a showroom for many years, even when drupa was over. But that was in the pre-digital years, in the years when digital printing was a joke and when electronic prepress a bit of a mystery for Heidelberg. Despite efforts to get it, for years the company struggled with the software dimension of print media production, despite ventures into scanning, platesetting and workflow, mostly through acquisitions. Hubris and considerable market success bred a certain distain, so Heidelberg never quite got the data bug. Heidelberg’s recent understanding that shorter development cycles demand new models for interacting with the market is spot on, if about ten years too late. It arrived too late to the digital stage and is paying the price of tardiness in a fast moving industry.

Better late than never
Whether that arrival is too late or not to ensure its long term future remains to be seen. The company’s numbers are dire, and Heidelberg is reinventing itself in response. Not doing drupa 2021 will have some fiscal benefit at least and the intention to focus on regional and virtual events is sound. It will save scads of Euros too. For the future, Heidelberg made a somewhat ominous promise to Messe Düsseldorf at least in the context of square metre sales: “As a longtime partner to drupa, Heidelberg will be happy to continue to offer its experience when it comes to bringing future trade fair concepts into line with new digital possibilities and customer requirements.”

Beyond drupa
What this means for drupa and trade shows in general is more interesting. Exhibitions are a key part of any industry sector’s communications model, putting manufacturers and developers in the paths of random, hopefully keen customers and prospects. But exhibitions also support a wider supply chain, supporting service providers from electricians and designers, through to marketing agencies, catering and logistics. Trade shows are focal points for communities and convenient venues for technology presentations and announcements. However in the digital age the business benefits they provide are getting harder to quantify and indeed justify given concerns about the coronavirus and the environment.

Is this what the future of print will look like? In the wake of full automation in the printing industry, perhaps the skill shortage isn’t so serious after all.

Business people are less inclined to travel in the times of Covid-19, and budgets are increasingly too tight to justify the distraction of a trade show visit in foreign lands. That corporate consciences can also claim to be pricked with sustainability concerns, helps justify reluctance to support so many trade shows. Digital communications and online opportunities create many new and far less costly ways for sellers to reach buyers. That applies to developers especially and manufacturers. For instance they run online discussion groups to trial new ideas and demonstrate innovations to get response and inputs. This is nothing new, but it is a practise ripe for updating to be more intimate and granular. Perhaps trade show organisers should be thinking along such lines, offering digital platforms to support customers at all points in the supply chain and with greater frequency. Perhaps platform services is what today’s trade show organisers should be all about, selling digital spaces as well as physical ones.

In a digital environment it is also much easier to find prospects for what you want to sell, because they declare themselves online. If they don’t there is always Google to help you find and target potential customers. What matters more is the online environment in which to interact with them.

New models
The next major event for Heidelberg will be its virtual Innovation Week taking place the 19th to 23rd October, under the strapline “Unfold your potential” (one has to ask why not Unwrap it instead?). The event will focus on packaging and commercial print innovations and will include visitors to the Wiesloch plant.

Messe Düsseldorf has suffered a heavy blow with the loss of Heidelberg as a major exhibitor, which it can blame easily enough on Covid-19. However the loss should remind the organisers that it has an opportunity to start reinventing the drupa brand for the digital age. Now is the time to look at adding virtual dimensions to the show, increasing its reach and increasing its influence. Whether that happens is up to the drupa team working in partnership with its major exhibitors. First Xerox and Bobst, and now Heidelberg, have turned their backs on traditional megatrade shows, on their expense, their hassle and their promises. These companies are unlikely to be the last looking for a more effective platform tailored to the digital age.

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The Verdigris Project investigates the environmental impact of print media and provides information about sustainability initiatives for the international printing community. Keep up to date with the weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner.