On 19 July, on what had been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’, most legal Covid restrictions were lifted in England, and many measures have since also been loosened in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
On the whole, and helped by the quick vaccine rollout, it is easier now than at any other point during the pandemic to conduct business in a way that is more familiar to most of us.
And while many have jumped at the opportunity to return to something approaching normality, others are being more cautious, at least while case numbers are still high due to the spread of the Delta variant.
Differing levels of comfort with social contact, ongoing restrictions on international travel, and individual company policies on Covid measures and meeting others all mean that true normality is unlikely for some time yet.
Many things were forced to change at lightning speed in March 2020; businesses implemented working from home policies where possible, face-to-face meetings were verboten as social distancing rules were introduced, and domestic and international events were cancelled.
But 18 months down the line, the much-touted ‘new normal’ feels ever closer. A recent Printweek poll that asked ‘Will you resume face-to-face meetings with clients and suppliers from 19 July?’ found that 34% of respondents have already been hosting them for a while, as earlier restrictions have eased, while an equal 34% now plan to take a hybrid approach of in-person and virtual meetings.
And 23% said they are looking forward to normality returning, while just 9% answered no, because digital platforms allow them to meet more efficiently.
The results are unsurprising – printers have traditionally met with their technology and consumables suppliers in person before spending, and print buyers have often liaised face-to-face with their service providers on jobs and contracts, or to press pass. But different kinds of companies require different levels of social contact.
Dan Tyler, founder of software provider Vism, says his business had found visiting customers pre-pandemic a “bottleneck in the sales process”.
“We have a simple product that takes about 10-15 minutes for somebody to get their head around and be ready to go, and it’s cloud-based. If [face-to-face] is what people wanted then that’s what I’d do, but this shift to everybody understanding how Zoom meetings work and wanting to do things online has been a real blessing from our side, because they see the time savings and efficiencies it creates.”
He adds the environmental impact of travelling to meetings should also be taken into account.
IPIA general manager Brendan Perring says the boundaries “have readjusted completely” when it comes to in-person meetings.
“Pre-pandemic, if you were trying to sell somebody a product – print, an association membership, advertising, etc – the initial pipeline work that you would do involved phone calls, and emails, and you’d assess whether somebody was of interest by giving them a phone call and sounding them out.
“The next stage if you felt a bit of interest was to try and hook a formal meeting where you would actually go and see them face-to-face, but I think that first introductory meeting, before the commitment on either side, has now moved to Zoom or Teams.
“Then there will sometimes be a second or third of these meetings before you get to a stage that you’re both confident that this is real and that you’re actually going to do business together.
“Depending on how much it is, and what the level of the product is, you would then go down and see them, but only when you’re both pretty sure that it’s a done thing. The value and premium put on a face-to-face meeting has increased substantially.”
For manufacturers trying to sell the benefits of a piece of kit, being able to meet a customer in person, and provide a demonstration, is often crucial to securing a purchase. Virtual demos have become popular during the pandemic but are unlikely to be the preferred option for many vendors or buyers going forwards.
In July, Agfa UK held a Summer BBQ event at its new Inkjet Competence Centre in Rugby. There were a number of Covid measures in place, including social distancing and wearing masks indoors.
“I miss the face-to-face and the physical proximity to people in being able to do business, either to purchase or sell, or to network, hence the reason why we put on the BBQ, because to be able to conduct our business properly there has to be a return back to what we’re used to,” says Agfa inkjet sales manager for the UK and Ireland Bobby Grauf.
“When you’re trying to sell the printed product, or the machinery that does the printed product, there’s nothing like looking at it, touching it, and feeling it. As good as Zoom [and the like] are, nothing takes away the fact that you can touch a piece of print.”
Like many other manufacturers, Agfa has run virtual demos and presentations during the pandemic, but Grauf says that while “online is very good as a starting point to get interest”, he is looking forward to the reinstatement of trade shows.
“You can’t read a person’s face when they’ve just dialled in – reading body language is what we do in sales. And do people actually pay attention to what they’re seeing on screen, or are they doing emails on the side? You don’t know that with virtual.”
Grauf believes that the first proper trade show “is going to be a blast because people are so deprived of it”, although he acknowledges that things could take a while to get back to normal as not everyone feels comfortable to visit a show right now.
Online wide-format trade printer Graphic Warehouse – part of Matic Media – had been approached to exhibit at shows this year but managing director Richard McCombe doubted whether the visitor appetite would be there yet and asked some public sector contacts for their feedback.
He says the people he spoke to were still being instructed not to do client facing activities, and would therefore not be going to exhibitions.
“It didn’t really matter if I wanted to exhibit, it’s largely down to whether the visitors’ management teams will allow them to go,” he adds.
But MacroArt operations director Mark Rose is keen to get back to such events, which he describes as “enormously valuable for market intelligence, networking, looking at new equipment, touching and feeling stuff, and looking at new developments, all under one roof”.
“If you’re spending money on something serious, it’s difficult to build that relationship up on a screen,” he adds.
Fespa’s flagship Global Print Expo will be one of the industry’s first major events to resume, in Amsterdam in October.
Fespa chief executive Neil Felton says virtual environments are “very useful, and they’ve taught us a whole load of new skills and helped us out no end”.
“But people – whether it’s exhibitors, visitors, family, or friends – are very keen to get back to face-to-face, we just need to do it in a considerate and responsible way,” he adds.
Alongside the in-person show, Felton says Fespa also plans to continue to deliver a high level of virtual content going forwards “because we realise that you have to have a mix of both online and face-to-face to provide the market that we serve with the right information”.
The IPIA’s Perring says that while people are now “much more accepting” of online sessions, he expects many businesses that hold events to adopt a hybrid approach, running some virtually, and others – in lesser numbers than before – physically.
“I think what has fundamentally changed is that what it will take to get people out of their business to come to a physical event will have increased significantly. Just another trade show isn’t going to cut it for a lot of people now, they want you to provide them with a real genuine need.
“They think ‘actually, I’ve got so productive and done so much more without having to go out of my business all the time, and I feel much more comfortable doing research and experiencing things online, so you have to
work a lot harder now to get me out of my business’.
“That doesn’t mean they won’t do it, but I think the major trade shows and other events will have to work a lot longer and harder at it to make sure it works.”
One of the new events launched during the pandemic was online exhibition Printing Expo. Open all year round, Printing Expo is organised by Resolve Business Management.
Event director Wayne Beckett says Printing Expo was designed to complement live events rather than act as a replacement.
“It’s a collection of digital marketing tools for OEMs. It’s a way of collecting data and business card information for potential new customers without having to fly people all over the world. For customers, it’s about understanding the capabilities of a machine.”
Exhibitors can also use the platform to assess the value of an opportunity, and whether it is worth scheduling a follow-up face-to-face meeting.
“Pre-pandemic, if you’d offered somebody a Zoom meeting rather than coming to see them, they’d have probably thought you can’t be bothered, whereas now it’s the norm,” says Beckett.
“A lot of our exhibitors’ reps will do an online presentation and then they can vet [the potential customer], have a conversation with them to see how keen and relevant they are, and then after that take them to a showroom where they can physically see a machine running and look at the product coming out of the end of the machine.”
One of the major areas of change for many businesses during the pandemic has been the switch to remote working.
While it was not feasible for many print company workers, particularly those operating machinery, to work from home, numerous design, sales, and admin staff, among many others, did relocate at least temporarily to their homes and many are now unlikely to return to the office on a permanent basis.
“I’m in an office at the moment that usually has 10 people sitting in it and there’s no one in,” says Graphic Warehouse’s McCombe.
“We’ve asked the staff if they want to return [to the office] and there’s been a resounding no, apart from maybe to come in for half a day a week to see everybody. One of the key things is that they were making such big savings on their travel costs.”
The switch to a hybrid model of home and office working is perhaps one of the most notable changes to the status quo spurred on by the pandemic, and it’s a progression that Fespa’s Felton believes is a good idea.
“I think you need to take the best of what online [offers], which is providing convenience, speed, concentration, and the ability to actually have very good meetings online, with the ability to innovate and to look at solutions in new ways, which the office environment can provide.”
He concludes: “You need flexibility, but you can’t forget the power of the collective when they’re working together.”
Reader reaction: What will the ‘new normal’ look like for you?
We are social animals and need face-to-face contact – Charles Jarrold, CEO, BPIF
I imagine that I’m not the only one to find the phrase ‘Freedom Day’ grating. Lifting restrictions doesn’t represent ‘freedom’, rather the need to accept that, at some point we’d all need to take greater personal and business responsibility. From a business point-of- view, we want to see demand recover fully, and ‘business as normal’, and, of course, we recognise our ongoing responsibility to protect our businesses and staff. At the BPIF, we see businesses needing more guidance than ever as the mandated restrictions are lifted.
We’re fortunate that the technology existed to enable businesses to continue to operate through lockdowns. Teams, Zoom and so on function as a substitute for face-to-face meetings and discussions.
However, we’re all missing the experience of meeting together face-to-face, which gives a depth of experience and interaction that’s not replicated online. Face-to-face contact helps develop trust, and trust makes business much easier. It’s the same for the events side of our industry. Awards ceremonies mark and celebrate excellence, and are always huge networking occasions. Planned and chance meetings with industry contacts lead to chance encounters beyond our familiar networks. Trade shows mean we see equipment and technology, but also refresh contacts across the sector, and we have to be wary of the loss of that opportunity.
With all this change, how should businesses plan for the future? There are no easy answers, but being close to all stakeholders – from staff to customers to suppliers, provides a strong base; the more we understand the world that impacts on us, the better we plan for the future. We don’t know what that future looks like in detail, but we can make some educated guesses. Remote working has its advantages, but so does the energy and engagement of meeting in person. Hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution shaped our preferences as social animals, our world may have changed, but I doubt we have all that much.