Rising to the occasion: how to deliver the wow factor

By Simon Creasey, Monday 21 January 2019

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By their very nature special event and occasion printing jobs don’t crop up on a regular basis. Often this type of work is also incredibly challenging, with jobs passing through multiple individuals and machines, which creates all manner of logistical nightmares.

specials

Barnard & Westwood was chosen to print the invitations for the wedding of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex

Turnaround times are tight and it’s not a particularly lucrative sector, with margins fairly modest, according to those companies who specialise in this type of work. However, that hasn’t stopped a number of printers making a name for themselves in this space. 

So given the multitude of challenges outlined above why are they keen to take on this type of work and what do companies looking to break into special event and occasion printing need to know? 

The number of different activities that fall under the banner of special events and occasions are incredibly varied and encompass large, high-profile sporting occasions like the Commonwealth and Olympic Games, all the way through to B2B exhibitions and conferences. Regardless of the nature of the occasion these events are incredibly print intensive and require a wide range of printed collateral – from outdoor material like flags and banners, to booklets and event programmes.

Over the past couple of decades the breadth of products produced for the event market have changed significantly, according to Paul Manning, managing director at London-based Rapidity. He says that back in the mid-1980s, when the company was founded, it benefitted from a sizeable demand for printed materials from large corporates for training and special events.

“You used to print black and white books full of PowerPoints, slides or information about the event,” recalls Manning. “We would print 500 pages [per booklet] and 500 copies overnight from our bank of black and white machines and deliver it to the venue the next morning. But like a lot of print what’s happened in recent years is all of that information has gone online.”

He says these days although a wider range of printed materials is required by event organisers – with a lot of the focus on display products rather than smaller-format print – it’s not as lucrative a sector as it once was.

“Years ago you would get such big jobs and paginations that the money would quickly rack up,” says Manning. “Nowadays, even with the diverse product range you print for large events, it just doesn’t add up to as much.”

It’s a view shared by Andy Wilson, managing director at Chatham-based PressOn. “Some of those jobs are not really great money spinners or profit makers,” he says. However, there are bigger gains to be had than purely financial, according to Wilson. “They give us the ability to showcase what we do,” he explains.

So for Wilson it’s not only about the remuneration – it’s about the PR value of producing an innovative piece of work. “That’s what you’re looking for these days,” says Wilson. “Something that’s different, that you can go out there and talk about.”

He cites the example of a job the company undertook in 2015 to help mark the centenary of the First World War. PressOn was commissioned to wrap the former Royal Navy warship HMS President in a ‘dazzle’ print camouflage vinyl. The resulting ‘dazzle ship’, which took three weeks to complete, from concept meeting to installation, won the company widespread acclaim and two Fespa awards.

Unique challenges

Wilson says that like many print jobs in the event and special occasions space dazzle ship presented a number of unique challenges, such as the crews of installers having to cope with the rising and falling tides on the Thames when installing the vinyl – the installation itself took 10 days. 

“I know that three or four different companies looked at that job before we did [and in the end didn’t pitch for it], but we said ‘do you know what, we’ll have a go at that’,” explains Wilson. “At the end of the day it’s about presenting the team here with a challenge. You get athletes who run because it stretches their competitive ability – they want to go out there and beat the other runners in the race. Well essentially when we do those special projects there is a little bit of that mentality. We challenge ourselves to deliver the printed effect the client wants for the job in hand and we challenge ourselves to do it in a shorter deadline than anyone else.”

Overcoming these challenges is part and parcel of operating in the special occasions and event space, according to Iain Clasper-Cotte, managing director at Northern Flags. His company produces a diverse range of products for special occasions, including flags. For the 2016 FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Crystal Palace the company created a giant pitch cover measuring 12,000m², which Clasper-Cotte claims is the largest banner ever made in Europe.

“There tends to be quite a long supply chain involved in these types of big events and sometimes as a printer that can cause challenges because your job is theoretically just to print and the creative people involved in the process forget about the practicalities,” says Clasper-Cotte. “For instance, that pitch cover weighed 2.75 tonnes when it was dry, but if it rained it could be double or triple that weight, so that’s not going to take just three promotional girls to pull it out over the pitch.”

Being able to identify these issues and flag them up to clients is vital for printers who want to be successful in this space, according to Austen Copley, managing director of London-based fine printer Barnard & Westwood.

“Operating at this level requires acute attention to detail,” says Copley. “The range of processes and skills we specialise in at Barnard & Westwood mean that many jobs pass through multiple individuals and machines. Therefore, communication is imperative as being even a fraction of a millimetre out can spell disaster for a project. No two jobs are the same, so our skilled press minders and bookbinders are constantly developing and learning new techniques. There are so many different forms of paper, ink, foil and bookbinding materials to choose from that it comes down to experience and expertise to know which combinations will work.”

No-fail scenario

As well as boasting a wide range of skills printers servicing special event clients also need to be incredibly responsive, says Manning. “From our experience you’ve got to be reactive and well placed to do some of that work because invariably event organisers are running behind time before they even start,” he explains. “There is no room for any issues because this is no-fail work. There is no ‘sorry, you can’t receive that job today’. It has to be done and it has to be there and in place before the first person walks into the event on the day it opens.”

Manning adds that printers operating in the special event space also need to be competitive on price because a lot of companies – and particularly the large companies who run events – put work out to tender and will often place the job with the printer who submits the cheapest quote even if they may not be best placed to deliver the work. 

“You can end up competing against other printers who aren’t quoting the same thing as you and that can cause an issue because often clients don’t see the differences,” says Clasper-Cotte.

That’s one of the reasons why his company has adopted a deliberate business strategy of ensuring it isn’t overly reliant on one industry sector for special event work. 

“As well as sport and entertainment, we do a lot of retail, exhibitions, construction and forecourt work,” he explains. “Because we’ve got all of those sectors it means we are not seasonably dependent.”

Over the last few years the company has also deliberately diversified its print offer to ensure it can take on as much event work as possible – Clasper-Cotte says flag printing is a dwindling part of its business offer and today only accounts for around 30% of the jobs it undertakes.

“If you specialise in one type of print you often can’t do all that’s required for an event,” he explains. “That’s one of the reasons we invested in UV as well as dye-sub, and flatbed and roll to roll machines.”

Gaining a foothold in the special event market isn’t easy. In addition to the capital outlay required to build up the armoury of machinery needed to produce some of the materials commonly requested by clients it also needs a significant time investment, due to the complexity of work that’s commonly specified. However, for the likes of Manning it’s definitely worth the effort. 

“It’s not as easy [a market] as it used to be, but the margin is still there,” he says. “You just have to have a lot of patience and a lot of experience – and you have got to be really helpful.”

Manning adds that printers who develop these attributes should be able to gain a foothold in this challenging market. 

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