‘We want to be seen as number one in terms of quality’

By Darryl Danielli, Monday 10 April 2017

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With Fespa’s Global Expo just under a month away, chief executive Neil Felton talks about the organisation’s split personality, and how, despite representing different things to different people, its two core functions share a common goal.

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Felton: visitor quality is key

First and foremost Fespa is known for its global portfolio of eponymous exhibitions – and it will come as no surprise that it’s the events business that pays the bills – but, according to Felton, its prime purpose is as a federation of 37 national wide-format trade associations committed to creating ‘profit for purpose’ and that purpose is building an engaged community of manufacturers, printers and end-users that collectively harness the power of print.

Darryl Danielli Has Brexit had much of an impact on you guys, being based in the UK but a lot of your revenues coming from Europe?

Neil Felton It helps, some ways, financially – because we earn our money in euros and pay our staff in pounds. So that reduces our costs, but so far it hasn’t had much of an impact. The interesting aspect will be seeing how we can negotiate trade deals in just 18 months – it took us five years to negotiate a simple deal in Brazil. How we’re going to get 27 countries to agree is beyond me. We’ve got 37 associations in Fespa and they all have to agree on a path for the organisation. We just have to get a simple majority, but even so. And we’re talking about relatively simple things, not trade agreements that are going to affect countries for decades to come.

So, running Fespa is a little like running the EU?

[Laughs] It’s uncanny.

So what is Fespa then – a trade association of trade associations or an exhibition organiser?

The easiest way to describe it is that it’s a family, as amazing and dysfunctional as the best families always are. What I mean is that there are 37 associations who are the owners of Fespa. Those associations are at the heart of what we do, the same as 50 years ago when we started with just seven members.

But a lots has changed in those 50-plus years, what have been the defining moments?

Well, we have a vibrant events side to the business now, and that’s because back in 2003 the board made the decision to bring the exhibitions in-house. ‘Our’ first show was 2005.

Before that you were outsourcing the events?

We were. But it wasn’t working, the standard wasn’t good enough, the service wasn’t good enough and it got to the point that at the end of the three-year period (the show was every four years then) we would be begging for money to pay the two members of staff we had at the time. So, unsurprisingly, the board thought there was something a little bit wrong there, and made the decision to bring the exhibitions in-house and that was the ‘proper’ birth of the exhibitions side of the business. So, we had our first show in 2005 in Munich, then in 2006 we launched the first [Fespa] Digital and we celebrated the Digital event’s 10th anniversary in Amsterdam last year.

And now Digital’s gone and it’s just the main ‘Fespa’ every year. What was the thinking behind that?

It was a combination of things. We did masses of research and our visitors and exhibitors didn’t really differentiate between Fespa and Fespa Digital, people just talked about each show as ‘Fespa’. Many visitors would come to Digital looking forward to seeing some screen equipment, and we’d tell them it’s not the year for that and it was the same for the screen exhibitors, their R&D cycle wasn’t dictated by the event and they were telling us that when they launched a product that they wanted to do it at the premium show, they didn’t want to have to wait two years.

But presumably, though, the screen exhibitors, generally, won’t be launching new products every year – but the digital exhibitors are probably on more rapid R&D cycles?

You say that, but look at screen companies like M&R or MHM that manufacture technology for t-shirt printing, they now manufacture hybrid machines that combine the benefits of screen and digital.

I seem to remember that you’ve hosted screen exhibitors at Digitals in the past anyway?

We certainly did at Amsterdam last year. It just makes sense, because it gives each of our exhibitor communities the same opportunities. When I joined in 2011, We were doing a [main/global] Fespa every two years, then sometimes every three years and there just wasn’t the clarity of brand or purpose – so when we proposed the change in branding and identity to the partner committee, they said it was a no-brainer.

Isn’t there a risk, though? I mean the main event, Fespa Global Expo, always had the biggest footprint and drew the biggest crowds; isn’t there a risk that rather than waxing and waning by your calendar, it will now wax or wane according to the exhibitors’ R&D schedules, say, which makes it harder for you as an event organiser?

That’s a natural thing really. There will be some years when there will be a mass of innovations, and others when perhaps less so. But the market is in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, phase now I think, so it’s the right time to change. So, some exhibitors might need a huge stand this year, and perhaps not as much next year. But that’s always been the case – the most important thing is that our messaging is clear, and we meet exhibitors’ and visitors’ expectations. We have never over promised and under delivered, and we’re not going to start now.

You must have the biggest, global annual print show now?

That’s not a driver, we just want to be number one at what we do. If we’re bigger than APPPExpo [the annual wide-format show in Shanghai] or smaller, I don’t really care, I just want to be seen as number one in terms of quality. I could fill hall after hall with non-relevant products, but I don’t think that’s right. We’ve said that to people in the past, that we didn’t think the show was right for them.

But I have noticed in recent years that there are exhibitors with products that you wouldn’t immediately associate with the wide-format sector – but are still probably relevant to the audience.

The show is growing organically, symbiotically – but it’s not like we’re saying, ‘right, we get commercial printers to the show so we need to have offset machinery on the floor’. That is never going to be the focus, at the end of the day we understand that the number of commercial printers coming to the show is a major growth area, because they realise that there are significant profit margins to be had in the wide-format sector…

…and the cost of entering the market doesn’t have to be massive?

Exactly, and that makes it an attractive sector of the market. If you look at some of our exhibitors then many of them have a broader range of products, beyond just wide-format, so they might think it’s worth taking a punt and also bringing technology that isn’t wide-format. That’s a natural way to grow a show.

But do you think the day will come – and I’m not trying to set you up for a soundbite on ‘Fespa to take on Drupa’ – but if the commercial print audience is growing, aren’t a growing number of exhibitors going to want to bring commercial kit?

The simplest way to answer that is by saying that we can’t promise things we’re not going to deliver, so we have to clearly state that this is our market: wide-format digital, textile and screen print. Now, exhibitors might want to expand that slightly, for example I was at our Brazil show and Durst had a label printer there, and they said it was fantastic for them as they worked that angle, it was their decision and it worked. We are, after all, all in print and it helps to understand the different sectors, but it’s key that we stay focused on our core markets. It’s the same for any business.

That makes sense, you listen to what your customers want and, in your case, you have two sets: visitors and exhibitors, so you listen to them but remain true to guiding principles.

Precisely. We’re in a fortunate position in many respects, it can be challenging because we have so many stakeholders, but at the same time I can pick up the phone to printers anywhere in the world and ask them what’s happening in their market and they will open up to us because we are their federation of associations. Unlike traditional exhibition organisers, I guess, who are outside the market and just trying to make money from it, we’re by nature right at the heart of the industry.

But aren’t you one step removed from the end-users, as they’re members of your members?

It would be easy for that to happen, but at the end of the day we have a very strong ethic that at every opportunity we talk to printers; it’s about the door opening process, so it may be that they’re not our direct members, but they still feel a strong affiliation to Fespa.

And what are those members’ challenges?

I think that as the market evolves and print becomes more of a commoditised product, that’s where we can play a role as Fespa by engaging with people further down the supply chain to show them all of the other, added-value things they can do and then show our members’ members the amazing things they can do, and give them the tools to enable them to do them and be ahead of the trends. 

Do you think, though, that as the exhibition has grown that you’re now first and foremost an exhibition organiser?

They way most people see us is as an exhibition organiser, but that’s because our marketing is focused on getting 25,000 people to come to a show. We don’t have massive advertising campaigns telling wide-format trade associations to become a member of Fespa. So therefore, people wouldn’t necessarily know everything we do. When I first joined, people didn’t know that we were a federation, they just knew us as an exhibition organiser – because that’s what we spend our money promoting. I think people are beginning to understand. But, to answer your question, we’re a federation first and foremost. The fact that we run exhibitions helps fund the federation and our member organisations. 

But what makes your shows different from other similarly-sized international events, which seem to be having a tough time?

It’s entirely down to the community we have, we have the most engaged community, we’re tapped into the suppliers, the printers, the buyers. The team don’t just run an event, they’re passionate about it and they’re part of a federation and listen every day to what the market wants. If we continue to serve the needs of that industry then we will always be okay, if we stop listening to our 37 member organisations and their 16,000 members then that’s when we’ll fail, really quickly.

And understanding two key client groups’ needs?

Look, we’re not saving lives, we’re not curing cancer, but we’re hopefully making exhibitors’ and visitors’ businesses better. The beauty of Fespa [as a not-for-profit organisation] is that if an exhibitor invests with us, then we take the money we make from the show and we reinvest in back into the industry to drive even more demand for print – so it’s a virtuous circle. The only challenge is making sure we invest in the right ways and continue to deliver visitors. 

And I suppose you’re only as a good as your last show?

I’m not sure I agree; I think that in our world, you’re only as good as your next show. I don’t talk about Amsterdam last year, that’s forgotten now. All that matters is Hamburg, then after that Berlin, etc. Amsterdam was fantastic; in our last Drupa year show, Barcelona, we had 12,000 visitors, in Amsterdam last year we had 16,000. We can be really happy about that, but there were 43 things that we did wrong – however good an event is, there are always things you can improve. Perhaps if we had got those right, there would have been 17,000 people there.

Is it always the headline numbers that count?

It’s not necessarily the numbers of visitors, it’s the quality that is key. And we have to be transparent with our visitor numbers. I know that there are many exhibition organisers – and I won’t say who, but I’m sure you know – who lie about their visitor numbers and as a federation we just cannot do that, because we are a federation. We cannot count someone who pops out to the loo and then comes back as another visitor, we cannot count an exhibitor as a visitor either – we’re really clear on that. You look at some of the numbers people put out and then you look at the size of the show and everyone knows it’s clearly a lie – but, well, you know how frustrating that can be. But exhibitors are starting to become aware of that. What we also look for is visitor density, because that gives a show its energy. But even more important is the quality of the visitors, we could fill our shows with any Tom, Dick or Harry – but that’s not what we’re about.

So, you don’t fill the shows with students from the local colleges then? No, although you could argue that they’re the decision-makers of tomorrow. But if a lot of your audience was made up like that, then your exhibitors would be saying ‘I’ve just spent good money meeting the decision-makers of tomorrow, but I’ve got to wait at least five years to benefit from that and I’ve got a sales target to hit in the next quarter’. That’s the reality for exhibitors, they’ve got to make sure they hit their quarterly or annual targets. It’s important to educate, and we spend hundreds of thousands educating students that are gravitating towards a career in print and people that are new to the market – but that’s a very specific group that we need to target in specific way to ignite their passion for print.

And would you describe yourself as printophile now?

I have to; I’ve probably got more pictures of cool pieces of print on my phone than I do of my kids [laughs]. Genuinely when you see some of these things, like the screen-printed necklace at Cologne, or amazing lenticular print it really opens your eyes. Before I started here, I genuinely thought that all printers wore frayed dungarees covered in ink splodges, but just after I started I went to see Classic Stripes in India, when I was there for an event, and the factory was a dust-free environment manned by staff wearing all the [clean room] gubbins printing labels for motorbikes. Now I’m not saying that every print business I’ve visited since is like that, but I’ve seen a lot more of those than I have people in dungarees.

How did you get involved with Fespa?

I’m an exhibitions guy, I ran food shows including one that attracted 40,000 visitors.

When did you join?

May 2011, two weeks before the Hamburg show.

Was that a good time to join a show?

It was probably the best time. Because there’s nothing that you can do about the show, and you can assess it as dispassionately as possible. For the first three months, in fact, I didn’t say very much at all. I just listened, listened, listened – the team probably wondered if I was going to do any work, because all I did was listen to the associations, listen to the exhibitors and listen to the printers. I could only do that because there was such a fantastic team already in place.

And the show was in good place?

It was in a fantastic place, it was sold out – but in some ways that can be more challenging though; when you walk into somewhere that is already doing fantastically well, because then you have to look for ways to make it even better.

But I’m guessing that with the hectic portfolio of Fespa events, you probably didn’t have that much time to just observe?

Back then we only had two other events that year. That largely changed because of me and my obsession with air miles [laughs]. We had Hamburg and events in Singapore and Mexico, we were supposed to be a doing a show in the US, with Graphics of America, but I chopped that because I didn’t think the market particularly wanted it. Our aspiration was to be a global brand, but although we live and breathe our brand – it doesn’t mean that everyone else does. So, I spoke to as many people as I could and very quickly it became clear that we weren’t a global brand, we had a show in Europe, one in Mexico and a small one in Singapore – that’s not a global brand. So, if we want to be truly global, then we have 37 associations, so let’s do it. That’s what saw the growth in Brazil. My predecessor had been speaking to Brazil for five years, but until we had the drive to say we really want to be global nothing happened. Back in 2012 we knew 500 printers in Brazil, now its 50,000. So, we’re beginning to be a global brand, but we’re still not there yet.

Is the geo-cloning model key to that?

Exhibition organisers use that term, but I use a different one because I think it’s wrong. Each Fespa show is different, wherever it is in the world – because different markets have different needs. For us it’s about taking the Fespa core sensibility, which is bringing a community of printers together in that area and trying to be as culturally aware as you can be. So, for example, in Brazil the show starts at 1pm and runs into the evening, but in Europe shows mirror the working day. It’s geo-adapting, not geo-cloning.

How many shows do you have now?

Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Europe, Eurasia [Turkey] and Asia [Thailand].

Where’s next?

There’re always opportunities, but we want to make sure we’re the best where we are now first. If you look at how much we’ve grown in the past five or so years, it’s been amazing. If I look at four-year cycles, between 2008 and 2011 we got 80,000 visitors to our shows, between 2012 and 2015 we got 220,000 visitors to our shows across the world. So, it’s making sure we serve the 220,000 as well as we can, so that they have a good experience. If you look at Brazil, it’s had a really tough time because of its economy, but we increased the visitors at the last show by 20% to over 15,000 visitors and its now the highest density of any of our shows. You know how busy the European shows are, well its 50% more dense.

But China must be attractive, say?

Our focus at the moment is Asia, the Thai show in Bangkok. There are shows in China, and we will be in China, but our number-one focus is our Asia show.

You mentioned earlier about reinvesting the profits from the shows back into the industry, how much do you reinvest?

Over the past seven years we’ve reinvested £5m back into the industry, and we’re looking to invest £700,000 in each of the next three years. We’ve funded more than 100 [local association] projects in the past two years through the projects committee and that’s everything from seminars to networking dos, research projects... A whole range of things that the associations do. 

If you look at your events portfolio though, that doesn’t seem like an awful lot of money – what I mean is that if you were an Informa or a Reed or someone like that I should imagine the margins would be a lot higher. Is that because you spend a lot more on, say, making the show look or feel better, because you’re not as obsessed with the margins?

I am obsessed with the margins, on the basis that every euro we make we can reinvest in the industry. But that figure doesn’t include a huge number of things that you don’t necessarily think of as investments in the sector, but there are things that support the industry that we couldn’t do without the shows. Things like the Print Census, which is free to members, but has the insight depth that people would typically pay thousands of pounds for, our technical guides, our new members website, the content programme at the shows, Printeriors, Planet Friendly Printing Guides, lobbying. Many organisers would not invest the significant sums that those kinds of things require, but we do to ensure that we continue to engage up and down the supply chain to help better the industry.

I see, so the £700,000 is, if you like direct support for the member associations to support their members and the rest is spent on less tangible benefits.

Exactly, but it’s not like we give the money away – we invest in projects. There’s a development fund, there’s a projects committee, a partners committee, there are a whole range of criteria the organisations have to meet to apply for funding. 

With those kinds of benefits, though, how come you only have 37 membership associations?

We very keen that we have the right associations, because effectively you’re giving ownership to those associations. The people that own Fespa are the 37 associations. In the past, few years Sean [Holt, general secretary] and the associations team have added two new members. Canagraf [in Mexico] has over 6,000 members and is the most powerful association we have and is a major part of the Mexican market, and South Africa has over 500 members and is fundamental to them, it is a fantastic training facility, those two getting on board means their communities really get behind the shows.

I’ve been meaning to ask, do any of the associations have memberships beyond just wide-format?

Some do, the family is very different. If you look at BVDM in Germany, it has a core membership that are commercial printers, say, a group that are screen printers, a group that are digital. Each association is different, and that’s the challenge for our associations team, because the support needed by one association is very different from another’s needs. For some it’s about education, for others it’s about networking, or government lobbying, or employment contracts for members.

So, it’s not like you’re dictating to member associations that they all have to work in the same way. These are pre-existing organisations?

You can’t dictate, because they all have different constitutions and articles of associations. We require them to give us certain information, but this is very basic – and we always look for areas of commonality, common interests, but we can’t change their constitutions and nor should we. We’re there to help, in the same way that the UN tries to help and guide its member countries. The second I said that I realise how grandiose that sounds, comparing little old Fespa with the UN [laughs] but you know what I mean.

Of course, that Fespa is harder to run than the EU and does more good than the UN. How did Fespa come about in the first place, was it a similar story to the founding of the UN of the EU too?

[Laughs] Not quite. In 1961/1962 seven founding European member associations came together with the sole aim to share knowledge with regard to screen printing, that’s essentially how it started. In the intervening 50-plus years there were two defining moments in the organisation’s history: one was bringing the exhibitions in-house, the other was to embrace digital. Because back then many people felt it wasn’t appropriate to have digital exhibitors at a show organised by a screen association. If we hadn’t done that, then I think we all know where would be now. Screen is still very important, but we needed to move and we constantly need to look at where the market is heading, at what will be the next transformation.

Which leads onto digital screen printing – it’s still a bit controversial at the shows even now isn’t it?

I was speaking to someone who knows a lot more about this than I do, and they said, ‘do we want the marketing images of the future to be controlled by people who are software specialists, or people that understand graphics, images, colour, definition?’. I know which I would prefer: printers. It doesn’t matter what medium, printers know about visual impact and if they apply that knowledge, then they would be the best proponents of that sort of thing. So we need to engage with new technology.

And they already have the client relationships?

Precisely, and a lot of printers are leveraging that to get into the market.

Are there any other areas your looking at, say, industrial print?

It’s an interesting segment of the market. But when you ask people their views on it they have a lot of differing opinions on what industrial is. The way we see it is that it’s a collection of communities that all print from an industrial perspective, so if we’re a community organisation then we need to look at those communities. If they’re an automotive community, then we need to look at what they do and how we can help, because if you ask someone at BMW if they’re an industrial printer, they will say ‘no I’m in the automotive industry’ so we need to approach them from a different perspective, the visitor perspective. 

How do you mean?

What I mean is that if you look at textile, we were well ahead of the curve in recognising that it would be very important to our members and the show. But that’s not because me or the team in the office are geniuses, it’s because we’re surrounded by printers and they told us where the market was going. Printeriors is a good example, it doesn’t make us any money, but we know it is, or will be, an important opportunity for printers, so we make it an important feature of the show.

That gets back to what you said earlier: the bottom line of the events is important, but you’re able invest in things you believe are important, even if there’s no tangible business benefit to Fespa, provided there’s a percieved benefit to the industry?

Exactly.

So what have been your proudest achievements at Fespa?

I don’t know, there have been so many [laughs]. It has to be seeing the team out there doing what they do. I may be the CEO, but I know if I wasn’t here this company would still run incredibly well, because we have a fantastic team. Trust me, I do know how this is going to sound, but genuinely, my proudest moments are just watching them in action – when they arrive in a country and create a Fespa city for the duration of a show. When it goes right, it’s magical.

And when it goes wrong?

They’ve been economy driven really, or other things we can’t control. Brazil had a tough time, Turkey [the Eurasia event], Zuma in South Africa, the king dying in Thailand, ash clouds in Hamburg, train strikes in Cologne – but it goes back to what I just said, the team rose to each and every challenge.

Has an event ever gone smoothly?

No event ever goes smoothly [laughs]. It’s the nature of the job, it’s how you deal with things that counts.

Final question; what is the goal for Fespa as an organisation?

We want to make sure that our events are number one in their regions, that’s key. It’s also to engage markets with how amazing print can be, so from a purely altruistic perspective show people ‘look, this is what print can do for your business, whether you’re a marketer, an interior designer, a car manufacturer, a fashion designer or a printer, or whoever you are. Whether it be through an exhibition, an event, research, networking or education. It gets back to your earlier question about whether we’re an event organiser or an association, at the end of the day we’re a community and we have to focus on serving and building that community. Sounds simple, right? 

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