Wed, Jul

IR Talks to... Neil Felton, CEO, Fespa

The Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with the exhibition calendar as we know only too well, but we’re due to see the return of Fespa Global Print Expo this October. I asked Fespa CEO Neil Felton about the show, about the changes that have taken place during his decade at the helm, and about how he sees Fespa developing.

Fespa is oft considered a trade association in itself, but it’s not, it’s a federation of 37 trade associations (inc. Fespa UK Association) and predominantly an exhibition organiser for the sectors they represent. You talk about the need to keep connecting wide and wider to remain relevant - and point out that Fespa is now made up of a number of communities - so how do you see it developing now?

At the core of Fespa have always been the print communities that evolved from screenprinting. Over the decades this has become a very diverse ‘speciality print’ universe. It includes producers of printed graphics, textiles and garments, printers of industrial applications, as well as visual communications specialists, sign producers, and many more besides.

Then, within those segments, the digital technology revolution has provoked diversification into new vertical markets and applications - for example from graphics into décor, from vehicle graphics into wrapping, from T-shirts into sportswear, from conventional signage into soft and even digital signage. So those communities have become even harder to define under a single descriptor.

Meanwhile, the business ecosystems they work in  - because it’s hard to talk in simple terms of supply chains anymore - have become broader. So, their clients are brand owners, retailers, agencies, designers, architects, individual consumers and so on, which points to new communities that we need to understand and engage with.

Ultimately, how we develop Fespa is driven by our members and visitors, regardless of which segment they fit into, asking us to help them understand the new opportunities and avenues for growth. And what’s interesting is that, while the applications, production technologies and materials might differ from one group to the next, many of the business challenges they are facing and the issues they need support with are universal.

Neil, your first show at the Fespa helm was in 2011. Textiles was a small part of the main Fespa show then but has grown enormously, with a much wider gamut of exhibitors bringing in a whole different batch of visitors one would imagine. Who’s driving that show ‘diversification’ and are there other specific areas on your/their radar?

Yes, with our screenprint heritage, T-shirt printing and garment decorating always featured at Fespa events, but the advent of digital printing for textiles created exciting new avenues for graphics producers in areas like soft signage and, increasingly interior décor, while digital printing for garments has opened up new verticals like fast and customised fashion, sportswear and so on.

Again, we’re driven by the interests of the service providers who visit our events telling us ‘We’re interested in this new revenue stream, show us what’s involved and how to make a success of it’, and also by the technology innovators looking for a platform to share their developments.

At the same time, new expertise comes into the Fespa organisation - for example in the shape of a new board member whose business is in garment printing. We can then channel that personal insight and develop content that meets the needs of similar businesses.

These have been the drivers behind event features like Printeriors and Print Make Wear, for example, and the expansion of the textile-related educational content we make available via fespa.com and Club Fespa.

In a Fespa online video you say Fespa has to be seen to promote ‘the whole industry and not parts of it’, so is your aim for Fespa Global to become a generic print trade show rather than be sector specific? Are your ambitions to take on the likes of Drupa for instance?

We’re close to the specialist communities we serve and our events evolve to meet their needs. Fespa’s remit in terms of technologies, products and applications will continue to expand in many different directions but being a ‘generic print trade show’ is not our intention. Remember that, while we organise events, unlike most event organisers we’re not driven by the financial expectations of shareholders, so our motivations are very different.

Fespa’s byline is ‘Profit for Purpose’. How has the pandemic and its impact on the global trade show/events calendar hit Fespa’s profit - and its ability to fund various programmes of industry support?

Clearly, we’ve been hit by the loss of our live events worldwide, which are a key source of revenue to enable our reinvestment programmes, so we’ve had to be prudent about managing costs and investments. Despite the challenges though, we didn’t stop our development funding to our member associations, and we honoured our financial commitments to them.

We’ve also invested to sustain our dialogue with our communities via our online channels - for example, our website and our virtual event platform. We ran a virtual Global Summit and have shared the presentations and discussions in the public domain via fespa.com and as a trend report.

We’ve run a series of online Coffee Break webinars on topics of interest to speciality printers, helping them stay abreast of trends and common discussion topics, and we’ve invested in our FIT virtual events to keep the dialogue open between our exhibitors and visitors until we can run a live event again. Plus, we’ve localised the majority of our educational content into all languages represented by our associations, making it possible for members to access critical information and educational material in their own language.

When we have another live flagship event behind us, we’ll be in a position to invite new project applications from our associations again and initiate new central projects. The priority for us will always be to be able to re-invest to help our communities grow and recover.

Can wide-format PSPs here in the UK expect to benefit from ‘Profit for Purpose’ in the near future? Are you working to financially support any projects initiated by Fespa UK Association for instance?

Fespa has provided financial support for the Fespa UK Thrive In Print conference and the UK Graphic Awards, taking place in September in Leeds. Funding is also in place for a members’ knowledge-sharing visit to printing businesses in mainland Europe, but this is on pause due to the current uncertainties around foreign travel.

UK members have made very active use of our Club Fespa content during the last 18 months, and many participated in our webinars and FIT events. Looking ahead to 2022, we know that Fespa UK is keen to reactivate its member event calendar, with our support. 

Part of Fespa’s mission is to help educate the industry. How should we expect to see that programme developing, and how involved are your member associations - and by turn their members - in shaping that?

Education is one of the pillars of our ‘mission’, and the specifics of the content we create are heavily influenced by our board (all of whom are print business owners), our associations and their members. You can see their input reflected in the areas we’ve been focusing on most recently - automation, sustainability and e-commerce - which are front of mind right now.

Our Global Summit also gives us a platform to talk to leading print entrepreneurs from around the world, in some cases beyond our member base, and their insight is invaluable in shaping our programmes too. Looking ahead, I can see that sustainability will be a big focus area for education, knowledge - and best practice-sharing. The pandemic has changed perspectives, and this is going to become more and more important.

Given your long-term involvement with so many of the large-format sector’s manufacturers and suppliers, what’s the key messaging coming across from them, and how do you/they think Fespa Global will play-out in October?

The key message we’re hearing is that they’re keen to get back to meeting customers and prospects face to face and sharing their products and innovations in a real environment, which is so much more meaningful than the virtual alternatives.

Likewise, research shows that our visitor audience wants to move on from virtual product launches and events and get close to the technology - to touch and try, and to speak one-to-one with product or applications experts. It’s fundamental to their research and buying process, and the appetite for investment is definitely there, despite the challenges of the pandemic.

After 18 months of life behind a screen, there’s a real pent-up energy and enthusiasm to just get moving again, to get back on track and resume business as usual. The team and I really can’t wait to get to a live Fespa event again and feel the unique buzz and camaraderie that only comes when a whole business community comes together in one place.

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