FESPA's CEO, Neil Felton marks 10 years at FESPA and reflects on the last decade for the speciality print industry as well as sharing his thoughts for the future of the industry.
Spring 2021 marks 10 years since I joined FESPA, and it’s humbling to reflect on what a dynamic decade this has been for speciality print, and for FESPA as the meeting point for these communities.
Like any industry outsider, when I came into the organisation, my appreciation of what ‘print’ meant was limited. I began with the stereotypical image of print as a dark, inky, blue-collar ‘old tech’ industry. If you’d asked me to name some examples of print applications, my imagination would probably have run out after newspapers, books and magazines.
That misconception was quickly dispelled when I visited a leading graphics producer in the UK. What I saw was a sophisticated, carefully orchestrated, customer-centric operation, where analogue and digital technologies worked side by side to fulfil complex, creative, just-in-time briefs. It was a far cry from the image I had in my head when I first considered a move to an organisation for printers.
A couple of weeks later, I was thrust into a live event – FESPA Digital 2011 in Hamburg. I was coming from the food retail and hospitality sector, where events tend to bring together very large numbers of small suppliers, most of whom exhibit in quite a low-key fashion, with a strong emphasis on informal networking. The size, scale and sheer professionalism of the brands exhibiting at FESPA was something else. It was immediately clear that this was an industry being shaped by significant technology innovation, spearheaded by some impressive players.
I was in awe of the quality of presentation, the way exhibitors approached the challenge of communicating their technology and showcasing their applications. At that time, the FESPA Digital campaign narrative was still talking about the ongoing ‘digital (r)evolution’, and it was clear from the technologies on show that I’d stepped into an industry that was expanding and embracing change, fast.
In the intervening decade, I’ve seen a parade of amazing hardware, software, ink and media innovations that have accelerated the evolution of the print industry and massively expanded FESPA’s scope, in terms of technologies, applications and vertical markets. I’ve also seen that ground-breaking product launches generate huge buzz, which creates all-important energy and momentum. But behind the scenes the investment programmes fuelling progress are strategic, long-term and carefully considered. As in all industries, the most revolutionary innovations can take time to come to fruition.
Back in 2011, it seemed that the focus of most PSPs was still very much on production speeds and productivity gains, but I’ve witnessed a marked shift in sophistication since then. Print entrepreneurs have tapped into their innate creativity and recognised that they have the production capabilities to do so much more; that they can mix analogue and digital technologies in hybrid production to get the best of both worlds; and that efficiency is only one side of the growth coin.
I’ve seen exhibitors and visitors begin to have a much broader conversation that is more about ‘possibility’ than ‘productivity’. Even now, after a year of unprecedented strain, I see PSPs light up when they talk about the positive opportunities that exist for them to diversify with new products and services and expand into new markets and verticals.
And I’ve been so stimulated by the growing connection between our industry and the mega-trend to mass customisation. Early on I was fascinated to see PSPs channelling digital print-on-demand to personalise everything from graphics to garments, and with the meteoric rise of e-commerce and web to print there’s still so much scope for growth in this space.
It was clear to me from the beginning how vital it is for an event organiser to have early insight into these trends and opportunities. With our commitment to education and inspiration through our Profit for Purpose reinvestment programme, we can leverage certain trends that are emerging as we gather market intelligence, assess the scale of the opportunity, and help PSPs evaluate and prepare.
One step change in that respect was to create our Partner Committee, which brings together our largest exhibiting companies to share insights and act as a compass. They give us a sense of direction for where speciality print could be going, or which market segments or applications are showing particular promise. We can then sense-check these inputs with our Board, members and visitors, and make sure that we’re balancing the exhibitors’ agenda with our visitors’ real-world priorities.
And I think our status as a purpose-led organisation that channels its profits back into the industry makes the relationship we have with our exhibitors unique. They understand that their positive collaboration with FESPA is part of a virtuous circle which directly benefits their customers and prospects, which can only be good for them too.
It was with impetus from this group that FESPA invested in the Printeriors interior décor showcase for example, helping PSPs to understand the opportunity to diversify into customised interior and exterior décor. Watching this vivid, immersive initiative evolve, and bring a whole new branch of speciality print to life, has been a personal highlight. And the committee has also guided us on the evolution of verticals such as textile and garment printing, and developments in digital printing on corrugated material, helping us to produce new educational content that drives our sector forward.
Looking ahead, I’ve no doubt that print production technology will continue its evolution, that amazing new products will debut at FESPA shows, and that promising opportunities, even completely new verticals, will emerge and become part of the FESPA landscape. The communities we represent are remarkably fast-moving and forward thinking.
The excitement for me and the FESPA team is to stay ahead of the curve, spot those buds of growth as they emerge, and keep adding layers of interest and value for our community, showing them all the possible pathways to success.
by Neil Felton