Neil Felton: Visitors need to attend face-to-face events to see technologies up close

Neil Felton, CEO, Fespa says, "In our industry, visitors need to attend face-to-face events to see technologies up close before they invest, to compare products, to network with peers and to be inspired by new opportunities."

30 Nov 2020 | By PrintWeek Team

Neil Felton, CEO, Fespa

First of all, how are you? What is the update on your shows - present and future?
We’re all well here at Fespa, working hard to build momentum towards our 2021 event calendar, starting with Fespa Global Print Expo, which will take place between 9-12 March 2021 at the RAI exhibition centre in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

With this being our first event since the global pandemic, we’re putting a lot of time and effort into ensuring that the event is safe and successful for our exhibitors and visitors. In addition, we’ve confirmed new 2021 dates for our global exhibitions, which have all been rescheduled due to Covid-19.

One thing that you wish you could’ve done to keep the industry up and running...
It’s never easy to predict what’s going to happen next or plan for something as unprecedented as a global pandemic. However, one thing that’s essential is for us all to stay connected. A key learning for the whole industry is that, in troubled times, the speciality print community has to come together to support one another. Through our network of 37 associations we’ve been able to keep in touch with 16,000 members, and we’ve used our online platform to keep the industry informed and engaged with the business and technology advice that can help them weather this storm.

A typical SOP to be followed at exhibition centres...
The health and safety of all our exhibitors, visitors, contractors and staff is our priority. With that in mind, we’re working closely with our exhibition centres around the globe to ensure that our events are compliant with their individual operating procedures and national or regional guidelines.

For the Global Print Expo in Amsterdam, for example, we’re working with the RAI to follow guidelines provided by the Dutch government, the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment, and the Municipal Health Service in Amsterdam. With guidance from these authorities, we aim to deliver a Covid-secure event including measures such as social distancing, hand sanitising stations, touchless registration and improved signage.

In addition, we’re following the “all secure” guidelines created by the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) to ensure that events are run in a secure way with health and safety as the No.1 priority. We’ll publish clear health and safety guidelines for exhibitors and visitors in advance of eachexhibition, and our floorplan will factor in social distancing guidance.

Describe what future exhibitions will look like...
As the pandemic continues to evolve, I expect that the format of future exhibitions will vary until everyone has a clearer picture of the “new normal”. As we’ve seen in recent months, the guidelines and restrictions change frequently and events will need to be flexible. However, we’ll be following the strictest health and safety procedures until we’re told differently.

I’d anticipate some changes to our visitor demographic, for example with senior decision-makers attending with a clear focus on a planned investment. We also imagine that delegates will structure their visits more, for example with scheduled visits to specific stands.

What I don’t think will change fundamentally is the rationale for visiting a live event. In our industry, visitors need to attend face-to-face events to see technologies up close before they invest, to compare products, to network with peers and to be inspired by new opportunities. This is clearly reflected in the feedback from so many of our exhibitors and visitors. After months behind a screen and with no live events, they can’t wait to be back at Fespa Global Print Expo in March 2021.

Online meetings and virtual expos: are we looking at the future of exhibitions?
Virtual meetings and events have certainly played an important role in recent months when many countries have been locked down. Buyers need platforms where they can easily gather product information and ask questions. In this sense, virtual showcases can be valuable, which is why we’ve introduced a solution like this for our Mexican community in lieu of the live event this year. But, if we’re talking about truly digitising exhibitions, I don’t believe it’s possible to replicate the live event experience online. This belief has been reflected in research conducted by Explori on behalf of UFI (the Global Association of the Event Industry) in July/August 2020, which found that 85% of interviewed exhibitors and 81% of interviewed visitors felt that live events trump virtual events in terms of overall experience.

Going back to the core value of exhibitions, visitors want to be inspired by new technologies and solutions and to spark real-world conversations with suppliers and experts. People attend events because they want to explore, to connect, to find out about what they don’t already know. It’s like the difference between browsing and buying products online and the experience of being in an amazing, experiential store. Functionally, you can research products and buy online, but the experience is totally different.

Will digital platforms capitalise on virtual meetings?
Virtual meetings have enabled us to stay connected when travel restrictions didn’t allow face-to-face interactions and that’s important for us at Fespa. Through platforms such as Zoom, we’re able to keep in touch with the staff, association heads, suppliers and exhibitors around the world.

One issue is that virtual meetings are often very agenda-focused. They just don’t offer the same networking opportunities or the chance to speak to people one-on-one. That’s why face-to-face meetings can add more value and provide more knowledge-sharing opportunities.

For me, the virtual Fespa Awards ceremony we held in September was a great example of how – despite not being able to host our annual Gala Dinner – we were able to celebrate our Award winners and showcase their talent through a digital platform, which attracted a great level of engagement from our global community. That said, I’d much rather have been celebrating their successes at a live event, with all the buzz and excitement that comes with it.

Has digital intervention trumped in-person meetings?
The one piece of feedback that I’ve had from the team in this period is that they are enthusiastic to get back into the office and back to bouncing off each others’ personalities to drive creativity. Virtual meetings have played a useful role, but they’re no substitute for in-person meetings.

For me, a typical day varies but the best days are when I’m in the office with the Fespa team, planning, discussing and working through all of the actions for the week ahead. A Zoom meeting doesn’t come close.

Hypothetical question: How will the exhibitions look like if there’s no vaccine for Covid-19 at all?
The exhibition industry has already started back up in many countries, including in Europe. That shows that exhibitions are able to restart, despite a vaccine not currently being in place. With strict health and safety regulations and each individual taking responsibility for their own wellbeing, I’m confident we can continue to do business, just with a few alterations.

One message to your friends in the exhibition industry...
I’d give them the same message that we’re regularly sharing with the speciality print community: maintain communication and share knowledge. If we work together, we’ll be more resilient and prepared to bounce back and grow out of this period of extreme business disruption.

Will our next meeting be virtual or face-to-face?
I hope to see you face-to-face at Fespa Global Print Expo 2021 in Amsterdam. We look forward to welcoming the PrintWeek team and its readers as we set out to bring colour back to the world of speciality print.