For the record – Frank Romano

This month I had the opportunity to chat with renowned industry expert Frank Romano to discuss the future of printing trade shows, and what opportunities and challenges lie ahead for printers.

What are you most looking forward to seeing at Print World?

I don’t expect to see a whole lot of new stuff this year, but what you will see is people buying. Printers are ready to invest, and this is very important. Though it will not be at the same level as it once was, they will be buying.

I love to go to trade shows. I’ve been to every one in the United States since 1968. The first one I did in Canada was in 1973 – Maclean Hunter used to put it on. I gave an address and there were more than 800 people in the audience. I’ll never forget that show because back then we did presentations with slide projectors. Five minutes before the show, the guy who was running the projector found a jammed slide. To see what was wrong, he turned the entire thing upside down and all the slides fell out!

Over the years since then, a lot has changed. You won’t see trade show presentations with 800 people in the audience any more, but as long as you can gather some number of people together, it shows that there is some vibrancy in the industry. The good thing is that there is still a trade show.

There have been murmurs circulating around the industry that there is less and less need for trade shows. Some are wondering if they should be held less often, or if they should even be held at all. What do you think about the future of trade shows for our industry?

At one time there definitely were too many for the size of our industry. With the way things are going, we are right-sizing. In the U.S., almost all the local ones are gone. There used to be more than 50, but now we’re down to Graph Expo in Chicago and Graphics of the Americas in Florida. A lot of Americans actually go to the Canadian show. In fact, Canada is the largest trading partner of the U.S. in the world for print.

But, do we need these shows anymore looking towards the future? That is the question. The big vendors know how to attract people – they can afford to fly people in to their head offices and meet with them one-on-one. I really don’t think you’re going to see the big press manufacturers very much from here on in. They’re still active at shows this year, and they may still continue to have a small presence at future shows, but they will have a smaller footprint going ahead. But it is the little companies that can’t afford to fly people out and hold big events. Trade shows are very important to small- to medium-sized businesses, like dealers and software companies.

What are some of the key challenges facing printers of today, and how can they begin to overcome them?

The big challenge is finding those places where you can still sell print. We’ve lost half of the print in the world because it went electronic. However, some places like China experienced huge growth. With the amount of manufacturing they do, and the packaging that goes along with that, they saw an increase. But in the developed countries, print has gone down. The printers that are left have to find the niches where there is still print. Packaging is key. You can’t deliver a box of Wheaties on a CD-ROM. As well, promotional material and catalogues will still continue to be needed. The point is finding places where it is still effective.

Where are the opportunities for printers these days?

The big opportunities lie in packaging – all aspects of it. Labels, folding cartons, and so on. New offset presses these days can actually handle both normal weight stock and folding carton. manroland did it first, and now Heidelberg has done it; KBA has done it, [and] Komori is doing it. Also, labels can be printed on just about anything. This area is growing phenomenally.

As well, just look at all the printing that goes on for trade shows. Sure, some companies give out their information on a USB key, but people want to see brochures and data sheets. If I want to make you go to my website, I’m going to need promotional material.

What do you think is a major trend that we’ll see for the industry looking ahead to 2011?

The question will be: what will sustain the industry? The important thing is finding that right blend of work, both digital and analog. Finding areas that are not susceptible to electronic substitution.

We’re still going to see a lot of direct mail and catalogues. They will become smaller, but they will be mailed more frequently. We will also still have books, but they will be printed on-demand and in shorter runs. Another great area of opportunity lies in photo books and memory books. This is how people are preserving their memories these days, and they are in huge demand.

If you were a printer, what technology would you invest in for the future?

Digital printing – by a mile! I would pick very carefully the digital printer that would help me achieve the most flexibility.

How can printers use new technology like the iPad to their advantage?

We recently did a study and discovered that the printers who made it easy for customers to deal with them were the most successful. Printers who are doing well have excellent websites with good answers to questions, instructions or software on creating the right kind of PDF to print from, FTP sites to efficiently move files around and sites that do a good job of communicating with customers.

Should printers get an iPad? No, every printer does not need to go out tomorrow and buy an iPad. What they need to do is just think about this technology, and how their customers might use it to see where their job is or to communicate with customer service.

Last question – my favourite one: when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be an English teacher. I got into print because I started a job at Mergenthaler Linotype company working with their technical manuals. I got to learn about the machinery and the transition from hot metal to phototypesetting, and I’ve been interested in print ever since!

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