People across the country have acquired new skills during the lockdown and can speak knowledgeably about the advantages and disadvantages of Zoom, Teams and other online meeting applications.
Online events have taken over from IRL events as first Fespa, then Sign & Digital and even Drupa fell victim to the virus. Uncertainty hangs over events scheduled for later in the year even if the relaxation of the lockdown continues. Few will want to visit an exhibition, few will want to attend a crowded awards ceremony, few will want even to visit customers or other factories unless strictly necessary. And as the use of online technology enters the bloodstream, it will not be strictly necessary.
The keen printer has been able to select from a plethora of presentations, discussions and conversations over the last three months, from small one to one meetings to structured three-day conferences with pre recorded as well as live content.
FM Future put together its Futureprint Virtual Summit in just a few weeks following keen interest in a couple of webinars it put on as the lockdown began. Those were intended to deliver immediate guidance on how to survive in a world without orders. The more formal event was intended to start the exit process and provide thoughts about what might come next.
The idea followed response to a series of short webinars at the outset of the lockdown which had been encouraging. “We then thought why not extend this to provide a more significant level of content, across a wider spectrum of print?” says FM Future director Marcus Timson.
“Our thinking is that we want to simply extend and amplify this value and in so doing, help the market to connect and gain access to some quality insight delivered by experts, leaders, and other professionals and partners within the sector – at a time when we all need it the most.” The content ranged across packaging as well as printing, inkjet and industrial printing as well as embellishment and web to print.
While this has been the most ambitious use of online meetings so far, others are not far behind. The Italian Print4All conference will use streaming technology to replace a conference room in Milan later this month. Attendance is free of charge and it is likely that more people will be listening and watching than could be accommodated in a conference room. The expediency caused by the inability to hold the event because of the lockdown may turn out to be serendipitous, though the participants will ultimately be the judge of whether the online is better than the IRL version.
Later this year, Messe Düsseldorf is planning to stage an online preview of Drupa, enabling companies that had planned product launches at Drupa this year to publicise those products without having to wait until the show takes place in April next year. It is a wider move for exhibition businesses to pivot a business model that is all about meeting for a limited time in a physical space into one that is not limited by either time or space.
Printing-expo.com aims to be the first virtual show in this industry. It will replicate many elements of a traditional exhibition, with more or less extravagant stand designs, payment by space, aisles and video demonstrations. The challenge is that the chance meeting in the aisle, the conversations between visitors, the entertainment factor and networking will be missing. Time will tell.
The meetings technology has also spawned new ways of communicating between suppliers and customers. With the ability to make sales visits severely curtailed, online seminars and webinars may become key way of staying in touch for as long as this period lasts.
Ricoh kicked off a programme of presentations with UK sales director Tim Carter hosting a discussion between BPIF chief executive Charles Jarrold and his equivalent at the IPIA, Marian Stefani. After the opener, Ricoh began to focus on sectors where it has technology.
The BPIF has organised events to share information about the regulations and funding opportunities; likewise Duplo has teamed up with Compass Business Finance to explain the CBils scheme and how it can be used to finance investment in new equipment. Mimaki and Efi have staged a schedule of online events over the course of a few days in a week. The experience is lacking compared to a real open house, but it is agreed to be better than nothing. Other manufacturers have created a video library of content that can be downloaded or streamed as required, either for a new product or to provide training to fill a knowledge gap.
Others have also staged or are planning to stage online events, with greater or lesser degrees of interaction. Interaction has been the crux of the twice meeting sessions down at the Crown Pub, where landlord Milo Ferchow, also marketing manager of VPress, has presided over sometimes lively discussions between the regulars. Many have strong ties to VPress, as users or distributors, others are commentators, consultants or even journalists from the UK, the US, South Africa and mainland Europe and the Gulf.
To what extent this or other virtual events has a positive impact is hard to judge. The gallery of faces on a Zoom session at least provides a visual connection with colleagues that are as far apart as London and Durham, beyond the possibility of a face to face encounter any time soon. People are sharing their experiences of a much restricted life as well as plans to emerge the other side.
Whether the decision to run a Zoom programme is about staying in contact with customers, trying to keep a sales pipeline connected or for something to do to stave off complete inertia, the continued attendance at these underlines how welcome these have been. If nothing else they punctuate the boredom.
This happened at the start of the lockdown and the programme of twice weekly sessions, the first concentrating on wellbeing and the second on educational and business development ideas, was intended to last until the end of May. But as long as the lockdown continues, so will the Zoom events.
“Hats off to Prime, ProCo and others who are producing PPE, which is great if your business is set up like that, but we are not one of those,” says Stones. “What we wanted to do through the Be Brilliant Club is to inspire and motivate people we work with during these uncertain times, helping with mental wellbeing.
“The content is not designed for printers. It’s for creatives, agencies and marketing people, but we have had printers take part and there’s no problem with that.
“We had originally planned an eight-week programme, but as time has gone on we have now extended that until the end of June, because of the growth in popularity of the sessions over the last eight weeks.”
And the sessions might extend beyond that even. “We would like to think that by the end of June, normality will have come back,” he says, “though if we are getting demand each week as it goes on we will look again.”
The company had been using Zoom before the lockdown so could hit the ground running with the knowledge of how Zoom compares to other online meeting technologies and how to use it best.
The idea has been an extension of the company’s Be Brilliant Club, a gathering of marketing and agency people each year organised by the Rotherham business as an indirect sell, to highlight the creativity of print rather than to push its own capabilities. This has met once a year, though is unlikely to take place in September.
“We don’t really think that people will be too comfortable so soon,” says Stones. “We think that normal events will resume next year. So we are thinking of continuing the online sessions, though with the frequency dropping to once a month, which will then feed into the InRealLife event in 2021.”
There is an ongoing need for the industry to meet together to exchange views and ideas, but this has to take place in cyberspace, not in real life events.
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The postponement of Drupa has sparked a rush of online events trying to fill the gap and deliver information during lockdown. Drupa organisers have also planned an online Drupa preview, to allow companies that had planned product launches at Drupa this year to publicise those products without having to wait until the show takes place in April next year.
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