Becoming an effective print service provider today doesn't mean following a single, infallible path to success – there is no one route to a lasting place in the printing industry. Companies have to come to terms with conditions that have not only evolved since the heyday of printed marketing and communications products, but are still developing today.

A modern and well-adapted print service provider isn't a company that has evolved into a new and inflexible state. Instead, companies that are adaptable and led by people with their eyes on the trends guiding the sector seem particularly well-equipped to survive and thrive. Leadership, that hard-to-define concept, is the fuel for these businesses. Someone needs to be keeping them on track.

Correcting the knowledge gap
Not every print shop leader has the information needed to adapt to the ever-evolving world of effective physical media production. According to WhatTheyThink contributor Jennifer Matt, that may have to do with the way printing business events are organized. The industry as a whole is consumed with the idea of equipment use and acquisition, and print sector gatherings are often based on selling new technologies to print shops. Matt noted that this approach disregards how important it is to constantly re-orient expectations and take in new information.

When conventions take a "trade show" approach rather than foregrounding knowledge and education, they may be perpetuating a gap between what printers know how to do and what they need to understand to compete in their niches. Matt explained that print industry stakeholders must conceptualize their transformation into data-driven enterprises, and if they think about hardware upgrades first, they may not be getting the input they need.

The present-day printing industry is based on responsiveness and improving the bond between print shops and their customers. Companies that determine niche opportunities and create deliverables that closely fit those requirements will likely fare better than those that focus on speed, scale and overall capacity. According to Matt, trade shows based around hardware sales cater more to the latter approach, making them an awkward fit for the present-day industry and the skills needed to succeed.

What's the answer? The printing industry may need a new kind of event, one that doesn't have any sales component, and is only concerned with passing on skills. Matt recommended that printers embrace this type of gathering, due to the fact that they need to reset their frame of reference and become "beginners" again. Moving ahead with existing practices won't get print shops far, even if they have the latest hardware.

Finding a path forward
While they aren't ideal, today's industry gatherings do act as a showcase of potential ways to make progress within the printing sector. A recent report by Printing Impressions contributor Patrick Henry reflected on the kinds of print shop success stories that have emerged in recent years. He explained that organizations are branching out in what they offer, and this means adding new equipment and processes to their workflows. In this way, trade shows can point to next steps for businesses that want to diversify.

Henry acknowledged that growth today doesn't generally mean scaling up standard production capabilities. Instead of taking this linear approach to expanding their revenues, shops can add new kinds of products that their audiences like and want, but go beyond what they've provided before. Having a better portfolio of products can make print shops more appealing to customers, and even potentially boost their corporate value.

"Inspiration" is the term Henry used to describe the impact of new hardware offerings. Companies may see ways in which they can revolutionize their lineups of offerings. While technology assets alone don't represent the future of the printing business, they will be a part of the transformation. Companies need to consider becoming less narrow and constrained in their scope wherever possible.

What's now, and what's next?
Print industry gatherings and conventions seem to be at the same kind of crossroads as the industry itself – their current form is relevant and interesting, but the future is wide open. What's clear, both from a survey of current trade shows and speculation about where they should go next, is that print shops should be seeking to branch out and diversify. To accomplish those goals, print service providers will need a combination of knowledge and hardware.