Sitting in the tea room of The Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria, it was hard not to be charmed by the ambition, determination and banter from FESPA’s CEO Neil Felton.
The former FESPA managing director was promoted in 2013 as the independent Federation of European Screen Printing Associations celebrated its 50th year.
“It started as a federation of seven screen printing associations in Europe, and then over the years we’ve grown to 37 national associations,” said Felton.
“We had one show every three or four years which was largely just in screen printing and we contracted it out to an exhibition organiser, but then brought it back in 2002.”
The screen and digital printing association made the bold step to bring the exhibitions in house. “Suddenly it blossomed and we realised actually when we ran it in house we can actually make more money, we can focus more on what we need to do, and from then it’s been stellar growth.”
The firm began with a team of three, and now has 35 staff around the world running shows in Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, China, and Europe.
Last year proved busy for FESPA as Felton revealed they had more than 60,000 printers visiting a FESPA exhibition somewhere in the world, and over 185,000 visitors to the FESPA website, more than double the previous year.
Despite working at Penton and William Reed Business, Felton still considers himself a “print novice”.
“I always thought print would be quite a dry subject but actually when you look at it, there are so many amazing products out there that are printed that people don’t know about. Your phone is printed, the wallpaper is printed, and you can actually print anti-bacterial ink for hospitals.”
When speaking about his new role, Felton was instead quick to take the attention away from the promotion to rather praise his team.
“It’s actually recognising the people that are building the team into the position they’re in now where they are senior members of the team who can represent perfectly the markets which they serve.”
FESPA’s 2013 London show delivered the event’s most globally diverse visitor audience to date, with almost two-thirds of visitors coming from outside the UK.
The Excel London event claimed to have had more than 22,000 visitors with almost half of those choosing to spend more than one day at the show, bringing total attendance to 37,460 visits, across 63,000sqm of space.
As big as the flagship feat was, it wasn’t Felton’s biggest highlight of FESPA so far. In 2011 when Hamburg’s transport system was hit by an ash cloud just as the exhibition was about to open, the team came to the rescue.
“It was really quite staggering, because 50-60 per cent of our audience come from outside of the country so we’re really reliant on the airport, so when it closed down the airspace, it worried the hell out of us.
“Within three hours, the team had gone through everything and every single exhibitor had an information pack about all the different airlines, what the challenges were, what was happening and with hourly updates.”
The team had changed its social media and website to give everyone information about flights, what was happening and what wasn’t happening. Every exhibitor also received a handout with suppliers about how it could potentially affect them.
“I suppose in some ways we’ve been quite unlucky with FESPA having a lot of experience with this, we’ve had an uprising in a Thailand airport in 2008 which meant that half the visitors couldn’t come in, we had swine flu in Mexico in 2009 and we had a terrorist bomb in India in 2009. We’ve had so many things, and what it made me really realise is that this team is good. They get on with it, they find solutions to the problem.”
Surveying the scene
“When I first arrived, I just sat back,” Felton said. “For the first three months I sat and absorbed everything. Luckily I have a really good team, some of them have been there for 10 years. So the first thing was to understand and create our mission to become the leading globally connected imagining community.”
Before deciding to take over the world with print fairs, the team realised they were only little dots on a map, and weren’t in major spaces in a major way.
“We needed to move into markets where the market demanded us to have a show. So we investigated sectors and looked at Brazil,” said Felton.
The show launched successfully in 2013, and Turkey’s fast-growing market was next. The inaugural South African edition will take place in July this year.
Launching on foreign shores can provide a wealth of operational and logistical challenges, with culture and the way in which organisers approach them.
“You can’t approach things in an English way,” said Felton. “If you go into an area and say this is the way you do it, the Brazilians for example will say ‘no, not interested’. You need to understand where their pressure points are rather than ‘I’m a commercial person, I’m going to come in here and make you lots of money’ - actually that’s not the first thing you talk about.”
Felton said there will always be a challenge when approaching a new geographical region but if the market demands a show like FESPA, and you can talk about the event from their perspective, you’ll find out what makes them passionate.
“You turn round to them and say it’s not about the money, it’s about them feeling a natural fit. If you run a show in Brazil or Mexico, the busiest time of the show is 7pm. A lot of them will come to the show after work and that in some ways highlights how keen they are to learn and extend themselves and if I’d have approached it like an English man, I’d have said right, we’re closing at 5pm, we’ll go to the bar and everything’s all sorted.”
Currently, FESPA has a team in Mexico and in Turkey, supported by the head office. In South Africa, Brazil and China the firm has partners and are either joint owners or largely joint owners to help them.
“It’s just now I have greater responsibility on the association side of the business and making sure that as a not-for-profit organisation, we are investing in the right things. I’m really passionate because obviously if I’ve spent the last three years trying to make FESPA money and seeing how it’s spent, now I can actually have a real impact and effect on how we spend that money. It completes the circle almost,” he said. The beauty of associations, all 37 of them, said Felton, is that they can provide FESPA a direct link into the market.
“So very quickly our association in Turkey for example can tell us how many of their members are exhibiting at our rival show, they can tell us what’s happening in the market, what’s really big, they can give us all of that information really quickly.”
Before looking at any further developments Felton said the team needs to continue to strengthen its European show.. “It’s almost like the difficult second album. The first album was great, but we need to make sure the follow up is there and we can’t be complacent in that.”
Profit For Purpose
FESPA is a not-for-profit international federation for the screen and digital print community with 27 national associations in Europe and a further 10 associate members in Asia, Australasia and Latin America.
FESPA organises events and projects across the globe, including exhibitions, conferences and summits.
Since Felton came on board in 2011, the team have made building and connecting a global community of printers one of their key organisational missions.
“What I found quite strange when I started was that nobody knew FESPA re-invested money back into the industry. We didn’t really market it, and even now we still struggle trying to market the fact that we’re not-for-profit,” said Felton.
“We want to have a very clear plan about how we re-invest our profits back into the industry and if we can re-invest those and build the demand for print, that is what FESPA is about.
“It’s a very strong message to go out to your exhibitors and say the money you give us - we want to reinvest to build the demand for print and we need to make sure we honour that agreement to spend it the best we possibly can,” he added.
This was first published in the May issue of EN. Any comments? Email Annie Byrne