There’s nothing quite like a deadline to focus the mind and make things happen. And ever since I fell into the print industry in 1987, the biggest deadline of all has been the drupa schedule.

The four-yearly beat from Düsseldorf has dictated the pace and timing of key industry announcements for decades, with the run-up measured in years and the pressure to have something to show – even if was an empty box with a logo on it and a vague brochure – utterly compelling. The effect is visible: 2018, with no major European shows, was a busy year for product introductions, while 2019 was quieter, with the shadow of the next drupa causing vendors to save up their big announcements.

As we started 2020 we thought this year would follow the established model, with pre-drupa briefings giving some insights and perhaps some pre-launches for those who wanted to steal the limelight (or spoil competitors’ timing) then the main event in June, a two-week jamboree of launches, demonstrations and briefings, plus the opportunity to find some new and previously unknown players and products.

It wasn’t to be, as Covid-19 forced venues to close and events to postpone. Pushing drupa back to April 2021 probably looked like plenty of time for the pandemic to be sorted out when that decision was taken in early March of this year, with more than 12 months to go. But since then we’ve seen a growing list of high profile cancellations, covering both leading offset and digital press manufacturers, with the latest being HP, which had planned to take an entire hall.

While this must call into question the viability of the 2021 event itself, there is perhaps also a more subtle effect playing out that might further undermine the position of the show. Deprived of the expected launch platform in 2020, many manufacturers who had clearly been working towards important product introductions at the Messe Düsseldorf went ahead and held virtual launches anyway, rather than hold back for nearly a year.

Not everyone made their announcements during the drupa fortnight; some went early, others delayed, perhaps to be more certain about what they could say or just further along with their product development or marketing plans. But the net effect was a smearing-out of the drupa product introduction period over several months.

It seems likely that without the deadline of a major trade show in a specific place at a scheduled time, the pressure to be seen to be there with something new reduces. If drupa 2021 doesn’t go ahead and a decision is made to just wait until 2024, when the next one would have been due, will the show’s power over the vendors’ development cycle have been broken? Will we see a more steady stream of product launches, held online, complemented by smaller scale, more local events? People still want to buy from people and if you’re looking at some serious investment, you’ll want to see what you’re getting, and know who’s behind it, but much of that can be done at supplier’s premises and we’re now seeing a spate of events like this, often in tandem with online events with wider reach. Will this hybrid mode do away with the need for big trade shows?

There’s no substitute for the buzz of a busy show and that sense of important and exciting things happening all around. As well as the things you had down on your list to see, there’s the serendipity of those that you stumble across while wandering the halls, or pick up on in conversations that were ostensibly about something else. It’s hard to see how online events can replicate that, but while the in-person shows aren’t happening we have to do what we can. And perhaps this will break the four-yearly cycle, for better or for worse. 

Michael Walker is the editor of Digital Printer