Vacation catalogers travel overseas for printing

During the past year, U.S. companies outsourcing call center services to overseas providers have been getting a lot of attention. But a few travel catalogers, including Backroads, Mountain Travel Sobek, and Wilderness Travel, have been printing their catalogs in Asia for several years.

Lee Micheaux, marketing/communications manager for Backroads, estimates that the Berkeley, CA-based cataloger has cut its printing costs in half by using San Francisco-based brokerage Overseas Printing Corp., which contracts with several printing companies in Korea and China. Backroads gets price quotes from domestic printers almost every year, Micheaux says, but has been unable to find any that match the prices they get offshore.

Such savings aren’t uncommon, says Joe Webb, Ph.D., the president of Harrisville, RI-based business consulting and forecasting company Strategies for Management. “We’ve had reports of companies saving between 30%-50%, including shipping costs,” says Webb. The savings come from the significantly lower wages paid to press and production workers in countries such as China and Korea. “A worker in the U.S. may be paid $600 a week plus benefits, while a worker in Asia may be paid $150 a month and have no benefits,” Webb points out.

Backroads has had its annual catalogs printed overseas for the past nine years. “They take care of all the production, all the Photoshop work, and charge us virtually nothing for that,” Micheaux says. Unlike U.S. printers, she explains, Asian firms generally do not charge extra for prepress work such as scanning in graphics. Backroads uses about 540 images in its 180-page annual catalog.

Emeryville, CA-based Mountain Travel Sobek has been printing its annual catalog in Asia for years, but it only started using an overseas firm for prepress work last year, says its art director/ graphic designer, Christopher Bettencourt. That’s also when the company changed its entire printing process from film to computer-based digital.

Proceed with caution

Not surprisingly, Vito Badalamenti, a principal at Overseas Printing Corp., touts the economic advantages of working with overseas print and production houses. “Catalogs with a lot of pages, five- or six-color printing, a lot of color separations, can do it more economically offshore.”

But even he admits that not all catalogers would benefit from using Asian printers. “I think that if someone is doing a 16-page self cover printed on 45-lb. gloss, #4, there is no savings to be had” printing overseas.

And if your print run is much less than 1 million copies, you probably won’t save money either, says Strategies for Management’s Webb. Then again, if your print run is too large — several million copies — the extra cost of shipping the catalogs from Asia to the States may well eat up any production savings you would otherwise have enjoyed.

There’s also at least one major drawback to printing offshore: the extra lead time necessary to accommodate transporting files, proofs, and especially the finished product between continents.

Backroads, which prints about 1 million copies of its annual catalog, budgets an extra two to three weeks into its production schedule to account for shipping the books from Asia to California via sea freighter. But because it prints its main book only once a year, planning adequately in advance has not been a problem, Micheaux says. “We are able to plan 12 months out, so for us, we don’t need the fastest turnaround that another cataloger might need.”

Nonetheless, Backroads uses local printers to print the 10 supplements it mails each year, as well as the one-page fliers, postcards, and invitations it mails throughout the year. Those mailings are not planned far enough in advance to warrant sending them overseas for production.

Another Berkeley travel cataloger, Wilderness Travel, also prints only its annual core book in Asia. It uses a domestic printer for its secondary title, Independent Journeys. “With the larger catalog, we can plan far enough ahead, but for the smaller pieces, we’re under much tighter time limitations,” says director of marketing Barbara Banks. Mountain Travel Sobek also prints its smaller supplementary catalogs domestically, says Bettencourt.

Webb says the longer lead times make overseas production inefficient for companies such as consumer electronics catalogers that frequently change the pricing and selection of their merchandise. And costly problems sometimes arise when relying on shipments traveling by sea. In 2002, when the longshoremen working at California ports went on strike, Backroads had to use air freight to transport its catalogs from Asia. Although sending the catalogs by air cost twice as much as shipping them by sea, Backroads couldn’t miss its mail date, Micheaux says. “If you can’t wait to receive it by ship, do not proceed,” she advises.

On the flip side, one potential drawback — difficulty in communicating with the Asian vendors — isn’t a problem at all, Badalamenti contends. Asian customer service representatives handling North American accounts speak English. And they can arrange in-person press checks for catalogers that want a rep from their home office to review the catalogs for color accuracy and the like as they come off the press. “We always have someone [from Overseas Printing] at the plant checking the job,” Badalamenti adds.

A question of quality

Money isn’t the only reason some catalogers are willing to extend their lead times to work with Asian printers. Banks, for one, says the excellent quality is a major factor.

“We found that we really get superb quality from them,” Banks says of the undisclosed Korean printing company that Wilderness Travel uses. “Our business is completely catalog driven. People are committing their time and dream vacation to us, and the photos are how we communicate the quality of the experience we offer.” She says that the overseas suppliers give the catalog’s images a “clarity of light” that the company had trouble finding from U.S.-based printing companies.

“A great number of photography books are printed over in Asia with reproductions of color photographs,” Banks notes. “That’s why we found quality looking over there.”

Indeed, Badalamenti says the offshore market for print jobs started in book publishing before spreading to the catalog industry around 15 years ago. “High-end books is how offshore printing began,” he explains. “The next step was to focus on other higher-end pieces that could benefit from their expertise.”

But Badalamenti believes that stateside printers have caught up with their Asian counterparts when it comes to providing topnotch quality. “The process is exactly the same as doing it here,” he emphasizes. “You’re still using the same kind of presses, either using film or going computer-to-plate, it’s still a four-color process. The technology is the same. The only thing that changes is you’re going to need to build in more time for shipping.”

Which is why Banks, like Badalamenti and Webb, maintains that printing overseas isn’t worthwhile for all catalogers. “You just have to weigh all the factors” and remember that time is not on your side, Banks says. “For the level of quality you need or if you’re producing multiple catalogs, it might not be appropriate. But for us to build in extra time to get one catalog published is very workable. It all depends on the price, timing, and end result you’re looking for.”

A passage to India

Fairfield, NJ-based promotional products marketer POL doesn’t mind searching far and wide to find a bargain. The company, which manufactures products such as flashlights and tape measures with logos of businesses, will most likely send its catalog this year to India for prepress as well as printing, says president Mark Puglisi.

Though Puglisi would not reveal the name of the Bombay production house he intends to use, he is confident in its capabilities. For the past six months the vendor’s design team has produced 125 logo designs a day for POL’s customers — with immediate turnaround — and next year it will design POL’s Website. “My art department is hooked into India. My entire organization is hooked into India,” says Puglisi.

In fact, the company will spend 60% less on its catalog production in 2005 than it had in 2004 by sending the job to India, Puglisi says. The prepress work alone, which previously cost the company $25,000-$30,000, will cost POL $8,000. The lead time required by the vendor is 35 days, to account for the time it takes to ship the catalogs from India to North America. Puglisi says that though more planning than would otherwise be necessary is imperative when working with an overseas vendor, the process becomes simplified if the production house is handling prepress as well as printing. “Next year they’ll probably both design and print my catalog, so I’ll be that much ahead of getting them our files,” he notes.

Such talk no doubt pains Ilene Greene, president of Wayne, NJ-based graphic art/advertising design company MarketShare Communications. Her company has lost three catalog design and production jobs in the past three months to India. She says she isn’t able to keep up with low pricing offered by Indian rivals. MarketShare charges around $120,000 to design and print an 80-page catalog with a 75,000-copy print run; clients have told her that Indian vendors charge around $35,000 for the same job.

Coupled with the price is the speed with which outsourced overseas vendors work, says Greene. “A lot of these places have banks and banks of computer operators, talented kids right out of art school, who can put together a catalog in a few days. If you have 75 people who each do one page, then in 20 minutes the whole [design and layout] catalog is done.”— MW

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