by Deanna Ting | April 01, 2015
Dawn Ryburn has one objective when it comes to Ricoh Americas Corporation's Services Team Annual Recognition (STAR) program: make every employee feel like a star. Each year, the skills-based recognition and incentive travel program culminates in a STAR Main Event where the top 200 services team members convene for an intensive two-day competition; the top 100 go on to enjoy an incentive trip.

Athough the annual meeting, held at the Sonesta Gwinett Place Atlanta hotel, involves a competition, it's also a celebration. This year, Ryburn, the director of program management for managed and technology services, relied on something extra to ensure each attendee knew just how important he or she was to Ricoh.

"This year was the five-year anniversary of our STAR program, and we wanted to do something special for the winners," Ryburn explains. "So, I selected the Maui Jim Experience to tie to the theme -- that all employees are stars -- and we kept it a surprise until the end."

The traditional Maui Jim Experience usually involves a setup in which Maui Jim specialists help attendees select and fit the sunglasses of their choice. During the registration period at the STAR Main Event, Maui Jim set up a table where attendees were asked to be fitted for a pair of sunglasses that would later be raffled. Employees didn't know that as they were being fitted, Maui Jim's specialists were taking special notes on each of their picks.

On awards night, the gifting experience was a true highlight. "The double doors opened, and the waitstaff came out with these trays of sunglasses, and they gave out the glasses to each person, like Oprah would," says Ryburn.

Assigned seats and meticulous note taking helped ensure that each employee received the pair of his or her choice. "The excitement level and the delivery of it -- it was just such a surprise, that it took the program to another level," she says. "It gets them excited for next year, and that excitement doesn't stop at this event. Those sunglasses will carry on."

She adds, "Taking things to a personal level was new and different to me. When we gave them what they chose, that meant even more to that employee than a standard gift. After receiving the sunglasses, so many employees came up to personally thank the senior executives. That personal experience does mean a lot."

As Ryburn's experience demonstrates, incorporating a customized, personalized merchandise experience into a meeting can have a huge impact on your event's value and ROI. But what's the best way to do that? We spoke to experts in the industry to ask them for their tips. Here's what they had to say.


1. Know Your Audience
Making sure you have the right merchandise for your audience is absolutely crucial. "Think about that group and who those people are," says Tom Romine, founder and president of Boulder, CO-based Cultivate Premium Corporate Gifts. Cultivate coordinates a variety of different merchandise experiences at meetings that include brands such as Adidas, Fitbit, Ray-Ban, and Tumi. "It's just like giving a gift to your friends or family."

"Planners really need to know their audience," adds Mike Landry, vice president of special markets for Tumi. "What if they're internal folks who don't travel as much? They may not want luggage. Also, are your recipients primarily male or female? All of these things really have to be communicated."

Spencer Toomey, senior vice president of Westport, CT-based Luxury Lines by MMSC, also says it's important to find out the status and background of each attendee. "Are ages similar, or is it a mix of Gen Y to Boomers? Is the meeting in the U.S. or outside the country?" Luxury Lines by MMSC coordinates gifting experiences that include brands such as Nike sunglasses and Tommy Bahama and Calvin Klein watches, luggage, and handbags.


2. Make It Thematic
Follow Ryburn's lead and make connections between the merchandise and your meeting's overall theme. "Merchandise can really tie in well with those themes," says Matt Burdette, B2B sales and marketing manager for Omaha Steaks B2B.

During the Omaha Steaks Experience, Omaha Steaks works with the venue to give attendees a taste of what they can purchase with gifted certificates. "Normally, you might not get to try all those different cuts of steak at one time, but with the experience, you get to taste and pick what you like best," he explains.

"I really think that tying the theme together with the merchandise is one of the best ways to tie in merchandise," Burdette notes. "That merchandise can create memories. It's that experience of not only tasting the steaks on site, but also that enjoyment when they're at home with family or friends, remembering how or why they received that gift."

"We've done programs where it's all about listening to the client's customer, or the market," says Patrick Corley, vice president of event experiences for Maryland Heights, MO-based Incentive Concepts, LLC. "What's a more natural tie-in than a Bose welcome reception where everyone walks away with a set of Bose noise-canceling headphones? Or if you're encouraging health and wellness, what better way to get people motivated to move than with a new Trek bike?"


3. Don't Be Skimpy

Always choose quality over quantity. "Brand-name merchandise with a high perceived value enhances the program," says Adrienne Forrest, vice president of special markets for Bulova. Bulova offers a special Gift in Time program during which a Bulova representative sets up a branded display from which recipients can pick and choose their own watch or timepiece.

"To be able to select a gift from a brand with high perceived value makes the whole experience more interesting and more relevant," she notes. "If it were a no-name watch, they might not be that excited to pick it out."

"Brand recognition is a huge thing," adds Jennifer R. Long, senior director of strategic customer engagement for St. Louis, MO-based Amerinet. For Amerinet's customer appreciation meetings, she makes sure to pick brands that are "household names." Working with Incentive Concepts, she recently incorporated merchandise from Bose. "Everyone knows what Bose is; it's a good quality product."


4. Don't Overwhelm
Less is more when it comes to offering a choice of products. "There is a law of diminishing returns on choice," says Corley. "Every marketing study shows that after about six or eight choices, the human brain overloads and it's just too much. I understand wanting to give people choice, but it can be a mistake to give them too much."

Tumi's Landry agrees. "You have to concern yourself with the processing time," he says. "You might have a logjam if you're not careful about offering an edited assortment of items, and people might get frustrated if they're kept waiting too long."


5. Get Creative
Gifting experiences can be problem solvers.

One of Corley's former clients wanted to find a way to keep its meeting attendees all together at the end of the day for a customer event. To keep customers in one place, Incentive Concepts created a Bose hospitality lounge that kept attendees at the hotel and also allowed them to test out a Bose product they would eventually take home with them.

Cultivate's Romine recently worked with a client that wanted to make the gifting experience a true shopping event for its 260 attendees. "Each attendee came into the gifting area with a certain number of tickets, and they got to choose where and how they wanted to spend their tickets," Romine explains. A pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses might be worth three tickets, and a pair of Adidas shoes might be worth two. "It was such a hit; the client plans to do it again next year."


6. Know When to Ship
Some items are great to give on site -- others not so much. "Sunglasses, watches, jewelry, and small leather goods work great at the event," says Toomey. "Luggage and larger items work well when they can be drop shipped to the person's home."

Tumi's Landry says that it's important not to overload your attendees with a product that might be too cumbersome to pack. "We'll monogram the items at no charge, and ship it out to the recipient," he says. "People really love that because they get the piece they want, it's monogrammed with their initials, and they don't need to deal with it on site."


7. Find the Right Partners
Make sure you have the right partner, advises  Corley. "There are a number of companies out there that saw a need for this in the marketplace, and they are trying to capitalize on it. But they're not from the meeting and event industry, so they're not creating good experiences for the planners and the attendees," he warns. "Make sure you vet your partner, and that they truly have experience in this. You could be giving the coolest product in the world, but if the experience isn't easy or it's not good, it's just not worth it."



Questions or comments? Email dting@ntmllc.com



This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.