by Jessi Minneci | October 10, 2019

They may come for the networking and education, but conference and trade show attendees do enjoy walking away with free swag. From clothing and key chains to branded copper Moscow Mule mugs, the armloads of free gifts from trade show sponsors and exhibitors nicely complement the stack of business cards and inspirational ideas participants carry back home.

"I packed light to make sure I'll have extra room in my suitcase for all the goodies I'll get to bring home and share with my daughter," Jenni Glenn Gingery, associate director of communications and media relations for the Endocrine Society, told me earlier this year during the ASAE Annual Meeting in Columbus, Ohio. At the time, we were standing in line to create custom printed t-shirts provided by Experience Columbus, the destination's tourism and marketing arm. I was carrying a Build-A-Bear in my free hand as we conversed, another gift presented on the trade show floor, this one courtesy of Pure Michigan, the state's convention and visitors bureau.  

But while swag bags and gifts might be synonymous with events, one has to wonder whether most of the stuff accumulated gets thrown in the trash. Personally, I had to sacrifice a number of items after the meeting, either because of luggage-space issues or because I didn't see how I'd put the item to good use following the event. "Just because an item is free doesn't mean it's desirable or useful, and handing out 100 pens doesn't necessarily mean exhibitors will convert conference-goers into customers or users," says Erin Bury, CEO and co-founder, Willful, an estate planning firm. "We need to ask how we are creating value through the items and gifts we provide."

Brianna Valleskey, senior content marketing manager at Sendoso, a platform for sourcing and measuring ROI for businesses, adds, "Ultimately, the quality of your swag reflects your brand. Since attendees are inundated with free giveaways at every turn of the corner, you should choose items that they'll actually enjoy and use in everyday life." Following, we look at a few unique giveaway ideas that will better thrill your attendees and keep your brand top of mind long after the meeting's over.

Give 'Em What They Need

Instead of providing attendees with another desk ornament, ensure they are ready to handle anything by gifting them with a conference survival kit, Valleskey suggests. "A travel bag or fanny pack filled with a packet of aspirin, a Tide-to-Go pen, gum or mints, some Emergen-C, face wash, a branded bottle of water and a few protein bars or room snacks goes a long way."

She suggests sending attendees the survival kit prior to the event, if handing out gifts is not an opportunity during arrival. "It's a small gesture that shows event attendees that you've got their back."

Add a Local Touch

Regina Key, senior director of marketing and creative services for Destination Concepts Inc., understands that the competition is fierce. "In the game of amenities, the winners are often locally sourced products," she notes. "We have learned that attendees really appreciate items they might not find elsewhere." An easy way to do this, she suggests, is by handing out fun and flavorful foods that reflect the destination. "The key is to drill down on the demographics and determine what will hit the mark."

Key adds that Destination Concepts also takes into account common needs one might have in the host city. "We often equip attendees with an item essential to the location they are visiting, such as providing a wet-clothes bag when the conference is taking place in a waterside locale." She believes the gesture adds value to the overall attendee experience during travel.

Go Digital

Over the years, a growing trend at South by Southwest -- the annual conglomerate of film, interactive media and music conferences in Austin, Texas -- among other conferences, has been for organizers to move away from physical swag items and instead create a digital swag bag for attendees, accessible through event apps or online accounts. 

"One of the digital South by Southwest 'swag bags' I accessed had discounts on apps and services relevant to the show, music downloads featuring exhibiting artists and even a set of 'We met at SXSW' Moo cards [business cards] from exhibitors," recalls Willful's Bury. "It cut down on waste and all of the items I had to carry around for the day."

Bury notes that digital swag remains an emerging trend and a great way to save money, but she stresses that planners should ensure all digital goodies are easily accessible and desirable enough that people will want to log on and download or open the item. The bonus: Organizers and sponsors have clear data about who downloaded what.

Take the Brand Out of It

"We have seen a steady shift away from branded items with brand awareness being incorporated into to the gifting experience," says Destination Concepts' Key. "Planners should ask themselves 'Does this feel like XYZ brand?' or, 'How can we create packaging that is brand-forward?' instead of, 'What can I stick the conference logo on?'".

If a conference tee is a must-do, she suggests pairing it with a live-screen printing experience so that each guest can customize the clothing with their own creative style (along the same lines as the Columbus t-shirt printing at ASAE). "Fully customizable pop-ups are also a win-win. Brands often offer customizable options such as personalized flip flops, live leather-stamping, custom jewelry and beyond."

Instead of 'defacing' the gift with a logo, Key suggests packaging the item with inexpensive details like branded ribbon, tissue paper, gift boxes or personalized notecards.

Make it Meaningful

"One of my favorite things to do is incorporate CSR into the gifting experience by connecting the amenity to a team-building experience or initiative," Key continues. During a recent sales conference, Destination Concepts hosted a gifting experience where attendees decorated pairs of Toms shoes that were then donated to a local hospital. After designing the shoes, attendees were given their own pair of Toms to take home, too, to commemorate the experience.

Another great way to tie in CSR is by connecting the gift to an initiative such as reducing the use of plastic water bottles. "If the planner has chosen to gift a branded water bottle, they can pair that with sponsored water stations at the event and capture the data of how many plastic bottles were saved in the process," says Key.

The initiative gives the branded item a bigger purpose and delivers feel-good moments for attendees throughout the event. "To take it a step further, we have also set up customization stations where attendees can pick decals to decorate their water bottles to commemorate what they have accomplished throughout the conference, such as a bike decal if they participated in the host-city bike tour."