Modern Meeting Merchandise

Originally published in Potentials magazine - December 01, 2005

As if organizing, scheduling and coordinating a group meeting, convention or trade show isn't troublesome enough, meeting and event planners are faced with an additional challenge: to find an item that can be given out en masse at a trade show that recipients will find useful enough not to leave behind for the hotel cleaning staff. The product needs to create a bond with the recipient, so they will want to do business with the trade show exhibitor. And, oh yeah, it can't cost too much money.

Whether it's the latest and greatest gadget or a tried-and-true logoed item like a pen or shirt, trade show merchandise makes up a substantial slice of the $17.3 billion promotional products industry. Trailing only the business gifts category, trade show item sales make up 12.4 percent of the industry, according to the Promotional Products Association International's 2004 findings. "Traditionally one of the main areas people think about when it comes to promotional items is trade shows," says Bill Prickett, spokesman for the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) in Irving, Texas. The reason? Because they work. According to PPAI's research, nearly three-quarters of attendees who received a promotional product remembered the company that gave it to them. What's more, 76.3 percent had a favorable opinion of the company that gave them the product.

Plugging In
Many planners are responding to the challenge by going high-tech. As it becomes less expensive to produce semiconductors and hardware, some nifty gadgets are finding their way into the meetings products arena. "This year, anything that is electronic and gimmicky is in," says Floyd Jett, president of Missouri Promotional Products in Nixa, Mo. "That's the age we're in. Everybody wants something that's new and different."

One popular item this year is a USB storage device. These miniature hard drives can be part of a key chain or pen. In many ways, they have replaced the old floppy and zip drives, as they plug right into the computer and are read by the machine as another hard drive. The devices are inexpensive and appeal to the trade show population in particular, as attendees are often required to travel a great deal, and more often than not they've got electronic files to bring with them.

But while USB drives are the hot item du jour, companies often make the mistake of not tying them into their businesses, says Susan Friedmann, founder of The Tradeshow Coach in Lake Placid, N.Y., and author of Meeting and Event Planning for Dummies. She recently attended a medical show where a company was giving out USB drives but had loaded no information on them. "Then it becomes more about the item rather than the company who gave it to them and why." She suggests companies "put a PDF file of a white paper that gives me information or tips on the USB drive. That would be far more beneficial."

Products that have a symbiotic relationship with technology are also selling well, including cell phone covers, mouse pads and laptop bags. Denise Yeaman, CEO of The Marketing Authority in Platte City, Mo., says she's seen great success with computer monitor calculators. "You just peel off the back and put them on your monitor," she says. They work because they're useful and easy to carry home from the event. In addition to USB drives, Jett has been selling "flip-top" calculators as well as calculators that roll up into a ball. "People like items with 'movement.' That's a word I'm hearing a lot," he reports. iPod covers are also big. Companies, however, would do well to target which clients receive what item. "Make sure the top 20 percent of customers you target gets a much nicer gift. Those folks might get the laptop bag,' says Carol Aastad, vice president and general manager for Forrester-Smith, a promotional agency in Tampa, Fla. "Some stay for a minute—give them a $7 gift; the person who cruises by and just wants to add something to their bag gets a pen." She cautions that for some attendees, "iPod covers may be ahead of the game. It depends what age group it's going to. If it's the under-30 crowd, it's appropriate."

Old Standbys
Items don't necessarily have to be high-tech or gadget-related. In fact, some of the simplest items are often best. Giving away a logoed bottle of water, candy or food item satisfies the most basic of the anthropologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. After all, getting attendees to visit the booth is half the battle and word-of-mouth will spread that attendees "need to get to 'company X's' booth, because they have pretzels."

"Any time you give away food or water, people stop by," says James Feldman, president of James Feldman Associates, a performance improvement company based in Chicago. He warns that exhibitors should check with the meeting venue before selecting an item to make sure they are not competing with on-site food vendors.

But planners should keep in mind the extra layers of security that now exist at airports when choosing an item. Penknives and Swiss Army knife key chains were once a staple among promotional gifts, but now they are cause for being pulled out of line by airport security. Indeed, letter openers, nail clippers and even lighters can now be construed as weapons and aren't worth the potential headache for the recipient who may have casually tossed an item into a carry-on bag or jacket pocket.

Other old favorites (pens, calendars, shirts, bags) remain in vogue. Many select these items based not only on effectiveness, but price. "People aren't buying more these days. Instead they're trying to get more for their dollar," says Jett. "Buyers are price-conscious. That's the time we're in, with the crunch on transportation and fuel. Pricing is very important right now."

Get Creative
There's plenty of room for creativity as planners work to create a connection with attendees. Prickett notes that when he worked for a consumer credit counseling service, they'd give away piggy banks. "Every year people came back for our new bank. Just handing out something isn't as effective as when you've had a thought-out process of what should I give them and why."

Tie-ins with Web sites can also make trade show items interactive. Feldman recently exhibited at the Motivation Show, where he offered custom coins that had a unique number. Prize drawings were held every hour, and the person with the coin that had the correct number won. Afterwards, unclaimed prizes were put on the company's Web site. "It kept [attendees] aware of who we are," he says.

Even though it seems counter intuitive, the promotional product dangled before attendees shouldn't necessarily appeal to everyone. "I'd rather have fifty of the right people at the booth than five hundred," says Friedmann. The ideal gift should help recipients do their job better. One recent example was a company in the concrete business that handed out what it termed the "Crack Meter"—cards that were simple indexes to help gauge the thickness of a crack. The measurement tool was of little value to anyone other than the civil engineers who comprised the company's target audience. In the end, "people lined up for this thing," says Friedmann.

Making Pillow Talk
When it comes to selecting a room gift, planners are often under the same pressures as those selecting trade show items. While they may have a larger budget, they still need to find items that resonate with each recipient. Here too, technology seems to be on the top of planners' minds. "People are gravitating to high-tech," says Feldman.

The iPod nano is inevitably one of the first products to be on the tips of planners' tongues. "It goes without saying," says Feldman, "Everyone and their brother feels like they have to get one." As Wi-Fi grows in usage, so too are Wi-Fi signal locators. Instead of turning on a computer to see if there's a signal, all one needs to do is click this small device to see if there's a signal and how strong it is.

For planners looking to reward speakers, there's the Honeywell Power Presenter. Speakers can pre-store their PowerPoint presentation and merely show up with this remote control to deliver their presentation using this wireless device.

Attendees who travel internationally a great deal and don't have a gift for language may take a shine to WizCom's SuperPen. The device can scan text written in a foreign tongue and produce a full translation that is spoken aloud. Other ideas include devices that can back up your cell phone directory, a precaution worth its weight in gold if the recipient ever loses the phone.

Yeaman has found success selling the Zippo 6-in-1 ZippoLight. This gadget can be carried by joggers to illuminate themselves and it has a red beam that can be seen for up to half a mile.

Off the Grid
Trying to stay ahead of technology can often be frustrating for planners. Wendy Bloom, a meeting and event planner for Carlson Marketing Group in Minneapolis, says she has one financial services client that "doesn't do that anymore, because the stuff changes as soon as it comes out, and then it ends up on eBay."

Instead, Bloom's strategy is to source unique products from people in the know. Boutique items from lesser-known designers, be they clothing or jewelry, can carry high-perceived value since "they just can't go to a Macy's or Nordstrom's and buy it," she says. She has used jewelry with high-end gemstones, designer handbags, cashmere sweaters and watches. "Make it small, but mighty," she says of pillow gifts. "Attendees might be coming from all over the world, so it has to be something they can carry home."

Many of the attendees "have the money and can afford to buy gifts for themselves, so you need to go above and beyond," adds Bloom. As old-style watches make their way back into style, a watch winder can serve as a unique gift, says Feldman who also recommends cigars and port. Among luggage brands, he notes that Tumi has become popular, because travelers can register their bags. If the bag disappears it can be tracked via computer.

"We always try and find a pillow gift that is made at the destination," says Arnold Light, president of the Light Group in New York City. "It can be a work of art or a sculpture by a local artist. It makes it more memorable." His company arranged for a group of 150 computer technology salespeople on a trip to St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. to receive on their pillows holiday ornaments made by local artisans. Though delicate, the ornaments came in special packaging to absorb the shock from the trip home. Gifts like these leverage the uniqueness of the travel experience.

In that vein, a technology firm that recently flew in a number of international attendees to Wyoming rewarded each participant with an official Stetson hat which was accessorized and steamed to fit. "They loved it," says Bloom. "It went with the destination." And in Charleston, S.C., groups often receive sweetgrass baskets from local makers. The weaving craft has been indigenous to the area for centuries.

Another way to leverage a destination is by giving away full-color prints or black-and-white pictures of the destination that attendees can take back to be framed. Light often leaves a stack of pre-stamped postcards sitting in the room, so "they can make the people back home jealous." And a standard pillow gift that never loses its luster is a framed picture or photo album from the trip.

Of course, giving them items to use during the trip is often appreciated. For tropical locales, an arrival package containing logoed samples of suntan lotion, after-sun moisturizer and insect repellent as well as a bag, a hat and a T-shirt, is customary. In Las Vegas and other gaming destinations, a guide describing how to play craps or other games may come in handy. For a trip where attendees have a decent amount of free time, a city walking tour map is often appreciated. Towels, however, have become less popular because they are too bulky. "It's a problem for [attendees] to bring home in their suitcases," says Light.

Even under financial constraints from their companies and increased expectations from attendees, meeting planners are succeeding at the task at hand. According to the PPAI study, 65.5 percent of trade show recipients said they thought the product they received was useful, thus disappointing the cleaning crews at convention hotels across the country. But despite the increasing availability of high-tech gifts, Light says, "the tried-and-true works; people appreciate it. It doesn't have to be huge or expensive." Just thoughtful.