What' on the Pillow?

It happens all the time; Attendee gets gift. Attendee opens gift. Attendee trashes gift. Sometimes attendee re-gifts. While it's the thought that counts, there is an unspoken, universal truth: No one ever wants to receive a lousy present -- ever. And no planner wants to be associated with terrible taste -- ever. The good news is that when a gift goes over well, it can motivate meeting participants, create brand awareness, and strengthen relationships. And guess who comes out looking like a hero?

For one financial company on its third trip to Cancun, deciding on a room gift required brainstorming that went beyond standard sun-and-sand stuff. "They were selective about offerings. They wanted something that people would remember," says Andrea Michaels, president of Los Angeles-based Extraordinary Events, who helped with the program. In the end, a set of original tequila glasses and a limited-edition special tequila custom made for the 1,000-person group made the cut. "These are the kind of things we look for. I don't think anyone wants a gift for the sake of getting a gift. Think of how many things are left for the hotel maid," Michaels says. "Planners should ask themselves, 'Is this something I would want to take home or put in my own office?"

So what item makes a smart selection? We talked to several industry insiders to get the scoop on mastering the art of giving.

Products with a Purpose

Why waste time, money, and valuable resources by delivering disappointment? The first step in maximizing merchandise in meetings and incentives is to understand the special considerations and the various opportunities that exist to make a strong connection with a target audience. According to Michaels, merchandise associated with meetings tends to be more practical and business-related: briefcases, computer bags, backpacks, and note-paper. "You want items that are related to what a meeting is all about. If it is a sales-driven meeting, a copy of the keynote speech on DVD or a notepad highlighting important points might motivate attendees to remember information," she says.

"The biggest challenge is that the options are endless. Imagine trying to find an item that matches a meeting's specs, theme, and budget, and then convincing multiple decision-makers," says Debbie Etkin, director of premiums and specialties for ME Productions, a destination management company in Pembroke, FL

But a business gift doesn't always have to mean business as usual. Karen Allen, owner of National Creative Gift Group, a San Diego company that specializes in amenities for corporate meetings, says that choosing products depends on the profile of the target group. "We ask a lot of questions: What is the median age? Is it a male or female majority? Are there young executives? What did the company do in previous years? All of these things are key," Allen says. For one pharmaceutical client celebrating the fifth anniversary of one of its products, National Creative Group gave meeting-goers a bottle of 1989 Dunwood Cabernet Sauvignon, the same year the pharmaceutical's product hit the market.

Harith Wickrema, of Harith Productions in Oreland, PA, emphasizes the importance of understanding your reach. "Know the demographic. Do not give them something that they may have received five or six times before," Wickrema says. For a recent incentive program Wickrema produced for Centocor, a Malvern, PA-based pharmaceutical firm, he created pre-incentive buzz for the trip to the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas by sending qualifiers a custom-made, hand-printed beach towel. Other factors to consider when selecting products include "shelf-life, branding opportunities, recipient excitement, and functionality," Wickrema adds. "Sometimes the best in-room gifts are just little things that will help the attendee get the most out of the event." Upon arrival at Atlantis, Centocor's incentive qualifiers were given tote bags complete with suntan lotion, and other beach-related amenities to prepare them for outdoor fun.

As companies become more stringent with spending, planners are challenged to be more creative with a limited budget. Judy Joy, administrator, grower relations, for Lakeville, MA-based Ocean Spray Cranberries, prides herself in making an impact without breaking the bank. At a recent Grower Owners meeting at St. Petersburg, FL, attendees were given custom-made flip-flops that featured a relief of the Ocean Spray logo embossed on the soles. "The flip-flops were a lot of fun; each time someone walked on the beach the Ocean Spray logo was imprinted on the sand," Joy says. Other clever giveaways include corporate logo tattoos that employees could take home to their kids. For the annual Ocean Spray meeting, Joy looks for something other than the ubiquitous promotional pens that everyone uses. A Rosewood clock with a special message printed on the back is presented to directors who retire.

Jean Ludwig, marketing program coordinator for Jewelers Mutual Insurance in Neenah, WI, plans five to six annual events that include a board meeting, national sales meeting, and a major incentive program. She faces the same budget challenge that plagues many of her peers. For a recent President's Club incentive program to Ireland, Ludwig sent top agents who produced $500,000 in written premiums a box of Lucky Charms cereal. The promotional teaser, catchy and inexpensive, resonated with recipients because of the relevant tie-in. But Ludwig didn't stop with Lucky Charms. The following month, a package containing a real four-leaf clover and a set of fine china was sent to the actual winners who made President's Club. Nonqualifiers were recognized with cigars and cookies, tying in to the adages, "Close but no cigar," and "That's the way the cookie crumbles."

"The more you can do, the more people remember," Ludwig says. "And it doesn't have to cost a lot of money." Ludwig followed that strategy throughout the program, sending an Ireland-themed teaser every month after the announcement of winners. Gift baskets were complete with John Wayne's The Quiet Man, filmed at Ireland's Ashford Castle; Irish soda bread and a bottle of Guinness rounded out the program's promotional efforts. During the program, President Club members received a leather journal, Waterford pen, monogrammed bathrobe, and Irish wishing stone.

Special Delivery

Recipients aren't the only ones who benefit from gift giving. Promotional products also offer sponsoring companies immense branding opportunities. According to Etkin, merchandise in meetings and incentives creates buzz through branding. "Anytime you are able to incorporate a premium into a meeting, you are branding your business, whether that is an association or corporate event," she says. "With corporate meetings you have the ability to remind attendees about the company they work for and the products they represent. All this is positive and, when done on a regular basis, can build momentum. I focus on the meeting tag line and come up with a gift that ties in with the company's message."

During a meeting for an entertainment company, Etkin modified the traditional food basket for a Generation X group, making sure to include energy drinks, PowerBars, and aspirin. "This was an intense, high-energy group. Since the meeting was an informational meeting, attendees had to sit there for a long time. We wanted to adjust our premiums to fit that need."

Across the board, originality ranks as top priority for planners. Personalizing products to match a company's identity has transformed old ideas and made them better. "You can only do so many T-shirts that say 'President's Club,' " Michaels says. Popular customized pieces include headliner-autographed CDs, original artwork by local artists, and post-event videos and photo albums.

Another way to add a twist to tradition is to expand on good ideas. Michael Quatrini, a general manager for ME Productions, used a Top Gun movie theme for a Lincare Pharmaceutical sales meeting, offering participants Top Gun mugs with the Lincare logo. At a major battery manufacturer event, attendees were given an Indiana Jones-style compass with the company logo and an engraved message: "Don't lose your way."

"Giveaways are important for meetings," Quatrini says. "Each time recipients use items they received from a meeting, even years later, they remember the event."