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Promotional Products for Meetings

Promotional Products Meet Meetings
By Charlotte Thomas

Savvy meeting and event planners know the right promotional products can make for a memorable and motivating experience.

Corporate meeting planner Cindy Beil stayed in the background as participants made their way to their tables at the annual sales meeting's kick-off breakfast. There were the gift boxes with the same old stuff in them at their places - or so they thought.

Beil watched as the employees pushed the boxes aside, hardly looking at them. However, a few curious souls did open theirs. Soon, Beil was gratified to hear the buzz racing around the room "Hey, this is awesome!" "Whoa! That's fantastic." This is the best gift I've ever seen."

When was the last time you got a reaction like that to a meeting giveaway?

"The gifts were extremely well received," Beil says modestly. The truth is, she and her counselor, Jill Seidel, a CMP (Certified Meeting Professional) herself, had done a lot of brainstorming to find creative, fun, and useful - not to mention unique - gifts for the event. And their work paid off big time.

Seidel has seen the promotional products market and its relationship to corporate meetings, sales conventions and other company gatherings grow markedly in recent years. In the past, she says, it was get the plane tickets, reserve the meeting room, book the catering and at the last minute think, 'Oh yeah; better get some portfolios.' Promotional gifts were an afterthought without much spark or sizzle.

"Meeting and seminar planners now understand the value of making promotional items a top priority," says Andrew Borislow, an East Coast counselor. Previously, everything else to do with corporate events was budgeted for. If there was money left over, the meeting planners would scramble to get gifts. Now, he reports, they re coming to him from the get-go, asking what he can come up with in the way of ideas and gifts. "Corporations are becoming educated about how ad specialty items and premiums are an important part of meetings," he says.

Different Approach
Increasingly, firms are realizing they're spending substantial amounts of money hosting these events and should get more than bodies slumped in chairs. "The whole idea is to get them pumped up," says Seidel, noting that promotional products can prime the pump.

Within this cost-conscious context, companies today are much more sophisticated about getting their message across to attendees. Joe Brooks, a Midwest counselor, agrees that gifts have become an integral part of meetings because they reinforce the theme and get employees to think about the event. "The key is for participants to take back a visual reminder that extends the meeting's message," he notes, commenting on how quickly people forget what they've heard: "If you don't use it, it's gone in four days. Logoed gifts help to retain that information. They also can effectively say 'Thank you for your time.'"

Scott Gardner, a counselor on the West Coast, says companies in his area are definitely putting more effort into their meetings. In the competitive high-tech labor market of Silicon Valley, retention is critical. Promotional gifts are one way for participants to leave an event with an overall good feeling. "Corporations do buy a lot," seconds Ed Van Rooyen, a distribution company president. "Promotional gifts are a big area for sales meetings and they're not all business; a lot of it is social."

Likewise, promotional products can be selected that demonstrate the most important underlying purpose of the meeting. Beyond the traditional tote bag, lots of people are using promotional products as packaging for samples and literature. Meeting speakers are also choosing products (some even employing sound chips) that enable attendees to take home the single most important message in a speech or presentation.

No True Parameters
The types of products appropriate for meetings are limited only by the ingenuity and cleverness of those buying them. Creativity is the operative word in deciding what items to use and when/where to use them.

Two trends seem to be at work here. One train of thought is that people have enough mugs to fill a china shop, enough hats and T-shirts to fill a closet, and enough pens to write the great American novel three times over. Gifts nowadays need to be hip, cool, and above all, new.

Which doesn't mean there isn't a place for tradition. "As much as companies want to give away fanciful and fun items to their employees, they re still grounded in the portfolios, pens, and calculators," says Borislow. Adds Brooks: "Truly useful business items are always well accepted." Earning desk real estate and getting something that someone will put on his or her desk along with everything else are hard-won victories with tremendous impact.

Whatever the product, the key is that If a company is going to spend the money, it had better be for items people will use. What kind of a message the company is sending with the gift should be well thought-out. "The strongest impact comes from a gift that makes the person feel like the company has put some time and thought into what they're giving them then they feel appreciated," Beil notes.

Ira Almeas, a promotional marketing consultant, agrees that employees expect to get something more than the norm these days, especially if they have a few meetings and corporate events under their belts. "Years ago a fun-in-the-sun event might have brought out the towels, hats, T-shirts, and bags," he says. "Now people are saying, 'Skip the hats. Do something worthwhile.'" But having said that, he's quick to add that the clients he works with very often still want gifts as simple as mugs, pens, portfolios, hats and T-shirts.

In fact, wearables very likely constitutes the largest chunk of the meeting gift selection. "No question it's the biggest ... and right behind are drinkwear and writing instruments," reports Randall Hozid, promotional consultant. Brooks believes wearables remain popular because they have a high perceived value. People shop at malls and note the prices of golf shirts, windbreakers, warm-up suits, etc., and when they receive one from their employer, it makes a big impression. Counselor Tootsie Jones observes the same thing. Employers and employees alike are more savvy about what's out there and want the same - or comparable designer labels and brand names.

Paul Loughridge, project manager in a marketing group involved in planning corporate events, says clothing remains a big winner for his company. He illustrates this point by mentioning the hit his company made when it gave embroidered custom Hawaiian shirts to the employees who participated in a 10K fun run. "People lived in them," he remembers.

Gardner concurs: Custom-imprinted apparel makes an impression because companies, especially in the high-tech arena, want to portray a progressive image. "The bottom line," he says, "is if you re going to be giving a product away, its function is to represent the quality of the company message. It's reflected in that product."

Design & Details
Of course, just throwing money into expensive promotional items isn't necessarily the answer. Simple can dazzle, too. Coming from Silicon Valley, where state-of-the-art is the norm, Gardner mentions that standard items can often easily be tied into current styles - stainless steel commuter mugs, for example. Due to their popularity, silver is a big color, he says; put it on any mug and you've made a stylish statement.

As far as Jones is concerned, graphics is what makes the difference and gives a product zip. Hozid agrees: "If the graphics are exciting and colorful, then the likelihood of retention becomes greater." Packaging is another way to add pizazz to an otherwise been-there, done-that item. Gardner notes that packaging sells an item at the retail level, and it can do the same for the perception of promotional items.

Interactive gifts also get a lot of attention at corporate meetings. Brooks recalls a marble jigsaw puzzle distributed to attendees in a meeting room. The idea was to get people to cooperate. Then there were lapel buttons imprinted with numbers and given out in twos - find the person with the other number and have a drink on the company. "These kinds of gifts get people who would ordinarily just sit and listen involved," says Brooks of this unique networking idea.

Another thing to think about is if the gift requires shipping, especially to offsite meetings in faraway locations. "You might get comments like, 'Gee, thanks for the crystal lamp. How do I get it home?'" Brooks says. Consequently, when giving bulky or fragile gifts, plan the packaging accordingly - or, better yet, arrange for shipping as part of the deal.

How a gift is imprinted also makes a big difference in how it's received and used. Company picnics or outings suggest bright colors, but consider where an item will be worn afterwards, too. "You don't want to put gaudy embroidery on a $400 leather jacket," advises Gardner, suggesting that blind de/embossing or a label inside, courtesy of the corporate sponsor, might be the way to go instead. Generally, the more high-end the item, the more subtle the imprinting. Beil's company colors were black and red. She heard grateful comments from recipients when they noted that the imprinting was black on black, not red on black a small point that made a big difference.

Best Times
As for when to give the gifts, the general consensus is throughout the event. Pre-meeting items can be used as a clever way to build interest. Some companies put everything into a tote bag and leave it in the attendee's hotel room. But Brooks thinks even this isn't as effective as surprises throughout the course of the meeting or show.

As for pre-meeting ideas, he feels a carefully chosen gift can foreshadow the meeting without blowing the whole theme. He suggests something as simple as a key. When participants get there they find a treasure chest with prizes. Borislow recalls a meeting in New Orleans that was ushered in with a logoed Dixieland jazz CD.

This is where a promotional products expert can help determine what will work best for a particular situation. A good counselor (like yours) can take a theme and run with it, turning a ho-hum meeting into an event attendees will be talking about for years to come - every time they use that unique imprinted or logoed item.

COPYRIGHT © 1999 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Charlotte Thomas

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