Marty Bear is a colorful character. Literally. You might need a pair of those pricey sunglasses attendees sometimes get at industry events just to look at one of his eye-popping, can’t-miss-him-in-a-crowd outfits.
He’s the swag guy, the guy behind many of the trade show branded, promotional giveaways we know and love. He’s also the president of PMSI (Professional Marketing Services, Inc.) in Stratford, CT, the go-to source for those items.
Crazy outfits notwithstanding, swag is serious business. It’s a staple in the travel and hospitality industry. It can create buzz around an event or organization long after a xpecific event, bond attendees, raise funds, motivate employees and members, ramp up support for a cause or goal and increase loyalty.
“Swag items are fun and many times very functional pieces of the human experience,” Bear noted. “Promotional merchandise helps advertise events, causes, musical artists, movies and TV shows, sporting events and college and university alum, students and parents. Sometimes swag can generate revenue for organizations, and other times it’s used as a goodwill gesture or appreciation gift. Many technology items also help sales groups function in the business world with chargers, computer backpacks, speakers, cables, adaptors and other tech-related items. People love swag.”
Bear should know. He’s been in the swag game for 40 years.
PMSI’s specific business model focuses heavily on the hospitality industry.
“We support as many industry events and causes as we can by donating ‘in kind’ swag to support conferences, events, galas, fundraisers and trade shows,” Bear said. “In the 2023-24 calendar year, PMSI Promos will be exhibiting at over 35 industry conferences and sponsoring an additional 30 to 40 more. We still send out quarterly ‘What’s New’ printed catalogs and flyers to our audience, as well as weekly e-blasts. Our philosophy is simple: We offer the best selection of products with the greatest group of expert production coordinators at the lowest possible prices.”
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because PMSI exhibits at ASAE, PCMA, IAEE, MPI and many other shows and events.
“At our booth, we’re giving away free samples of the best new items for those particular audiences,” Bear said. “We sell to association and corporate meeting planners on one side and also support suppliers for those events — hotels, resorts, convention centers, tourism bureaus, technology and software companies.”
The business has changed over the past 40 years, but Bear said swag is still a great investment for organizations in this time when there are so many new buyers and new opportunities post-Covid.
“The hospitality industry was drastically affected by Covid and shutdowns,” he said. “Over the last two years, many customers transitioned to other fields or endeavors, leaving the industry with many new folks who might not be familiar with a company.”
That’s not to say that the Covid era didn’t create hardships for PMSI, too. But Bear knew what he wanted to do: Take a pro-active approach and help in any way he could.
“When Covid hit and the meeting and travel industry came to a sudden halt, I had to make decisions on what to do with our company and wonderful staff,” Bear said. “We decided to try and keep as many of our team as possible. To accomplish this, we decided to give back to our industry the best way we could. When there were no masks and no sanitizers available anywhere, PMSI Promos reached out to all our industry partners and groups offering free PPE kits including pouch, masks, sanitizers, wipes, tools and more. We then expanded the program, reaching out to those who had elderly parents and kids isolated with no masks or sanitizers and sent free packets to them as well.”
At the end of the year, PMSI had flown in enough materials from other countries to send out many thousands of PPE kits. The letters and emails of thanks they received from those with compromised spouses, parents and children made it the most rewarding project Bear could ever imagine.
“And still, at every trade show I do, there are at least 20 to 30 people who come up to me and thank me for sending them the materials,” he said. “And our PMSI team stayed intact until our world opened again.”
There’s no question that Marty Bear and PMSI have countless fans in the industry. But underlying the relationships Bear has forged with associations, education institutions and other organizations is an indisputable fact: Swag is a smart business strategy.
Charlene Liu, CMP, DMCP, director of meetings & events, Higher Education User Group (HEUG) in Riverview, FL, said, “Giving out branded swag allows our members to take home a part of the ‘experience’ we provide them. They turn into a tangible item for brand visibility. Well-designed and useful items can leave an impression and provide associations with the positive experience we aim to provide.”
HEUG sets conferences all over the world. Liu described HEUG’s swag as “strategic on a global level, making the memorability of events even more everlasting.”
The majority of HEUG’s swag purchases are provided to members and conference attendees — no tasks or sign-up requirements. A small percentage are gratitude gifts for the board of directors and volunteers.
“For us, swag is a member benefit and opportunity to bring a smile to our members’ faces,” Liu sid. “Our members are in the higher education technology niche, so we look for anything that can be a resource to them (tech taco, webcam covers, etc.) and in line with a themed event we hold at our annual conference.”
Tech-related items are heavy favorites, but branded notepads and pens are popular as well and ensure that attendees always have a physical takeaway and connection to the conference.
“For the annual conference, we provide a fun item for the closing-night reception that reflects the destination and theme of the event,” she said. “These vary and it’s one of the times we can be our most creative!”
The items Liu uses most often are travel related.
“I received a branded Tumi backpack and a cord organizer that has made my life so much easier,” she said.
She calls any product that improves her travel life and helps alleviate stressors “a treasured item.”
Liu believes organizations that don’t leverage swag are “losing an opportunity to show their constituents how appreciated they are as members/customers/attendees. Also, the benefit of having a tangible item of your brand out there and having your constituents effortlessly promote your organization would be a missed opportunity.”
Erica Wilson, senior event planner for Purdue Conferences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, said that swag is a way to showcase your brand identity, shows attendees which companies support their organizations and associations, and can support groups in creative ways.
“Julia from PMSI once helped me order camp chairs for attendees as all of my big events were at locations without seating areas,” Wilson said. “Each attendee got their own camp chair they could carry into each activity at a civil engineering competition. We also host a technical competition for one group; a 36-hour hackathon. We gave participants water bottles, blankets, pillows, Ts, knee socks — all ways to stay hydrated, comfy or able to rest during the competition.”
Wilson uses all kinds of items for different groups, but noted that, for conferences, attendees always need paper, pens and a bag to carry everything in because they’re often traveling light. It’s good to send folks away with something to remember you by.
“PMSI does a great job at giving suggestions, keeping up with trends and helping us customize something unique for our groups,” she said. “There are many different companies that do what PMSI does, but PMSI really takes time with its customers and builds those relationships, so you come back to them every time.”
Nathaniel Holic, meetings and registration manager at Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) in Washington D.C., uses swag for fundraising and recognition.
“We use the merchandise as a way to recognize partners and sponsors, raise funds for our meeting and provide attendees with swag to use after our meetings,” Holic explained.
Name-badge holders, napkins, amenity/survival kits, lanyards, pens, notebooks, registration bags, charging banks and portable chargers are among the items typically given out to attendees during meetings.
“People seem to enjoy our name-badge holders,” he said. “They’re longer than most and people use them as a sort of purse to hold items as they walk around our conference. We use PMSI and they provide consistent on-time delivery, top quality communication and great pricing.”
Deborah A. Ross, CCHP, CEO of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) in Chicago, IL, said her group has sponsored conference tote bags branded with their conference name, organization logo and the sponsor’s logo.
“Seeing fellow conference attendees with the same tote bag throughout the hotel gives them a sense of community,” Ross said. “Swag can also be a walking advertisement for your brand, increasing visibility and recognition. Items such as T-shirts, bags, water bottles and pens display your company’s logo and branding. Branded swag can play a significant role in building customer or attendee loyalty by fostering positive emotions, creating memorable experiences and reinforcing the relationship between your brands. It provides a visual sense of belonging and loyalty.”
Ross is a believer in all that swag can convey.
“Offering swag shows that you value your attendees’ participation, and we want to provide them with something tangible in return. This can enhance attendee satisfaction and create a positive impression of the organization. However,” she added, “our conference attendees can be limited to the swag items that can be used in the field or at their workspace, so we select items that respect and reflect those limitations.”
In addition to giving away promotional products, NCCHC also sells branded clothing items including life vests, T-shirts and fleece jackets, and Ross said their constituents are often excited to purchase these items.
“We believe it’s because they do feel part of our organization wearing an item with our logo,” Ross said, adding that one reason for that may be related to uniqueness and exclusivity. “You can only get the swag by attending our conferences.”
As part of NCCHC’s business strategy related to swag, Ross said, “We plan on several swag items to be sponsored by our partners and exhibitors. Attendees who appreciate our swag may become brand advocates, recommending the products, services or conferences to others in their network.”
The group has three national conferences each year and uses branded promotional items at all three to give to attendees and sponsors.
“Depending on the conference, we usually have tote bags, badge holders, lanyards, padfolios, pens and drink tumblers,” she added. “On the exhibit floor in our booths, we typically have pens, hand sanitizer, wipes, luggage tags, lunch bags and other swag. Our conference attendees and sponsors seem pleased with the swag we offer.”
While Ross said the organization doesn’t typically order promotional items for employees, if there are leftover items, staff can choose to take at item.
“Some of our staff members like the insulated lunch bags,” she said. “Some like the phone charges while others like the fun stress balls in various animal shapes.”
Ross calls swag items “a physical representation of your brand.
“By associating your brand with positive feelings and experiences, you create a strong brand identity that resonates with customers and encourages their loyalty,” she said. “This is an opportunity to enhance your brand, build loyalty and community for a relatively small investment.”
AFP, Americans for Prosperity, provides promotional items for a variety of reasons. Nicole Sutter, CMP, CMM, senior director of events in Arlington, VA, said there’s a “proud factor” when employees, attendees, members and others wear swag with AFP’s logo on it, “especially hats and T-shirts.” When the group did an extensive logo refresh, swag was a good way to get the new look out.
“We hand out swag at every event, large or small,” Sutter said. “But we hold a lot of larger events where press is present, so branding is everything when it’s photographed.”
Sutter added that employees can also order swag apparel throughout the year, as well as at the group’s annual all-staff retreat.
AFP’s attendees are called “activists” and volunteers, and they get swag at the events as do donors. Typical items include T-shirts, hats, padfolios, pens, lunch coolers, higher-end water bottles (Yeti, Tervis), phone wallets, socks, sunglasses, messenger bags, team jackets and polos. Among Sutter’s favorite items are anything unique that can be used often, including the Yeti and Tervis products.
“We had a campaign to ‘End Washington Waste’ and passed out branded piggy banks and desk trash cans,” she said. “Those were very popular. And our staff loves any embroidered apparel. Our branded socks are always popular.”
To those organizations that may not yet understand the value of swag, Sutter said, “If you’re sponsoring a major event or city-wide convention, the amount of brand recognition in sponsoring the official bag, for example, is astounding. The bag is literally in everyone’s hands for the week, walking around the city, in restaurants, hotels and eventually in the airport.”
It’s not just industry associations that benefit from swag and PMSI’s expertise. Convention and visitor bureaus are also among those who use Bear’s promotional and branded items to great effect.
Karen Morris, CMP, director of sales with Walton County Tourism in Florida, said, “Swag provides added brand awareness for the destination and helps meeting planners and visitors remember us. It helps build loyalty and provides a keepsake of a visit to South Walton and serves as a reminder of the memories made there.”
The Walton County Tourism Department visitor center welcomed some 18,000 visitors last year. Not surprising, the visitor center has an assortment of available merchandise to sell, and all of it is branded.
“It’s an effective way of promoting the South Walton brand,” Morris said. “We also give away branded merchandise in trade show booths, at appointments with meeting planners, sales calls, during site visits and in registration bags.”
Among the branded items the tourism department typically has are lanyards, luggage tags, lip balm, wireless phone chargers, portable power banks, nail polish and nail files (for wedding shows), koozies, small cutting boards, golf balls, stickers and Corkcicle drinkware — all branded.
Sutter noted that the items that consistently get the most positive feedback are wireless phone chargers, Corkcicle cups and luggage tags.
“They’re nice quality and the logos are tastefully done,” she said, adding that her personal favorites are the Corkcicle drinkware, golf balls and beach towels.
There are multiple reasons Walton County Tourism embraces swag giveaways, and Morris believes these reasons translate to benefits that other organizations could receive and should consider as well.
“There are several benefits to giving away swag items, including building brand recognition by showing our logo, as well as potential lead generation,” she said. “Additionally, it helps make South Walton memorable to people after their visit. It’s an effective marketing and advertising tool.”
Using swag to promote a brand isn’t a one-off decision. It’s typically a long-term business strategy, and that means new items are important to keep the strategy successful. The good news for longtime customers of PMSI is that there are always new items available.
“These days our suppliers are coming out with new items on a monthly basis,” Bear said. “We search and research not just to find any new items but those items that will fit into the existing budgets and functions of our customers. Technology, for example, changes all the time. When Apple introduces a new cable or input plug, that generates many new items. Stanley introduced a new 40-ounce drinkware with a large handle that fits into your car’s cupholder. It got tons of traction on social media and now I see everyone carrying this huge water bottle around. It’s crazy!”
Among Bear’s current favorite items is one that’s been getting an amazing response from clients.
“It’s our item # 2009,” he said. “It’s a combination marker and carton cutter. It’s used by both planners and suppliers to open boxes and mark them on conference day or when they arrive at their booth.”
Considering how important sustainability has become to the meetings industry, it’s no surprise that Bear and his team have spent time and resources in the past year finding an assortment of eco-friendly, sustainable swag, as well as promoting the “give-back programs” associated with the products.
Bear said, “We currently have plans for the last quarter of the year and all of next year to produce a live Eco Swag Pavilion at many industry events so planners and suppliers can see the latest items in person and brainstorm which will best help events and also help to educate those new to the industry. We also help promote what to do with leftover swag at shows and conferences and how to donate the products locally.”
When asked what one thing he wishes organizations would understand about swag that perhaps they don’t, Bear laughed. That’s because the answer is decidedly unexpected: Chinese New Year.
“Explaining Chinese New Year to customers over 40 years has always been a challenge,” Bear said. “We in the U.S. expect maybe a long weekend and then it’s back to work. But in China, the celebration often lasts three to four weeks, affecting production schedules. When ports and factories reopen, it’s then a race to get the products on ships. But many workers live far away from the factory and a large percentage find a new job for more pay closer to their village and don’t return when the factory reopens.”
Who knew? Well, now we all do. And maybe as organizations plan for their 2024 swag items, they’ll consider that February is not the time to depend on speedy delivery. | AC&F |