Rethinking Trade Show Swag

I ran into a guy at an airport recently who was hauling two large company-branded shopping bags.  It was clear that he was on his way home from a trade show.

Well … it was made even clearer by the fact that he was still wearing his Attendee badge.

“Pretty good score, huh?”rethinking-tradeshow-swag

“Yeah, lotta crap.  Not even sure why I’m bringing it home.  But hey, it was free, y’know?  ”Kids’ll like it.  And the rest I’ll probably just dump.”

I found myself wondering about the hours of discussion, the meetings, the phone calls, the RFPs … the debate by the marketing team over what the “perfect” giveaway for this show would be.  And here was a bag full of the stuff on a fast track to the trash heap.

I think many of us agree that promotional giveaway items are an essential part of trade shows.  And I know from many years of  experience, that people will queue up for a branded t-shirt or a thumb drive or a flying-screaming aadvark as if their very lives depended on it.

I’m also willing to bet that many of these people get home, dump their suitcases on their beds and wonder,


Now, I don’t want to suggest that we do away with the swag.  But I think it IS worth considering the amount of trash we are creating in this industry.  AND the amount of work that is being outsourced to countries so that we can get that 8 gig flash drive in the shape of a nose for a unit price of fifty cents.

I don’t have an easy answer here, but I would like to open a dialogue on the subject.  Do we need this stuff?  Or are there alternative forms of messaging and branding that have a reasonable lifespan  (And not just a half life in a recycling center.)

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Got Swag?

“Hey Newman.  What the heck do people do with all that swag that’s left over after the trade show is done?  T-shirts?  Stress Balls?  Flying Monkeys?  Is there a final resting place for all this stuff??”  – JB from LA

That’s a darn good question, JB.  Instead of trying to answer it myself, I got in touch with some of my fellow trade show professionals.  Andy Saks of Spark Presentations, turned me on to a great piece that just appeared in the Boston Globe:

Convention Center Repurposes Leftover Swag

I was really happy to see that some Convention Centers are doing the responsible thing and not just letting all this stuff go straight to the dump!

I also wanted to find out what people were doing (and could be doing) on a smaller scale to deal with this Swag Surplus.  So I got in touch with trade show veteran (and fellow blogger), Jennifer Canale.  She not only has hundreds of trade shows under her belt, but she is very active in helping out her local community.  Here’s what Jennifer had to say:

“I can’t understand why people would EVER just dump all this trade show swag.  It makes me NUTS !!  Let’s face it, somewhere out there, closer than you think, are people who could use a few new t-shirts.  So go GET them!   On the last day, walk the floor, grab an extra shirt or two from each booth.  Women’s shelters are perfect places to drop off clothing!  So are Child Care Centers.  And, if you mention to the booth that you are giving their merchandise to a shelter, they usually will load you up on a variety of sizes after the show.  It’s been my experience that companies are thrilled to have people not only WEARING their branded merchandise, but NEEDING it.

And while you’re on swag patrol, here are some more ideas:

  • Schools always need pens, pencils, notepads, and thumb drives.
  • Soup kitchens love 20 pounds of mixed candy collected from the booths.
  • Stress balls and stuffed animals become toys at a low-income day care or preschool.

After the Fancy Foods West show, my client, Maria & Ricardo’s Tortilla Factory, had about 50 pounds of tortillas left over, all of them still in sealed packages.  I couldn’t bear to see them thrown away, so I loaded them up in my little “Trade Show Granny Cart” and hauled them to Glide and the Tenderloin Outpatient Clinic.

At the NADA show, my client, Elead, had about 6000 cookies leftover—again, all in packages.  I suggested that she let me take them to Glide, and she was thrilled!  Everyone at Glide got a wonderful dessert, courtesy of Elead.

And the company even got a nice tax write-off.”

Want to hear more from Jennifer Canale?  Check out her blog at BRANDED FOR LIFE.  Great stuff there.  And we would love to hear what some of YOU are doing with all those shirts, hats, bears, monkeys, thumb drives, and other branded baubles that are part of our trade show life.  Just put it in the comments section.  Thanks.

“That’s NOT in my Job Description”

This week’s “Hey Newman” blog was to be about ‘going-above-and-beyond, ‘thinking-outside-the-box,’ ‘getting-things-done.’  But instead of speaking about this in the abstract, I decided to invite fellow blogger, Jennifer Canale, to share her recent experience at a small trade show in New Orleans.

I believe it  speaks to this subject particularly well:


Question:  What do you do when you show up on Day One of a trade show, and discover…

1.  The product literature didn’t make it to the show.

2.  The show entrance and your booth are at opposite ends of the building.

3.  There are no dedicated trade show hours ??

Answer:  Whatever you HAVE TO DO!!

You may have been brought in as a “Crowd Gatherer” or “Booth Hostess,” but when it comes down to it, you are part of the Marketing Team.  This means you do whatever you have to do to make your show a success, whether you think it’s in your job description or not.


What happens when the Client unpacks the shipping boxes an hour before showtime and realizes that THERE IS NO LITERATURE TO HAND OUT??


You ask them to put whatever files they can find on a thumb drive.  You change into your comfy shoes.  You Google the nearest FedEx Kinko’s.  You take their Corporate Credit Card and off you go.  Thirty minutes later you’re back with bags full of pamphlets and flyers.  You put on your heels.  You’re a hero.   Miracle #1.

Then …

What do you do when your booth is in the far corner of the convention hall and no one is coming to visit?

You work your magic !

It’s hard to be a Crowd Gatherer for a Presenter when he has no one to PRESENT to.  He may be great at sleight of hand, but without anyone to watch him … who cares?   So you grab an extra deck of cards and go out into the main hallways and tell every attendee you see to “Pick a Card!  Any card!  Take that Magic Card to Booth 1617 and turn it in for a prize!”  Next thing you know, the booth is full of attendees watching the Presentation!  AND, since all the attendees are turning in playing cards for prizes, your client has a pretty good idea who it was that pulled in the crowds.  Miracle #2.

And as if THAT wasn’t enough …

What do you do when the only time the attendees are in the Expo Hall hall is for meals?  To make matters worse, the Caterers, in their infinite wisdom, put a giant curtain in front of your booth, so no one sees you or your presenter.

Step out from behind the curtain.

That booth in the corner is now part of the dining entertainment.  Visit the tables during lunch and welcome the attendees.  Invite them over to you booth for some lunchtime magic.  Tell them that your presenter will teach them a trick and give them a special gift to take home with them. Miracle #3.

And after this third miracle, you are officially a New Orleans Saint  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Tricks like this (pun intended) will get your booth full of prospects, and get your client to see the value that you bring to their trade show marketing effort.   If your client doesn’t get good leads, they’re not likely to come back to this show.  And if they don’t come back to the show … you’re not working for them.

So …

You step up.  You help wherever you can. You do things that might not be part of your job description.  You make problems disappear.  Then, the morning after the show, you get an email thanking you for the great job you did along with a contract for their next three shows.

Life is Good.


Have any stories about things YOU’VE done that were not part of your job description? Emptying trash at your trade show booth?  Vacuuming carpets?  Rebuilding a server?  We’d love to hear them.