Market Watch - Events

Tap Into The Growing Segment That Shuns The Ordinary

Golf Case StudyTap into the growing segment that shuns the ordinary.

When Scott Chalifour walks into a room of event marketers, he almost never mentions products. That Chalifour, president of Brand It Marketing Solutions Ltd. (asi/466754), is a promotional products distributor making a living off the sale of thousands of ad specialty items is, in that moment, irrelevant, he says. That's because Chalifour believes that if a distributor's sales pitch comes down to, "I will quote you on this mug," that's exactly what you're going to be in the client's mind.

In an industry in which event marketing is gaining ground, and a role for distributors to step in and assist in events, not just sell products, is increasing, "product is not your starting conversation," Chalifour says. In fact, "it's secondary." Very secondary. "Lots of times when we have a first meeting on a project, I don't come with anything but a pad," he says. No matter what, he never comes with products in tow.

Create the Unusual
Thirteen years ago when Chalifour and his partner, Norm L'Heureux, started their Manchester, NH-based distributorship, they purposefully named it Brand It, with the implication that they'd help companies brand themselves in many ways (the company even offers jingle creation), and not just through promotional products. What Chalifour might not have predicted is the burgeoning event marketing arena today. The Event Marketing Institute's 2012 EventTrack Study found that brands expect their event marketing budgets to grow by 7.8% this year. That's more than twice the 2011 rate of 3.6%.

Chalifour's not alone in finding event marketing more appealing. "One of the best things coming out of the recession" is that more companies are looking for unusual experiences and are feeling a need to drive more traffic to events through incentives such as promotional items, says Rebecca Kollmann, director of marketing for Neenah, WI-based AIA Corporation (asi/109480). The difference now, she adds, is that more opportunities may lie in a greater number of smaller, local, more community-focused events.

"I think that traditional marketing and even banner marketing is being pushed to the wayside for" what Caryn Stoll, president of Freestyle Marketing (asi/198342), calls guerrilla marketing. "Experiential marketing is what is gaining people's interest, and that experience and that interaction, the emotional connection with a brand, is really where the trend is going," says Stoll, who is based in New York. "Promotional products play a role in that experience."

Ask the Right Questions
The events market is so important that some distributorships, like Chalifour's, have added an event marketer to their staff. But how distributors approach marketers and companies looking to host events also plays a role in their success as event partners. For starters, it's crucial to ask probing questions long before products ever enter into the conversation, says Laura Hansen, president of Image Group Inc. (asi/230059), based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Getting a group's demographics, the event's target audience, corporate budget, and even whether event participants are local or from out of town ("because then they want something that's not breakable or too bulky" to pack in a suitcase, Hansen says) are the first steps to building a relationship with event marketers. Getting the message across that a distributor is interested in the details of an event speaks volumes and helps gain an event marketer's confidence, Hansen says.

Stoll takes it one step further. "If an initial consultation is on the phone, I literally close my eyes and try to visualize what the event will feel like. Tell me about the food and activities," she says, referring to requests she'll make to clients. Essentially, she wants to "smell it, taste it, know the demographics." All of this is key to helping Stoll visualize the best products for each particular event.

Know What to Pitch
You'd be surprised, Hansen says, how often companies are looking for new product ideas, even for events they've hosted repeatedly. "They're always looking for ways to make an event successful with good attendance," but don't always seem to have the answer, Hansen says. At one trade show she helped a company pull off, in which the client wanted to create pre-show buzz, Hansen suggested the firm send out puzzle pieces prior to the event and tell attendees to stop by the booth to complete the puzzle and receive a gift at the show. The company received a larger-than-expected influx of attendees, Hansen says.

When talking products, it's also key to know which products to pitch and which to forgo mentioning. For example, Hansen says, companies that handle multiple events every year likely aren't looking for items such as lanyards, since they probably buy them direct to save costs. Instead, they're more likely to look to distributors for unique, local or otherwise hard-to-find products that only an expert would be aware of. In Hansen's case that may include a unique wood-carved pen or memo holder for a forestry company, tying into one of the area's biggest industries.

Regardless of product expertise, breaking into the event marketing arena often means being more than a product pusher, says Mark Thompson. One way to do that is to specialize in a particular event or marketplace, says Thompson, director of business development for NetKnacks Tennis Awards Inc. (asi/282349), a distributor in Alpharetta, GA, whose sales are "98% to tennis industries and associations." In fact, Thompson says, the company chooses not to target event marketers at major corporations, and focuses almost exclusively on tennis-affiliated organizations.

Take Charge
In other cases, distributors say they've become trusted event partners after working with companies on a trade show or two, delivering timely, effective product and event ideas. It's not uncommon, distributors say, for event marketing companies or corporate meeting planners to hand off part or all of smaller events to distributors as a way to ease their workloads. "I would say the easy or low-hanging fruit would be charitable and nonprofit and community-focused events," says AIA's Kollmann. Those events, she says, almost always have multiple product handouts, and are frequently repeat events, where organizers are looking for trusted distributors they can turn to year after year.

For distributors who want to handle more than just product sales for events, taking on event management every year is a way to prove they're capable of diversifying their offerings. One way to grab a client's attention is to offer ideas that are personal, rarely seen, or those that come with a perceived higher value.

That doesn't mean they have to cost a lot, says Jeff Straughn, CEO and founder of Brand Synergy Group, a brand development firm in New York. A recent promotion of coconut water his company organized included the distribution of more than a million temporary tattoos to New Yorkers as they went about their day, along with a bottle of water.

Given the size of the order, "these premiums were a couple of pennies per piece, so it wasn't difficult, but it was a unique customized premium," Straughn says about the neon-colored tattoos. "When you look at premiums, it's important that whatever you give has a little bit of impact," regardless of the size of the product itself.