Center Stage

Ad specialties play a starring role in every meeting and event, from A-list awards ceremonies right down to the company picnic. Here’s how to get event planners to sing your praises.

From high-profile A-list award ceremonies to incentive trips and every meeting, event and conference in between, ad specialties have played a starring role. And there’s more good news. The event and meeting planning industries are poised for growth, and the good times should roll for both sectors through at least 2018, according to two recent IBISWorld industry reports.

IBIS forecasts trade show and conference planning industry revenues will grow at an annual rate of 2.8% to $15.3 billion in 2018. Party and event planning revenues will rise at an annualized 3.4% to $7.6 billion during that same period, IBIS predicts.

Event planning and meetings are a broad category with many market segments providing numerous branding and merchandising opportunities for savvy sales reps and their trusted suppliers.


Meeting and event planners serve a crucial role for many companies. “Meeting planners touch every part of a corporation, from product launches to sales meetings to C-level, or high-ranking ‘chief’ level, executive gatherings,” says Peter Wiggins, vice president of ESP–Exceptional Specialty Promotions Inc.

Event and meeting planners are not only a promotional product distributor’s customer, but can often be a distributor’s competition, says Mark Avenson, R. S. Owens (asi/75530) vice president of marketing. Many event planners already act as distributor resellers, and many larger event agencies also do some of their purchasing internally, he notes.

However, “more and more we are seeing an uptick with meeting planners relinquishing promotional products duties to third-party companies,” Wiggins says. ESP works jointly with its sister company, The Meeting Group, a full-service meeting planning and incentive travel company, to deliver a total event package that includes promotional products and logoed merchandise.

Adventures in San Antonio (asi/109472) is a full-service meeting company as well as a promotional products distributor, says Dayne P.S. Sullivan, meeting planner/event manager. “Being a distributor has added so much more value to us to assist our clients,” he says. “We are a one-stop shop. Meeting planners want turnkey events. They don’t want to have to coordinate with 15 different people.”

Planners need to make their managers look good, but also provide a memorable experience for attendees. Everything needs to run like clockwork. “Even with the best laid plans, there needs to be a quintessential Plan B,” says Claudette Bouton, national account executive at Goldner Associates (asi/209800).

“Event planning is literally like triage in the ER,” says Jeff Holt, vice president of marketing at Image Source (asi/230121). “It’s a high-stress position. The caterer could be late or the bus doesn’t show. Find areas where you can add value, then get out of the way. If you make their job easier, they’ll remember this and use you again.”

TIP: When targeting this sector, the key is to network like crazy and ask for referrals, says Wiggins. Get to know your local event-planning companies and familiarize yourself with the people running the venues hosting events in your city, including hotels and event centers.

A Spike in Special Events

Bouton knows a thing or two about event planning: She spent some 20 years in the special events industry before making the move to promotional products three years ago. “My ‘a-ha moment’ was realizing the natural synergy between events and the promotional products industry,” she says. “This has really been a missed niche under the special events umbrella.”

Promotional product distributors need to position themselves as strategic partners to event planners, along with caterers, entertainment companies and floral designers, Bouton recommends. “An event planner wouldn’t order flowers from – they work with reliable suppliers,” she says. Similarly, she believes planners would benefit from having a partner in the promotional products industry.

Working with a trusted preferred provider also reduces the event planner’s risks, and offers the client one-stop shopping. “We know what’s out there and can leverage those relationships,” she says. “We have a big opportunity to educate the event industry on the importance of including promotional products professionals in their arsenal of strategic partners.”

Too often the promotional products rep is brought in at the end of the event planning process. “If you can get involved early in the process, you can help the client create the event,” she says. This allows the planner to go beyond the single-point giveaway and create an event that offers multiple touch points that can more effectively convey and reinforce the brand message or purpose of the event. Bouton worked with one planner on a conference and ended up providing seven branded touchpoints for the event, including conference staff apparel, awards, speaker gifts, incentive gifts, tablecloths, attendee gifts and name badge holders.

For another event, Bouton created clever “hold the date” mini-silicon spatulas for a corporate client’s team-building program, which was an Iron Chef-themed event. That initial small order grew to include additional items, such as custom aprons and chef hats.

TIP: Event deadlines are often short. When quoting items for a client, make sure you have all the critical data. Check available stock, number of pieces needed and information such as how many logos can fit on one promotional item.


Promotional products are in demand in the meeting market, from the typical bag/pen/lanyard registration giveaway, to higher-priced, more deluxe gifts and incentives provided to senior level executives and top producers. Silicon Valley and the technology industry represent the greatest opportunity for large-scale event business, according to Holt. “It’s an industry that hosts lots of events for training and networking,” he says. “There’s always a big event happening somewhere in the tech sector.” Gaming is another category that can be hot for distributors in terms of significant event spend.

Shanti Art Design (asi/324436) owner, Colleen delaTorre, does a lot of work for technology companies, and says they tend to have bigger budgets when it comes to events targeted to their salespeople. One tech client recently treated its top 200 salespeople plus a guest to a week in Maui. She brainstormed with the client and supplied many of the branded items that made the destination trip so special. Among the items: a backpack, sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses, bandannas, sandals, beach balls for the pool and branded jackets for a sailboat ride.

“We are big believers that promotional items contribute to the fun of the event,” says delaTorre. She asks a lot of questions in the preliminary event planning stages, such as the types of activities that are planned, and expected weather conditions. With respect to the sailing trip, delaTorre asked, “Will it be warm or wet? Will the guests need towels or jackets?”

Her client drew a lot of attention in Maui. “All the items we provided had the client’s logo all over them, prominently displayed,” she says. “You couldn’t miss them anywhere at the pool or the resort.”

Another tech client sponsored a summer series of team-building activities. Each month the company did an event, which was accompanied by an assortment of giveaways: T-shirts and hats, along with decorative branded accessories like flags and cones to be used in the team-building activities.

Earlier this year, a Shanti client held a destination meeting for its “C-level” executives to make corporate plans for the upcoming year. The meeting was held in Napa Valley, and delaTorre supplied a logoed jacket for the chilly temperatures, along with fun, wine-themed items such as cork USBs, wine glasses, branded chocolate, olive oil and wine bottle stoppers.

Adventures recently supplied an array of high-tech gifts to attendees of a meeting of global technology CEOs, held in Dallas. Bose headsets were sent as part of the invitation to the conference, and then welcome gifts were distributed upon arrival. They included power-pack chargers and mini-speakers. “Power packs are the hottest item,” says Sullivan. “Everyone wants them.”

Incentive trips are also a hot area for Sullivan and some client companies budget as much as $200-$300 per person for promotional items. For example, top salespeople might qualify to win a trip to one of several destinations if they achieve a certain quota. “They need to have a wonderful time, and when they get back, they need to have something to show for it,” he says. He provided thick, high-end branded beach towels to winners of a Costa Rica trip, and branded binoculars to winners of a trip to Alaska.

TIP: Be budget-conscious but offer a few higher-priced alternatives. “When it comes to events, money can always be moved around,” Sullivan says. “Offer plenty of choices.” He was pitching $6-$8 backpacks to one client and they ultimately chose an $18 version. “They had no idea they wanted this backpack until they saw it,” he says.


“Experiential marketing and events, without a doubt, is the fastest-growing category in the events sector. The concept is that you bring the event to the people, and create meaningful one-on-one interactions wherever the target audience naturally gathers,” Holt says.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) demonstrated its marketing magic at the Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) Masters of Marketing conference, held in Phoenix last October. Everybody was a winner at the company’s exhibit booth, which centered on a carnival claw machine that dispensed branded “Good Things” to visitors.

“It’s extremely important for our media brands to be represented at the ANA, which draws high-level executives in media and from the companies that want to advertise with us, ” says Christy Simony, Martha Stewart director of events. The company showcases its different platforms, which include publications like Martha Stewart Weddings and Martha Stewart Living as well as its digital platform.

“We like to create a buzz at the ANA. We encourage everyone to attend our booth,” says MSLO project manager, sales development, Jessica Stonehouse. Over 2,000 attended the sold-out networking event for the country’s most influential chief marketing officers and leaders from the agency and media worlds.

The carnival claw was a highlight of the conference, and the theme of the game was “Everybody Wins.” The machine incorporated brand words like “Good Things” and other messaging identified with the company. Visitors to the booth received customized brass tokens embossed with the Martha Stewart logo on one side, and “Good Things” on the other.

The player would put in a token, and could either win from a bigger prize pool that included candles, napkin rings, hand towels and items from Martha Stewart’s new Halloween crafts line, or use the joystick and get smaller items, like glitter or candy, Stonehouse explains. Everyone walked away with a Martha Stewart product, which were all provided by the company’s partners, including Macy’s and PetSmart.

Simony says the promotional products the company distributed increased awareness of the many different markets Martha Stewart is a part of, as well as the many different partners the brand works with.

TIP: Offer event-goers interactive experiences. Coupled with a variety of branded product giveaways, the event lives on in memory, leaving good vibes from the sponsoring businesses.