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Let's Talk About Conference Swag

Swag: the free stuff offered by vendors at trade shows to encourage attendees to visit their booth.

I love tote bags. They can carry like 80 lbs. of groceries, and fold down to the size of a dollar bill for storage. Every time I attend a conference, they're on my list of must-grabs.


I have them in my closet, my car, and my garage. I have an extra sturdy one from Seattle Aquarium that holds exactly two wine bottles, and two gloriously huge totes from AALSO that I use for nearly everything else.


It's just, I have too many. After just a few conferences, I have all I need. I started to give them away. Some I've even *gasp* thrown out.


Actually, I can’t count the number of times I’ve thrown out swag after a conference. Pamphlets, stickers, USB drives, all the things I was so excited to receive just weeks ago.


After spending a few grueling months being pushed around in my junk drawer, these items usually end up in the trash bin.


A single shirt, a pen, and a mug. A shameful (yet honest) look at the swag I have KEPT in the last three years.
A shameful (yet honest) look at the swag I have KEPT in the last three years. Besides the totes, of course, pictured above.

I’m not alone in this experience. Yesterday I was talking to Melissa Bishop at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium about this revelation. She agreed.


“True story. I cleaned out my office yesterday and the amount of swag I threw away is unreal.”


Unreal.


And if we are all being honest, it’s because most swag is crap. I have had coffee tumblers that leak, totes that rip, keychains I don’t want, t-shirts that are stiff, and pens that dry out.


Since these items are not particularly sturdy or well designed, they’re not that useful. I get leaky tumblers so often, that when I get a new one I just assume it will leak.


When is the last time you purchased anything that you knew wouldn’t work? By accepting trash-ready swag, we are relaying to the supplying vendor that this item is desirable - encouraging another bulk purchase.


"Jade," you implore, "I hear you, but why do vendors even have cheap freebies?"


The answer to that question is two-fold: First, and perhaps most dangerously, it’s what we’re used to doing. People love free stuff and companies love advertising. The world spins normally, and nobody really thinks about it. Additionally, from a company’s perspective, swag makes a lot of sense. If you can give away 1,000 pens, that’s 1,000 circulating advertisements.


Except conference numbers are skyrocketing, and vendors are spending more and more to keep swag items available. AZA is now boasting attendance numbers in the thousands.



To put this to terrible math, there were roughly 180 vendors at Seattle's AZA conference in 2018, and 2,500 attendees. If each vendor paid as low as 50 cents per unit of swag to give away...


...that's at least $225,000 of plasticky, cheap freebies. At a single conference.


Yet, for every conference, these items are manufactured, branded, shipped, trucked, and flown, carrying consequences to the environment and worker's safety - all the way to my junk drawer.


Just so that a company could marginally improve its brand recognition.


Now that I've moved from animal care (swag recipient) to marketing (swag giver), it’s been part of my job to think a little deeper.


 

There are a number of things we, as vendors, can do to avoid the trap of swag.

  1. There is, of course, the obvious radical solution: We could eliminate swag. But that puts vendors at a loss to how they can interact with attendees, and leave boxes of extra swag in garages.

  2. We could invest in higher-end products. But that is an inanely expensive enterprise. Most vendors attend conferences throughout the year, and could end up spending tens of thousands on more eco-friendly items. Not to mention, have to ship and carry sturdier (thus substantially heavier) product.

  3. What about raffles that offer better, more sustainable products? Instead of spending $2,500 on 2,500 plastic keychains at AZA, what about five raffles for reusable Bee's Wrap ($19/ea)? Or a set of Wild Minimalist's zero-waste lunch kit ($119)?

  4. What about introducing games to your booth (Cornhole, anyone?) and inviting people to just enjoy themselves?

  5. If you do give away swag, offer to take it back. Leave a basket near your booth so people can drop off unwanted or duplicate items. Offer them up at your next conference.

  6. Instead of swag, sponsor a conference attendee.

  7. Get creative! If you work in the advertising or marketing department at your facility, with some say over promotions at conferences, talk to your team about how we can do better.

  8. *Suggested by Doug Immerman at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium* Offering product samples! "I think this is the best swag and probably cost effective for most vendors since they can get products very cheap. And product samples are actually directly related to the vendor. I have brought home samples and given them away to people who might use them, or used them myself and then purchased again."



 

If you're a conference attendee, these ideas might help you to navigate swag.

  1. I'm no Marie Kondo, but honestly ask yourself if you need that 23rd tote bag.

  2. Don't shame swag-takers. Maybe it's their first conference. Maybe that keychain is perfect because theirs broke last weekend. Maybe they lost their note-taking pen!

  3. Talk to vendors with whom you have a good relationship. Share your ideas. You never know who is feeling obligated to procure swag simply because it's expected. You could save them money!

  4. Interact with vendors! I can't stress this enough it's literally the only reason they're there. Talk, talk, talk. They are there to meet YOU. To support YOU. I can't count how many times I've seen people ask a Facebook forum about their life support systems, and it makes me smack my head on the table. The vendors at these conferences are living experts and their only goal is to help you. They even spend thousands on swag just to lure you to their expertise!

I would argue that sponsoring one zookeeper to attend a conference like AZA is worth more for our industry than 2,500 keychains.


I'd also argue that it's long overdue that we begin thinking differently about swag.


 

So what swag did I decide to run with at AEI?


None.


Instead of swag, AEI is donating a day of habitat restoration to support local conservation efforts near the conference location. That's right, I'm going to put Nick in waders and make him plant trees with me.


On a serious note, everyone at AEI is passionate about our natural world. It's what drives us to do what we do. It's why I enjoy working with our team. When I asked if they'd spend an entire day restoring riparian habitats, or cleaning up trash, or marking storm drains, they didn't hesitate to say yes.



So, our swag is giving back.


Currently, we are seeking restoration organizations in Long Beach, CA; Indianapolis, IN; and New Orleans, LA. We have just confirmed a project for RAW! With the Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed (FLOW). At risk of delving into a premature assumption, my hope is that conference attendees will participate, forming new traditions that trade disposable swag in favor of activities that promote our industry's mission to be stewards of our environment.


I hope you stay tuned.

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