Trade Show Swag: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

We had a lively #assnchat on Twitter yesterday about trade show booth giveaways. I volunteered to write a summary, not realizing it would turn into the longest blog post ever. However, there’s lots of good information here from tweets and suggestions I received from Facebook and Twitter friends.

If this post isn’t enough and you want help choosing the best promotional product for your next trade show, check out Heidi Thorne’s book, SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business.

Many of us agree on what we like to take home from a trade show. Shelly Alcorn raised an important consideration:  “What about sustainability? Can we give out cool things without just creating more junk?” Jeff Hurt recommended “contacting PPAI, the association for promotional products professionals, for green sustainable and unusual ideas.” Some of the greener ideas mentioned were:

  • Seed packets, but not for expos overseas. We like handmade paper seed packets or coasters that bloom into flowers when buried. Joe Flowers mentioned seeds that grow into “a plant with a one-word slogan on them. Very cool and geeky!”
  • Bamboo cutting boards with the exhibitor’s logo etched in — very nice.
  • Reusable shopping bags – one of the group’s favorites. They give the vendor a branding opportunity and fit the green requirement.

Vendors wants to get their brand out there, but we want good design. This is a chance to associate your brand with utility and style. We don’t want an ugly logo coffee mug, but we will take a nicely designed one, perhaps with a discreet logo on the bottom.

Dan Scheeler likes “how #tech10 posted booth giveaways in advance. I admit that will influence which vendors I visit.” 

Here’s what else we like in the food/beverage department:

  • Nalgene-type water bottles
  • Chip bag clips
  • A buddy from my old job at CBIA suggested cork screws or bottle openers, like the kind you can keep on a keychain. Surprisingly no one during the chat made that suggestion. Makes me wonder if those from the housing industry have a stronger need for this type of swag.
  • Neoprene lunch bags
  • Wine cooler bags
  • Insulated travel coffee mugs
  • Nice-looking coffee mugs
  • Drinks, wine or beer get our attention, especially when combined with comfy seating, or bottles of wine with custom labels. Speakers like them too.
  • Mints, power bars, bottled water and good candy help us get through long days at the show.

If swag can double as a gift for kids, it makes it home — rubber duckies, stuffed animals, even caricatures. Parents like the thoughtfulness of handy souvenirs.

Personal items we like:

  • Lip balm
  • Hand sanitizer in little bottles
  • Eyeglass cleaning cloths
  • For a boomer audience, magnifier eyeglasses to read show floor maps with really tiny print
  • Attractive or cool lanyards to reuse at other shows and conferences
  • One of our trade show sponsors provided lanyards with a business card holder attached. We gave them out in our Newcomers Lounge to first-timers. The buzz about them spread on the floor and thousands of folks stopped by to get one. They didn’t have a year on them, just the show name, so we used them for several years.
  • Headshots — useful for social media profiles
  • Magnetic picture frames
  • Digital photos with friends, adding a frame is even better
  • Retractable headphone/earbuds
  • Golf tees and ball
  • Keychain flashlights
  • Brightly colored luggage tags — however, luggage handle wraps got a thumbs-down. Sandra Giarde saw some particularly ugly ones that said, “I’m going to the (name removed to protect the stupid) Show!” Hmm, do you really want to announce you’re here for a convention and a likely mark for price-gouging and god knows what else?
  • Small travel mouse with retractable cord
  • iPod wraps
  • Sturdy messenger or gym bags without any tacky branding
  • Drawstring backpacks

Pens get mixed reviews. Pens with a thumb drive are okay. Dave Coriale said these bobblehead pens are big movers at his booth. A friend gives out the same logoed pens at his booth, and likes them because they double as gifts for kids. Elizabeth Derrico sent me a photo of robot pens she found today at their conference – kids (and some adults) would love those. Shelly summed up the pen issue, “Nobody wants a pen with your company name on it – I mean NOBODY.” Some people can never have enough pens but if you’re doing pens, try to make them cool.

Thumbdrives are popular with some, but others say they already have too many. Ones that stand out are those shaped like the association logo, or “with fun, informative content on it – not just a white paper or sales docs.”

Other popular office items are:

  • Post-its
  • Tape measure or ruler
  • Notepads
  • Highlighters

“The dreaded stress balls” – some like them, many don’t. I think they’re wasteful and will still be around in 2199 when we’re all in the matrix.

T-shirts get mixed reviews. Ray van Hilst said, “Lame t-shirts are bad. Funny or cool ones generate word of mouth.” Other t-shirt advice:

  • Have a mix of sizes so they actually fit attendees and don’t get relegated to the rag pile
  • Keep logos to a minimum. We don’t want to be your walking advertisements.
  • If you make it funny, we might wear it.
  • Matt Baehr suggested “using the model on a booth giveaway t-shirt. Have members/clients submit designs. Generate word of mouth that way.”

One of my favorite swag gifts ever was a fleece top from a conference host – best to save that for your VIP clients and prospects.

Matt Baehr’s old association gave out “posters of art masterpieces that were redone to incorporate modern AV (think Whistler’s mother with an iPad). Those posters are still talked about and are in many members’ lobbies.” They used to sell them but after a few years started giving the remaining inventory away. How cool is that?

Ray reminded us that sometimes “an experience counts as a giveaway too. Chair massages get people to stop and relax,” or hand “facials.” At ASAE’s Annual Meetings, the St. Louis Build a Bear booth is always a huge hit, combining an experience with a giveaway. An experience/giveaway also happens at CalSAE’s Seasonal Spectacular every December. Marriott takes orders on site for personalized clay Christmas tree ornaments. It’s wildly popular and their booth is always crowded with attendees watching their ornament being made.

Peter Romeo told me about a conference that gave attendees Express Mail postage to ship their conference binders home. It was a sponsored perk.

Experiences, rather than giveaways, might be a more sustainable option too. Toni Rae Brotons told us about vendors at their show who did a ring toss game. The association donated money to a charity based on where the ring landed.

Helen Mosher gave us a heads-up that her colleague Maryann Lawlor was tweeting about swag from their conference. At one booth if you guessed the correct number of M&Ms in a jar, you could win a Snoopy lunchbox. In another you won prizes playing Wheel of Fortune. I’ve seen this at a restaurant in Sacramento – you spin the wheel on your birthday and have a chance at gift cards (best prize) or a bag of rice (worst but practical).


What kind of swag do you like taking home from trade shows? What do you actually use? On the contrary, what do you think is a big waste of money and resources?

If your company plans to send pre-show and post-show emails to conference or trade show attendees, don’t make the mistakes that most exhibitors do. Read these two posts to learn how to send emails that association executives will value:

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Author: deirdrereid

Deirdre is a freelance writer for companies serving the association market, who after more than 20 years in the association and restaurant industries, is enjoying the good life as a ghostblogger and content marketing writer. Away from her laptop, you can find her walking in the woods, doing yoga, going to shows, journaling, cooking, or relaxing in a comfy chair with a good book and a glass of something tasty in hand.

28 thoughts on “Trade Show Swag: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

      1. Love you. Perhaps in December you can do one on useless corporate gifts? Man, have I gotten some doozies!!


  1. Awesome post! I LOVE exhibitor swag–basically all of it. Right now at my desk I have my ASHA Listen to Your Buds mouse pad, Post its from 3 different companies, every pen I have is from a vendor, employee id lanyard–I need one; notepad and calendar from vendors–and you just reminded me about my Ektron bottle opener, which I now have to go search for. And don’t forget about my trusty mis-printed A.S.P.E.N. bag that I shared during #assnchat yesterday! Note to meeting planners: always have an example of your bags shipped to your office rather than just delivered to your venue!!

    I am so sad I won’t be able to make it to Tech next week–if anyone wants to donate their swag to someone who will use it, send it my way! I especially need some of those pens that are both ballpoint pen and highlighter!


  2. Excellent capture and analysis! One thing that didn’t come up yesterday in #assnchat just came to mind … dog treats! Anyone who owns a dog (or a pack) knows how special they are, how much a part of your family they are. And dog stuff really resonates with owners.

    A few years ago, I gifted some speakers with items that I chose personally for them – nothing branded. To one in particular, I gave some fancy organic dog treats that I purchased locally and sent after the conference as a surprise thank you. The response was awesome, so I knew I’d hit the nail on the head.

    This sort of thing could be easily translated into a branded giveaway. As long as it’s not a pink fur dogcoat … I wouldn’t want my brand on that!


    1. THAT is a fantastic idea, you are so right. I’m surprised I’ve never seen it before. Now watch, we’ll see dog treats everywhere. Thanks Bill for sharing that!


  3. Love the post!

    I am especially fond of the headshot idea. How many of us need a new professional headshot but never have the time to go sit for one? Sadly, most pro photographers studio hours don’t accommodate the busy association executive’s schedule.

    Plus, I dig the hidden Sacramento shout out with the Mikuni “Wheel of Sushi.” I am kinda ashamed to admit I hit up at least two Mikuni locations on the week of my birthday just to spin the wheel of sushi. One year I got the dreaded bag o’ rice. Another year had me one spot away from the trip for 6 on the Mikuni Sushi bus! So close…


    1. The Sushi Bus is one of the prizes!? What a blast that would be! We did a lot of our office birthdays at Mikuni just for the wheel and I could never order anything but the Peter No. 2 roll, yum. My birthday lunches were usually spent at Brew It Up, surprise surprise, blame my boss. 🙂


  4. I did a post on this a while back – – love the idea of doing something that is sustainable or that will be enjoyed for a small period of time (like the Eventbrite chocolate poker-themed chips).

    My thoughts on pens? Don’t go cheap! The ones that don’t write… get thrown out. That double negative does not equal a positive! 😉

    PS: Am I the only one who misread that hashtag? I saw 3 works there… hah!

    PS #2: Please nothing to “take home to the kids”. We’re not all parents!


    1. Thanks Lisa for stopping by and sharing your blog post — very clever Eventbrite idea. You raise a good point about gifts for kids — I think it’s thoughtful to have them but it will exclude a lot of people so it’s best to have something other folks will like too.

      Our beloved hashtag gets a lot of attention every week we use it. We like it!


  5. Great list!

    I went to a show last month and by far the thing that had everyone talking was the hand sanitizer. The only problem… The bottle was 4oz so people couldn’t have it in their carry on bags. The same company also sponsored Kleenex too.

    They also used reusable (grocery) bags. We’re looking at this for our event this July.


    1. Hi Colleen, thanks for pointing that out. It’s got to be 3 oz or what good is it to us. Kleenex! So simple yet practical, and that’s why it’s a good idea too. I suppose a combo of the two ideas would be packets of sanitizing wipes, especially if it’s during flu season. It’s not sexy but it’s useful.


  6. Great post and thanks for the mention!

    I always find it interesting to see what company’s think makes them memorable and swag is a great way to figure out the mindset. A simple pen or a coffee mug is always a safe bet, but once you get innovative is when you get the really crazy (good or bad) stuff.

    I’ll echo what Lisa said about pens. We mailed a promo out to members that had some novelty lightning bolt shaped pens. Problem was the pens didn’t write. Further problem was we handed the pens out AGAIN at our conference for people sans writing utensils. Double backfire.


  7. Joe’s comment highlights why it’s so important to provide quality swag that works, however difficult it may be to test the swag ahead of time. Ugly swag that gets noticed is probably better than cool swag that fails! Remember – what you give away represents you, and you want to be represented well!


    1. So true. Even if you spend more for cool swag, if it doesn’t work, everyone is going to think you’re a cheapie buying crap goods, fodder for cocktail reception banter. Ouch.


  8. Hey Joe, thanks for commenting. Isn’t it interesting how we judge companies? You’re right, these gifts can be clues to company culture. Not really related to this post, but I also judge them (and make purchasing decisions) based on their social media participation — another cultural clue that says a lot about management too.


  9. awesome post deirdre! I’m on board with the headshot giveaway idea – especially w/association folks.

    I’ve always wondered if there was a link to the type of swag offered, and correlation to the company/organization’s customer service engagement. What about vendors that put out a bowl of Rite Aid candy that was on sale for $2 a bag that morning….trying to coax me over for a quick fix or toss some at me like a 3rd grader on the parade route? What does that say about their value or insight into what customers are looking for? Cheap, quick, and can get it anywhere? A plastic whistle or branded frisbee that i have no clue what to do with? Will i look back on it and think “wow – those guys put some thought into this…?”

    Looking at the list above – and the items or ideas that resonated with everyone…it seems to hold up. Hopefully that’s not coming across as some thought on self-entitlement or expectation of high quality free stuff! Just a theory that goes through my head at EVERY convention now – wondering if it has legs…


  10. It definitely has legs — using swag as a further branding AND value-providing opportunity. It’s a lot tougher to do — picking up bags of See’s candies on the way to the convention center (oops, did I do that?) is a lot easier than having a brainstorming session months beforehand to come up with a creative and meaningful idea and then having the budget to do it. Thanks for bringing up that angle, Conor.


  11. Hello Deirdre,

    Wow, that was very nice of you to write up a summary of a Twitter chat! I like some of the ideas about finding popular swag (such as an eye to sustainable giveaways), but often the best giveaway is a unique object that ties directly into the theme of the company or key marketing message giving it away. Those giveaways make a memorable impact and help exhibitors stand out. And as Joe says above, make sure your gift is higher quality, lest you hurt, rather than help your reputation by association.


  12. At last! A blog that is helpful and answers questions instead of creating more of them! Thank you for this post. My company is getting more heavily involved with tradeshows and we want to be effective and responsible at the same time. I wish I’d found this months ago! I’d also be interested in vendors who offer a reasonable price as well.


  13. Looking for a little help from the blogosphere; my company is an internet marketing company that delivers qualified prospective customer calls to business in their local area. We are attending a limousine and charter trade show next month and we’re trying to determine if the swag we choose should represent what we do (sometihng with a phone in it) or represent something related to our audience. Any suggestions for a company with a semi-limited budget are welcome.


    1. Thanks, Michael, for visiting and commenting. Since this is such an old post, it only gets Google search traffic now so I’m not sure how many readers will see your questions. Are you on Twitter? If so, you could tweet your question using the #tradeshow hashtag and you might get some answers. I would suggest finding something useful for your booth visitors on which you can print your website address. If it’s not useful, they’re not going to pick it up. I suggest printing your website address and not your phone number because they’ll want to check you out first on your website before committing to a call.


  14. I am in the promotional/tradeshow industry and I love knowing what people are thinking. I found this by accident, but will read often. I don’t believe in ever suggesting something to people (or even let them buy it from me) unless I have tried it myself – and again – and again. I write with the pens I sell, and if it doesn’t last or breaks when I click it a hundred times (yes I do test it) then I throw it out and it goes off my radar.

    I can tell you one really fun idea I have used with my clients – if you can’t afford to buy the beer at the tradeshow – there are several things you can do to still make your brand get noticed. If you have a particular color that identifies you (say green), start giving everything away that is green – year after year. Invest in some green glowing cubes and when people walk buy with their beer – hand them the individually wrapped cube and show them your glass with the cube lit up.

    I promise you – I’ve seen this over and over – people will come from all over the tradeshow to get one (or two).

    Then the next year – give away a beer stein that glows green, or get margarita pops (they are green)… people know you give cool stuff – and they can find your booth by the color. I also have lit up trees with the color so that people can easily find the booth.


  15. There are several hot items for a trade show giveaway that are not pricey and people keep. Drawstring backpacks. You can find them under $2.00. Stress balls that in some way relate to your business. They are one of the most popular items. You would think that they would go to the kids when your attendees get home, but instead they usually end up on the desk for the everyone to see and will pick it up and squeeze them.The bungee rocket is a good selling item because there is a kid in all of us. One can have a great time when getting back to the office and shooting them across the room.


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