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How to Save on Swag
Don't cut your company's giveaways; cut their costs. Here are eight tips to help you trim expenses without eliminating incentives. By Candy Adams
Whenever a client asks me to recommend the hottest new trade show giveaways, I shudder. Then I ask a more pertinent question: "What do you want your giveaways to accomplish?" Any promotional item that doesn't have a purpose is a worthless expenditure.

Whatever you call them – promotional items, "adcentives," or tchotchkes – giveaways, like everything else in your trade show budget, must prove their worth and produce a concrete return on investment. Before even looking at catalogs or websites full of brandable items, determine your strategy for them and how they fit into your promotional plan. For example, is your goal to thank attendees for time spent watching a presentation or demo, to build brand awareness by having your logo seen all over the show floor, or to earn a coveted spot on the recipients' desks to remind them of your company when it comes time to make a buying decision?

If you decide giveaways will help you achieve your objectives at a show, use these eight tips to save money and plan ahead for hidden costs.

1. Order early. Don't wait to the eleventh hour to buy your promotional items and risk paying production rush fees and expedited shipping charges that can more than double your costs. I try to place my order about a month before I need the items, which usually gives my vendor adequate time to verify inventory, send proofs showing what my messaging or logo will look like, manufacture the items, and ship them out. This goes for everything you put your corporate logo on, from your staff's booth attire to press-kit flash drives. Ordering early also gives you time to carefully choose another option if the item you want isn't in stock.

2. Buy in bulk. As a general rule, buying a larger volume of promotional products will result in a lower cost per item. For example, ordering 144 long-sleeved, embroidered shirts instead of 24 drops the price from about $38 each to $28. Look at your entire exhibit program for the year, or for an entire marketing campaign, and estimate your giveaway requirements to make volume purchases. Most vendors will provide a price quote on the quantity you request, but be sure to ask at what quantity the price drops – known as the "price break" or "break point" – and by how much. It might be worth upping your order to get the greater discount.

3. Request multiple quotes. I've found a large variance in promo-product markups, so before you purchase a specific item, get multiple quotes from different vendors. Let vendors know that you are getting multiple quotes (which is standard practice in many companies' purchasing policies), and ask for their best price up front. Rather than a flat estimate, ask vendors to break out all setup fees and estimated shipping charges, and note when rush charges kick in so you can more easily compare quotes. Shop around and make sure you're getting the best price and value that is available.

4. Negotiate fees. It never hurts to ask if the add-on fees, such as upcharges for production setup, logo digitization, rush orders, or the 3- to 5-percent "convenience fee" for paying with a credit card can be reduced or eliminated altogether. If you don't ask, you won't receive. I've seen setup fees for simple one-color embroidered logos as high as $150, as well as other "administrative" fees for new clients. One vendor even wanted a storage fee to keep my digital logo on file for future orders. I generally walk away from vendors who nickel-and-dime me to death. But before closing the door, ask if the vendor is willing to eliminate – or at least discount – those add-on fees in order to win your valuable and, in theory, repeat business.

5. Keep messaging generic. Unless you're confident you'll distribute all of your swag at a given show, don't put the logo or name of a specific event on your giveaways. Keep it generic with your company's name, logo, tagline, product name, URL, or phone number. That way, you can use the leftover items at future trade shows, send them out to VIPs who didn't make it to the show, reward first-time customers, or hand them out at your next corporate event. Whatever you decide, items that can be repurposed for other marketing efforts are preferable to show-specific items that become essentially useless soon after your exhibit is dismantled.

6. Be selective. If your exhibit-marketing objective is to meet with customers or a specific group of targeted prospects, consider buying higher-quality gifts only for these qualified attendees and not the masses of trick-or-treaters who visit your booth scavenging for free stuff. This can lower your overall costs and allow you to give something of greater value that your target audience will really want to keep.

7. Identify hidden costs. Find out all the expenses associated with your item and factor them into a per-item, bottom-line cost. One client of mine gave away insulated coffee mugs in a different color each day of the show, but the company did not have sufficient room to accommodate the boxes in its in-booth storage space. The alternative was to place them in the general services contractor's accessible storage and have the next day's supply delivered for in-booth storage at the end of each day. The on-site storage and delivery charges incurred as a result of the poor planning significantly increased the company's total per-item cost.

Other hidden costs exhibitors frequently forget are shipping and material-handling fees, postage costs and mailing-list rental fees (if you're planning to promote your giveaways to attendees before the show), and wages for the additional booth staff that may be required to distribute the items at the show.

Another hidden expense that is often overlooked is the catering waiver fee. If you're planning on distributing a food or beverage item that isn't your company's product (such as bottled water with your logo on the label), know that most venues' catering departments charge a "waiver fee" that's equivalent to a corkage fee if you'd taken a bottle of wine to a restaurant. This fee is charged to make up for the venues' lost revenue of not selling you the item directly. In addition, many venues will include an administrative fee of 20 to 25 percent of your total waiver charge plus sales tax, even though they are not providing the bottled water.

8. Ship to your hotel. If your swag vendor is shipping your giveaways to the show via small-package carrier (such as FedEx or UPS), you can expect that the cartons will be unloaded individually. This means they won't be on a single bill of lading, since small-package carriers don't provide them, and you may have to pay a 200- to 300-pound minimum material-handling fee for each package at an average of $100 per 100 pounds (CWT). In other words, a single shipment of three boxes of branded pens could end up costing you more than $900 in material-handling fees.

Instead, consider shipping the items to your hotel's business center. Hotels might charge a per-package delivery fee depending on the size and weight of the packages, but this fee is generally about $15 to $25 per package, which is much cheaper than material-handling fees at most trade show venues. If your hotel doesn't have a business center or won't accept guest packages, you can ship to a local FedEx or UPS store and have it receive and hold your shipment at no additional cost. Sure, you'll have to schlep it to your booth, but a sturdy luggage cart will only set you back about $100, which is a good return on investment compared to paying ongoing material-handling bills.

You can also usually lower your shipping rate if you ask the vendor to use your corporate FedEx or UPS account number, assuming you have one. For even greater savings, order your giveaways far enough in advance to allow for simply packing them inside your crates as part of your larger exhibit shipment. Those costly material-handling minimums then become a moot point.

Although giveaways are often one of the first items to be cut from a trade show budget, promotional items targeted to your audience can be a valuable part of your program and help you achieve your marketing objectives. If you plan ahead, shop around, and negotiate with vendors, you should be able to continue giving without losing your shirt. E

Candy Adams
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com

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