More intention, less waste—is it time to rethink event swag?

More intention, less waste—is it time to rethink event swag?

How many among us hear the word “swag” without thinking of Michael Scott from The Office?

It’s admittedly fun to leave a trade show loaded down with free merchandise. Drawstring bag? Yes, please.

“I keep them in so many random places for when I need to pop into the shop,” said editor and writing coach Elisa Doucette.

But as an element of your marketing efforts, not to mention your budget, just how valuable is it?

The disposability of conference swag—a multi-billion-dollar industry—makes it clear that the research, branding, ordering, delivery, etc. of this event element is a wasted effort. That is, if you’re opting to distribute the wrong sort of swag.

What’s the right kind of swag? We’ll get there. But first, let’s talk about if it’s even worth it.

Does swag make an impact?

On the one hand, yes, in that it increases your brand’s visibility and offers a little dopamine spike (everyone loves a freebie).

But that’s mostly anecdotal. Here’s why:

What is swag’s ROI?

None of the companies we spoke with measured event swag ROI. That can be concerning for ROI-numbers-loving leadership, but these organizations were mostly unphased. The general attitude we encountered is “This is how we’ve always been doing it.”

“We don’t really measure the ROI,” said Kelvin Newman, founder and managing director of Rough Agenda. “It’s mostly a perk of certain event tickets, so effectively they’re paid for rather than a true freebie. It’s less of a reason people buy that ticket type, but it’s a nice perk and is a memorable way for us to get across our brand.”

And while these freebies are designed to attract attention—what’s that logo? what’s the company name say?—“they come with strings attached,” said Christiaan Huynen, CEO and founder at

“The goal of the freebies is to get people that use the merch to be living advertisements and unconsciously influence others to be curious about your brand,” Huynen said.

What percentage of an event’s budget is devoted to swag?

For the broad category of “merch,” Newman said, he spends about 5% of an event’s total budget.

Bethan Vincent, founder of Open Velocity and a marketing consultant who focuses on clients in the tech space, said 10-20% of an event’s cost is allocated to promotional items.

“[We] advise clients that quality over quantity goes a long way,” she said.

In full disclosure, Groups360 is on the swag train, too.

“We distribute swag at shows, typically for high-value conversion actions such as attending a demo—so there is an ROI measuring component. And it’s often higher quality, multipurpose, or useable well after the show,” said marketing director Brett Raymond.

When we talk “quality,” we mean items like tumblers or AirTags instead of a cheap plastic keychain or branded hat no one will wear.

What’s the environmental impact of swag?

Most plastic, even that which people attempt to recycle, goes to a landfill. There are more Earth-friendly swag options out there than plastic or one-use items. (We talk about some of the ways to reduce event waste here.)

“A lot of my clients are now questioning the providence and sustainability of the swag they order for events, conferences, and employees,” said Vincent. “I’ve seen a marked shift away from plastic items and a considered move to locally produced, recycled, or recyclable options. I think there’s also a recognition that providing seemingly sustainable options such as branded water bottles are still contributing to the plastic problem. Clients are now really looking at every aspect of sustainability and making purchase decisions accordingly.”

Sustainable merchandise can hang around for longer to work its advertising magic, but Huynen said it’s only a good option if the company can afford it.

So … yes or no to swag?

The bottom line: swag isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But where you can create a more valuable merchandising experience is by going from:

Cheap → sustainable 

Swag for swag’s sake → intentional

Marketing should be intentional and authentic for a lasting effect, not performative or “because we should.” Post-pandemic, the type of promotional product needed to shift. It didn’t make sense to give out reusable travel coffee containers when everyone was drinking coffee from their home office. We started to see more branded face masks and hand sanitizers.

“Tying swag to intention is everything,” said Kate Bradley Chernis, founder and CEO of Lately, an AI social post generator. Trade show attendees should draw meaning from the swag they pick up.

“Hate to break it to you, but I need someone else’s logo on a t-shirt like I need a hole in my head. Don’t forget: merch done well isn’t about you. It’s about me. What will make me lean forward, go woweeeee, snap a picture and share the living buhjeezus out of it? That’s your end game. Back into it.”

Mic drop.

Groups360 raises $35M in funding to support rapid growth

Groups360 raises $35M in funding to support rapid growth

Groups360’s $35 million investment from Zigg Capital, Blackstone Innovations Investments and Fir Tree Partners will accelerate the adoption of GroupSync technology for hoteliers and planners worldwide.

We’re excited to announce that Zigg Capital, Blackstone Innovations Investments and Fir Tree Partners have invested a combined $35 million in Groups360 to enhance our GroupSync platform. The funding will help speed up the development of products that create greater efficiency in group booking, accelerate the launch of housing solutions for better room block management, and expand our operations to bring GroupSync’s cutting edge technology to hoteliers in Europe and Asia Pacific.

“Meeting planners increasingly expect their entire hotel purchase experience to be seamless, instantaneous, and online,” said Dave Eisenberg, founding partner at Zigg Capital. “Groups360 has built an integrated, intuitive platform that benefits hoteliers and event organizers anywhere in the world.”

Creating ease, efficiency and transparency

GroupSync has changed what it means to source and book hotels for groups. Hotels on our marketplace are positioned to drive more valuable group revenue, experience more efficient RFP and room block management, and receive more qualified leads. Our suite of products is designed to help hoteliers create more value in less time, with fewer resources.

As the no. 1 hotel marketplace for booking groups, GroupSync’s enhanced electronic RFP capability empowers planners to more efficiently search, source and book groups at over 200,000 properties worldwide. This single web-based solution provides greater access to hotel group inventory and rates for faster, smoother booking.

As a result of this rapid adoption of GroupSync technology, we anticipate that an additional 20,000 leading hotel properties will begin offering instant group booking in the months ahead. Already available at nearly 7,000 properties globally, instant booking gives planners the option to skip the RFP process for smaller group reservations, taking hotel sourcing time from months to minutes.

“Groups360 offers a solution that is truly differentiated in the marketplace,” said John Stecher, Chief Technology Officer at Blackstone. “The Blackstone Innovations Investments team is focused on identifying, investing in, and partnering with pioneering companies like Groups360 to help take their businesses to the next stage of growth. We believe that Groups360’s inventory distribution model and instant booking capability will help drive industry-wide transformation and can create value for Blackstone’s real estate portfolio.”

We’re on a mission to make group travel better for all – from hoteliers to event planners to attendees. This investment will play an important role in accelerating our efforts to improve group booking across the hospitality industry.

“Groups360 is reshaping the hospitality industry in a manner that makes booking groups simple, transparent, and efficient for both hotels and event organizers,” said Kemp Gallineau, CEO, Groups360. “Now, with support from our new partners, Groups360 is positioned to more quickly seize the opportunities which lie ahead for improving group travel.”


The Future of Meeting: A Conversation with Jan Jones Blackhurst, Part 2

The Future of Meeting: A Conversation with Jan Jones Blackhurst, Part 2

Group360 founder Dave Kloeppel welcomes a cross section of industry leaders for an ongoing conversation series, The Future of Meeting

Earlier this week, we posted part 1 of his conversation with Jan Jones Blackhurst, Caesars Entertainment board member and former two-term mayor of Las Vegas.

In part 2 of their conversation, Blackhurst shares her perspective on how Caesars Entertainment and other Las Vegas institutions have to adapt to encourage visitors to return during the pandemic. 

Watch the highlights.

Listen to their full conversation.

The Future of Meeting: A Conversation with Jan Jones Blackhurst

by Dave Kloeppel feat. Jan Jones Blackhurst

The Future of Meeting: A Conversation with Jan Jones Blackhurst, Part 2

The Future of Meeting: A Conversation with Jan Jones Blackhurst, Part 1

For our ongoing conversation series, The Future of Meeting, Groups360 founder Dave Kloeppel welcomes a cross section of leaders in live-action events, professional sports, marketing and hospitality for discussions about the impact of COVID-19.

This week, Dave talks to Jan Jones Blackhurst, Caesars Entertainment board member and former two-term mayor of Las Vegas from 1991-1999 when Sin City was the fastest growing city in the country and the No. 1 resort and meeting destination. 

In this clip, Blackhurst discusses the challenges facing the hospitality industry as it works to recover from the fallout of the pandemic. 

Watch the highlights.

Listen to their full conversation.

The Future of Meeting: A Conversation with Jan Jones Blackhurst

by Dave Kloeppel feat. Jan Jones Blackhurst

How to Earn the Trust of Every Meeting Planner You Meet

How to Earn the Trust of Every Meeting Planner You Meet

With sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, it’s hard for hotels to hide behind slick marketing and sales presentations. Consumers are now more accustomed to honest and upfront information right at their fingertips — that is, until they reach the hotel sales department.

Whether working with a newbie, a nontraditional meeting planner, or a veteran corporate event planner, most hotel salespeople today often miss the mark on building a level of trust vital to driving repeat business.

The concept they’re lacking? Transparency.

Transparency is essential to trust

When Sherryl Milnes first started planning meetings and events for her department at the California Highway Patrol 12 years ago, she wasn’t aware of the repercussions she would face when she overestimated her room block.

“After the event, I received a surprise invoice with an unexpected dollar amount,” Milnes remembers. She immediately called the hotel salesperson, who then explained the attrition fees.

“I wish the salesperson had been clear and up front about the fees before the contract was signed,” she says. “I then had the burden of figuring out how to explain the situation to my boss and from where to pull these extra funds.”

Hotel sales directors need to realize that what event planners want more than a perfect venue is a partner they can trust. By now, they’re so accustomed to the spa treatments, the over-the-top dinners, and the VIP treatment on-site inspections. At the end of the day, meeting planners want transparency and full disclosure — someone to be straight with them.

Shari Martinez, event manager for FileMaker Inc., an Apple subsidiary, considers this the part she likes the least about the business.

“I don’t need the fluff,” Martinez says. “Get to the point. It won’t make me uncomfortable. Don’t tell me 600 people can fit in the ballroom, when capacity is actually 550. It’s okay if your answer is no. I’d rather know the truth.”

She still remembers the property that once withheld a vital piece of information after she booked an event: Her space and dates were already contracted to another group.

Nonetheless, they went to contract. Just five months before her event, the hotel flew out a conference services manager to break the bad news and cancel on her.

“If the hotel had been honest, we could have worked together to figure it out,” Martinez says. “Instead, I felt that they were only looking out for their best interest. Of course, there was no relationship formed. No transparency. I could never trust them again.”

The most successful hotel sales managers truly care about their event planners’ success. They want their clients to be educated. They want their meeting professionals to be informed.

So why not be your client’s voice of truth? Why not address the issues that other sales managers don’t have the bravery to discuss? Make this year the year you earn the trust of every corporate event planner and meeting professional you come in contact with — win or lose.

Transparency tips for hotel salespeople

Here’s how transparency in group business should look:

  • Put your client relationship above your room night goals.
  • Spend time educating and informing, rather than sugarcoating and stretching the truth just to win the business.
  • Make the effort to brainstorm and clarify, rather than simply dining, wining and wowing.
  • Be the source of information about your destination and your property that meeting planners can’t get anywhere else.
  • Be upfront about fees and offer the event planner solutions on how to bring down unnecessary costs.
  • Help meeting and event planners make smarter decisions, instead of rushing them into swift decisions to meet month-end goals.
  • Look out for potential conflicts that could derail your client’s success and discuss that beforehand.
  • Engage in candid conversations about your venue’s pros and cons, along with workable solutions.

“I’d really like to hear both the pros and the cons ahead of time,” notes Milnes. “In the end, I would definitely trust the salesperson more if they are upfront with me.”

The bottom line

When you lead with transparency, you will differentiate yourself from the comp set with your openness, candor and honesty. Most importantly, this approach can develop longer lasting relationships that will continue long after the event is over.