Seventeen pens, eight notepads, four post-it pads, nineteen stickers. If an attendee at the Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference (ASEC), which was held in Anchorage in May, collected one of each promotional item that exhibitors were giving away, they would’ve gone home with 12 pounds of swag. That includes four tote bags and a complimentary gift to all registered attendees: a solar-powered charging pack. The total does not include fun-size candy offered at almost half of the booths, nor flyers or other literature.
Nobody would be silly enough to take one of everything, unless they were writing a magazine article. And 12 pounds might be smaller than similar events with 1,000 or so attendees.
“Events have a reputation for being wasteful because of how they’ve been managed in the past. And that’s something that we need to overcome,” says Crystal Biringer, president of Toast of the Town, which organized ASEC. “When we do make that effort, it’s very quickly recognized, and it’s nothing but positive feedback.”
Speakers at ASEC received a separate gift bag containing locally made salmon jerky, birch syrup, Chugach Chocolates, and a thank you note from the event host, Governor Mike Dunleavy. The charging pack, a tote bag, and the lanyard for nametags were the only items carrying a logo from ASEC itself.
“Swag is an opportunity to further share your company brand, so ideally the event organizers and top sponsors would provide valuable swag items for attendees,” says Toast of the Town chief operating officer Martha Keele.
Just about any conference, convention, conclave, or convocation is littered with swag, but that doesn’t mean swag has to become litter. Attention to sustainability by event hosts and swag producers ensures that party favors won’t reflect poorly on the entities whose names are stamped on them.
The Meaning of Swag
A tape measure, a letter opener, a key chain, a car air freshener, a calendar, a kukui nut necklace. Why were these things at ASEC?
“It’s to represent a business by putting a logo on a quality product,” says Tim Ellis, owner and president of Stellar Designs in Anchorage. “They gave it to you as a gift. It was a nice thank you, but also there’s the repeated message every time you use it. The message keeps resonating.”
Anyone who attends a conference expects to take something home. “Swag demonstrates appreciation, shows value to the attendee, and is an opportunity to keep the attendee thinking about the event after it is completed,” says Keele.
Biringer launched Toast of the Town in 2015 partly to integrate swag with an event’s total identity.
Registered attendees at Arctic Encounter (left) or ASEC (right) are free to keep branded lanyards as souvenirs, but the material can be reclaimed and repurposed for the next event.
“The fun part for me… is having the opportunity to get creative for giveaway items. We’re always trying to be on theme for the event itself: for the sustainable energy conference, we’re looking for options that are sustainable or meaningful to our audience.”
“Selecting something on theme with the conference is important; it should further solidify the message and relate back to the content,” Keele says. “Better to not provide anything at all if you cannot provide swag that is meaningful.”
This magazine is a form of swag, depending on the issue. The March 2023 issue was printed with a secondary cover featuring the logo of Arctic Encounter, and copies were distributed at that event. When Alaska Business hosted the annual Top 49ers luncheon last September, copies of the October issue with a variant cover were included in gift bags. The swag, in this case, is the product.
The product is also swag for Stellar Designs. When the shop attends a conference, “We do a special shirt for that show,” Ellis explains, “maybe in line with the theme of the show.” The shirt would include the Stellar Designs logo, but not as the main element. The swag serves as a demonstration of the printer’s handiwork.
Ink Outside the Box
Screen printed t-shirts are also the signature merchandise of Alaska Serigraphics. Inside the South Anchorage shop, the floor is sticky with spray-on glue and the air smells like hot plastic. Two screen printing rigs can crank out 400 shirts in an hour, on average, or 720 per hour in a rush.
T-shirts are where Alaska Serigraphics got its start in the ‘80s. The industry is, perhaps surprisingly, tied to tourism: artists create designs for souvenirs, and seasonal gift shops are the main retail outlets. Swag keeps Alaska Serigraphics busy year-round, says general manager John Williams.
“We needed something to supplement ourselves in the wintertime, so [owner David Powers] was smart enough to start expanding the company and adding on other dimensions of the business,” Williams says. Those dimensions include embroidery and vinyl printing, and since the art department has client logos on file, the company can facilitate swag printing, too.
It’s not the main business, though. Ellis estimates that, for Stellar Designs, “That’s a pretty small percentage; I’d say maybe 20 percent or so, for the most part… Trade shows are not happening every week, you know.”
Even so, a section of Alaska Serigraphics’ sales floor includes a large nook for swag samples. “Anything from keychains to ink pens, magnets, cinch bags, tote bags,” Williams says. “I’m working on one right now, a fishing company is doing decks of playing cards. You think of it, it’s out there.
A first aid kit, a hot and cold gel pack, an audio speaker, a privacy shield for a computer camera. Anything can have a logo printed on it. An insurance company exhibiting at ASEC had eight different items.
None of those would’ve been printed locally, though. “We separate our business by ‘hard goods’ or ‘soft goods,’ soft goods being apparel,” Ellis explains. Stellar Designs doesn’t do paper (there are plenty of paper printers in Alaska), and for hard goods, Ellis looks Outside.
“We don’t decorate any of the hard goods in house. We work with a variety of factories that we represent,” says Ellis. “We maintain art files, and we control everything for the customer to make sure they’re getting the quality product they want, delivered on time.”
The situation is the same at Alaska Serigraphics. Williams describes a process of clients bringing a general idea, which the art or sales staff will refine, and then they search a catalog for items matching the client’s wishes. When the client makes a selection, the shop gets a quote from the factory.
Become an Industry Sponsor
“We create the art here, we submit the art to [Outside manufacturers], they logo the product, and they send it to us,” says Williams. “There’s no way you can have all the equipment to be all things to everybody; you have to limit your capabilities.” Williams adds that Alaska Serigraphics has partnerships with thousands of item vendors across the country.
What does Toast of the Town put its own logo on? The name of the business is a clue.
“We give out champagne stoppers,” Keele says. “We’re biased, but that is some of our favorite swag: useful, as it’s something many folks don’t have in their own homes, and every time our clients celebrate with a bottle of bubbly, hopefully they think of us!”
Toast of the Town surveys clients and attendees after each event, including whether they liked the swag. “We always hear if it’s not useful. People tend to give us feedback when they’d like to see a change made,” says Sarah Buehler, Toast of the Town’s project manager for ASEC.
“The fun part for me,” Buehler says, “is having the opportunity to get creative for giveaway items. We’re always trying to be on theme for the event itself: for the sustainable energy conference, we’re looking for options that are sustainable or meaningful to our audience.”
“We’re always making changes,” Biringer adds. “The last thing you want is for something to feel stagnant.”
Five magnetic spring clips, four lip balms, three sunglasses, three lens cloths (one with a carabiner to attach to a binocular or camera strap), two adhesive phone wallets, two foam stress balls, two baseball caps, two mint tins. Some items at ASEC betray a certain trendiness.
“We’re always looking for what’s hot, what’s the next, new best thing?” says Ellis. “Things change a little, but you’ve got to keep in mind the target audience that’s going to be at the show.”
Samples of drinkware at Alaska Serigraphics show how popular coffee mugs, water bottles, and steel tumblers are for displaying an organization’s brand long after a giveaway event.
“The goal is to have something that’s usable and people enjoy it. They value what they picked up as a gift, and it adds value to their life.”
A Good, Long Life
For an event attendee to notice a logo, it helps to have an item that’s handled often.
“The goal is to have something that’s usable and people enjoy it. They value what they picked up as a gift, and it adds value to their life,” Ellis says.
Keele sees the same goal: “To give something away that is useful for attendees and will not end up in a junk drawer.” Biringer adds that durable swag is on trend, such as glass drinkware or thermoses.
At Arctic Encounter, thermoses and metal tumblers were the primary swag, according to the event’s founder and executive director, Rachel Kallander. Reusable drinkware is indeed widely popular, Williams confirms.
ASEC exhibitors offered plastic water bottles and can koolers, a ceramic mug, a keychain can opener, a cocktail jigger, a spherical ice cube mold, and a steel straw with a cleaning brush, packaged in a neoprene pouch with a knife, fork, and spoon.
Ellis appreciates the practicality of a tote bag. “You keep it in your car for grocery shopping,” he says. “It’s got a good, long life, long after the conference.”
…Or Go the Other Way
Durability is one strategy for sustainability, yet ephemeral swag has practicality of its own.
Buehler suggests that perishable items—read: edible—are rarely junked. “Of course, we need to be mindful with brand recognition,” she cautions. “You know, your chocolate bar disappears when you eat it. But if there is a way to partner with local organizations or offer something that’s perishable or fresh, that’s another way to reduce waste.”
In addition to bowls of Costco candy, a few ASEC exhibitors dished out creative edibles. One company had its logo on a candy wrapper; a Hawaiian firm packaged macadamia nuts in a small bag with a business card. An out-of-state technology company hired Far North Cookie Co. of Eagle River to bake sugar cookies with the company’s logo printed in frosting. The cookie, by the way, was satisfying.
“I love the idea of ordering locally, if we can reduce shipping and packaging,” says Buehler. “When it comes to the actual production and delivery of items, choosing local items can save in that route.”
Buehler and Keele both suggest that digital offerings or swag in the form of experiences are creative solutions, too. ASEC featured photo booths, and if the background represents the event theme, then the image is a lasting reminder. Attendees also had the option of booking a ride on the Alaska Railroad, taking home memories of mass transit through scenic vistas, which is on brand.
Buehler adds, “I personally like handing out items, as we did for the sustainable energy conference, and letting people choose what they want and what they don’t… Also offering the opportunity to return, recycle, or donate your gift.”
Another strategy to reduce waste when it comes to apparel is on-site screen printing. “That has the event branding introduced in several design options they can pick,” Biringer says, “That can also create an experience because attendees have something fun to do while they’re there. And everyone is wearing something that’s slightly different, which I think people really appreciate.”
Ellis cautions that most pre-printed apparel is generally not good swag. “You want something that’s going to be one size fits all. A t-shirt, you’ve got sizes,” he says. “But you can aim in the middle.” Ellis adds that t-shirts or hats might cost $10 or $20, whereas most promo items are under $5.
That said, Arctic Encounter printed its logo on long-sleeve shirts and sold them at the March conference. Kallander says the apparel was made of bamboo fiber, which is a growing alternative to cotton. Technically a grass, bamboo is more productive for farmers, requiring little fertilizer.
Williams notes that t-shirts made from recycled cotton are another sustainable option, and Ellis says a lot of garment suppliers are offering jackets made with polyester recycled from beverage bottles. Also, “Through their different manufacturing processes and whatnot, they are minimizing the amount of waste from materials they’re reusing,” Ellis says. “There’s a very large movement to offer those types of products, both a movement from our vendor side and from the customer side, and there’s plenty of things available out there.”
The dual screen printing rigs at Alaska Serigraphics crank out an entire squad’s worth of shirts at once. Handling the logo art for an organization’s “soft goods” enables the shop to apply the same art on “hard goods” as well.
“I love the idea of ordering locally, if we can reduce shipping and packaging… When it comes to the actual production and delivery of items, choosing local items can save in that route.”
What’s Left Over
Before an event begins, Toast of the Town watches the attendee count like a hawk. Biringer says waste reduction is considered at every step, from swag to food to decorations.
“Instead of branding a lot of things with a specific year, just branding them for the conference,” Buehler says. “When we are selecting the items we’re investing in, instead of single-use signage and décor, we’re looking at things that can be stored and reused, finding creative ways to use them.” For instance, last year’s ASEC main stage backdrop became this year’s photo booth backdrop.
Kallander has a similar policy for Arctic Encounter. “We save all swag for future sales and use because we do not place years on any swag,” she says.
Keele adds, “We aim to order an appropriate amount for the conference so that we have limited supplies left over. However, if there are items left, we provide them to our clients so they can give out swag throughout the year as they continue to promote the conference.” This year’s swag might become next year’s prizes or gifts, she says.
“We really love producing this event,” says Biringer of ASEC. “It’s so much fun, and the content is so interesting and valuable. We’re really privileged to be working with this client and to be able to put out some of this awesome content.”