Conference Swag
March 17, 2011 3:32 AM   Subscribe

Is it really a conference without swag?

I'm a graduate student working with some classmates on planning an academic conference that's in April that will primarily be attended by graduate students from related programs in our field. We're trying to make it a zero-waste event, and it's looking to be very low waste at the very least. We're not printing programs, giving out folders, pens or anything -- registrants will be warned to print their copy or put the file on their laptop or smartphone or whatever. We feel this is all good, but feel a little stingy somehow that we aren't giving them any takeaway items. (We're definitely treating people right on the day--providing breakfast, lunch, and snacks.)

We do have some money to buy registrants a small gift. We were thinking stainless steel water bottle or reusable bag - something on-theme with the zero-waste spirit. We also thought about buying canning jars and making dry soup or baked good mixes as a parting gift (the topic of the conference is food-oriented). In previous years I believe attendees got a folder and some other small stuff that had our university's name on it.

I'm curious about the etiquette & expectations here. If you attended this conference (or any conference), would you be bothered by not getting any freebie stuff? Would you be relieved? Would it make you happy to get a food gift rather than a durable gift? Any thoughts appreciated!
posted by sk932 to Education (38 answers total)
Best answer: Grad student here. At a Postgrad conference I would have no expectation of getting swag; if it is being distributed, it should be either beautiful or useful, otherwise it just adds to the pile of junk I have to dump somewhere later.

Bags and water bottles both sound good, but though I like the idea, I'd be a little wary of giving out food mix due to the many and varied special dietary requirements that can come up. To be honest at past conferences I've organised we've spent excess cash on a bar tab, which seems to go down as well as anything else, and also promotes networking...
posted by Jakob at 3:55 AM on March 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have a large pile of free bags from conferences that I have never, ever used (except for the extremely high-quality backpack I got from CES one year as a blogger). They end up getting tossed.

I'd go with a water bottle; I'd like that. But I wouldn't be upset if I didn't get anything, either. It seems to be more of a favor to sponsors to be handing out something useless with logos printed on it than it is a favor to the attendees, IMO.
posted by olinerd at 4:17 AM on March 17, 2011

If I got a stainless steel water bottle as swag I would be so happy! Plus your guests will start using it on the day. Be sure it has a sturdy carabiner clip.
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:48 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I hate getting conference tat.

The only conference tat I have ever been reasonably glad to receive has been a canvas shopping bag; the kind that everybody already uses for their shopping.

T-shirts are a gift that can be well-received and used, if they are tasteful; but it's expensive to get them in enough sizes and styles to go around, since women come in such a variety of shapes, and only buying men's styles is worse than no t-shirts at all.

You could donate to an appropriate charity and send people an email afterwards telling them where the money has gone and that it is in lieu of traditional conference swag.

I'd like to suggest bending the "no printouts" a tiny bit and at least providing a brief paper schedule or a blank schedule or something that people can scribble on; otherwise you'll have an enormous scrum by the noticeboard every session, as everyone at the conference tries to remember what's on and work out where to go. Unless perhaps you can put the schedule on the internet, provide free wifi and have a QR code for the schedule page.

If you rely on people putting the schedule on their phones beforehand, a) they won't, and b) you will be guaranteed a last minute schedule change.
posted by emilyw at 4:58 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes please!

If you print out some agendas, name tags, and signage, you'll still be forgiven for sparing the world another bag, water bottle, shirt, or logotype doorstop.
posted by fatllama at 5:18 AM on March 17, 2011

I got a reusable coffee cup at a conference. Used it once, there and then; threw it out because it wouldn't fit it my flight baggage and besides I've already got a reusable coffee cup at the office.

Your conference attendees presumably have the wherewithal to purchase the items they require; I'd forget any kind of swag if you're going for zero waste. No matter how ostensibly useful the swag is, few of your delegates will need it and not everyone will want to use it.

The best I can think of is to give something that empowers social change over the course of the conference. Like a pot plant, that attendees can leave somewhere in the city for passers-by to pick up. Or some game that encourages people to photograph a business card and hand it back rather than 'use it up' by keeping it.
posted by cogat at 5:29 AM on March 17, 2011

And printing schedules and providing paper recycle bins counts as zero waste in my book.
posted by cogat at 5:31 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe a flash drive with schedule, attendee contact information, information (outlines or other) from each presentation?
posted by TishSnave at 5:59 AM on March 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

Personally I do re-use conference bags and flash drives. The rest is crap.
posted by patrad at 6:15 AM on March 17, 2011

(Just coming in to confirm that cogat's suggestion to offer "a pot plant" probably means "a plant in a pot" as opposed to "a marijuana plant".)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:36 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I hate swag. I'd rather see the money invested in better coffee.

I did go to a workshop once where we wore custom-printed dog tags instead of ID badges. That actually made a nifty memento (people who had attended previous iterations of that workshop wore all their dog tags together), and doesn't take up space. But that's the only instance of a swag-like item that I didn't throw out (and feel slightly guilty about throwing out).
posted by adamrice at 6:42 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Most swag is hideous, or I've already got plenty of un-logo'd or better logo'd versions of it at home. The nicest swag I've gotten has been tiny little attractive enamel pins, which I collect and not everyone appreciates, and a very sturdy reinforced hard acrylic badge holder and plain lanyard with a practically industrial-looking clip, which I've re-used at subsequent cons of all types. So if you're actually using badges at this thing, you could consider that, but part of why I like mine so much is that it's not branded in any way.
posted by Mizu at 7:22 AM on March 17, 2011

I have to ditto the pins - I go to the ARMA Canada Regional conference and pins are fun and a nice reminder. Any water bottles and bags always go to Salvation Army unless they're really nice. The best swag I have received are thumb drives. Other swag I have kept include a toy truck, stress balls and a desk sized recycle bin.
posted by Calzephyr at 7:39 AM on March 17, 2011

Agreed on the thumb drive, if you put all the conference materials onto it before hand, even better. Even if lower capacity than the recipient will likely use, they are more likely to be handed on than thrown out.

Also, I personally like to get some bit of paper with the agenda for the event and similar key information. If there is something rigid enough to use as a writing surface, I'm set. If everything is a tablet armchair great, otherwise, small pads with cardboard back works. Have pens available for folks who don't think to bring one.
posted by meinvt at 7:47 AM on March 17, 2011

Just skip it. I hate that stuff-- I either have to feel guilty about throwing it out or I have it cluttering up my life.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:54 AM on March 17, 2011

Don't give stuff! I have organized a number of conferences and I've always been appalled by 1. how expensive it is to get anything good and 2. how non-good almost everything is anyway, even when you pay for it--especially if you're going for branded/logo'd/conference name stuff.

Honestly, people always like pens, because they're portable and they get used. If I had to get conference stuff and could choose, I'd get nice pens. They're not "zero waste", in a sense, but they're more zero waste than something that no one will use and everyone will ditch at the salvation army.

US scientists always like tee shirts, for some reason. I did some for a conference, did the logo in Photoshop and then vectored it in Illustrator. Everyone seems to wear them in the lab. This may be less true in the humanities, but if not you could always get organic cotton ones. Have someone local screenprint them!
posted by Frowner at 8:09 AM on March 17, 2011

Outside of the TED messenger bag, the best swag I've ever received was a notebook made of spiral-bound unused IBM punch cards.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:23 AM on March 17, 2011

I don't know how it works, but the last convention I went to had their schedule available on the iPhone app Conventionist, which was very convenient.
posted by bq at 8:23 AM on March 17, 2011

Best answer: The only conference swag I want is a flash drive with the proceedings on it. One corner of my office is pilled high with bags, totes, knapsacks and organizers from the meetings I go to. They're all too cheap to use more than once or twice; an $8 bag isn't going to take any use. Just skip it, and as adamrice says, use the extra for better catering.
posted by bonehead at 8:25 AM on March 17, 2011

Response by poster: Suggestions about printing copies of the schedule are noted. Herding cats, sigh....

Yeah, we really want to avoid the crappy, useless takeaway that becomes clutter in people's lives. So, pens, water bottle and USB drives seem popular. T-shirts would be too expensive, and while it would be awesome to just buy people beer, it would interfere with an alumni event that evening that we're trying to play nice with. Will definitely NOT be distributing pot plants, but I do like the idea oof encouraging guerilla gardening.
posted by sk932 at 8:25 AM on March 17, 2011

Not printing programs is a big mistake if this event is more than a day long or has more than one room. This would be a disaster at a large meeting.

If you're doing this, have posterboards up with the full program displayed prominantly.
posted by bonehead at 8:28 AM on March 17, 2011

Most people already have all the pens, water bottles, and USB drives they need, and if they need another one, they can get it. If you're serious about discouraging waste, then please consider this: a world where stuff shows up in one's life for free doesn't encourage a thoughtful approach to acquisition. Water bottles, USB drives, and pens all seem to have almost no cost because they flow like water at these events -- but we all know they do have costs. Giving stuff away like this, when people don't even ask for or need it, is maybe not the best way to foster a responsible attitude.

Maybe have a logo-free item or two available for people (absence of a logo makes the items more elegant and re-usable), and have a really good plan for what to do with leftovers (maybe there's a shelter or charity that can use non-logoed water bottles to give to people in need; any logo or even well-intentioned message will make them less attractive to these users, though -- even if they will take them and give them out, they'll feel more like leftovers than like thoughtful gifts).

It's nearly impossible to get a water bottle or even a shirt without some kind of logo on it. Giving out something that's not marked would be an awesome way to be outside the box.

Thank you so much for caring and asking about this.
posted by amtho at 8:37 AM on March 17, 2011

Best answer: I just did a one-day event, all in the same room, with two agendas on each table, and was shocked by how many complaints / requests for copies we got. You might want to suck it up and print some to hand out to people who ask at reg.

Please don't buy them crap. Anyone who would use a water bottle probably also has some esoteric requirements for water bottles that you'll never be able to guess or meet (size, material, closure). Giving out crap completely undermines your zero-waste message.

If you must - seed balls? Cheap, easy and beneficial to chuck out the window on the way out of town.
posted by momus_window at 8:47 AM on March 17, 2011

Bags and water bottles are very popular swag right now, and it's likely most of the attendees already have enough of each.

Pens and small notebooks are great, especially if they're good quality. Another item to consider: lip balm. I always use the promotional lip balms I get. You could allow/encourage guests to take several, because there are people who never use lip balm and people who go through a tube a week. Hand sanitizer's another idea. Not zero-waste, but they do get used.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:48 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I do a lot of conferences, and I've only ever kept the bag ONCE because they're usually so cheaply made, badly branded, and well, ugly. They always get donated. Pens & flash drives are great and immediately useful. A good water bottle is also nice, but cheap water bottles will get tossed.

I also agree that you'll need to print agendas & name tags. People will go nuts without something physical to hold. Sad but true. Not everyone has a smart phone or laptop for electronic schedules, either. However, once I went to a multi-day conference that designed the name tags so that they folded out into the conference schedule. I thought that was brilliant. Add a few blank panels for note-taking, and you'll be gold.
posted by smirkette at 9:13 AM on March 17, 2011

The food/catering comment isn't an idle one. I go to a bunch of conferences every year. There are a couple that are remembered very fondly for the food. That's not to say that people will come for fancy coffee and tea, but lots of attendees seem to remember catering.
posted by bonehead at 9:19 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I work in conference organization on the A/V side. Relying on attendees to do anything in advance is a mistake. Every single time, without fail, that I arrive in a presentation room to help the presenter connect their computer to the A/V system, they have failed to download and install the application I previously sent them; and then confirmed via email that they had (in fact ) received and installed it. When I meet them at the registration desk and ask, they always assure me that have installed it on their laptop. Then, when I arrive in the room later during the conference, on a tight deadline, they will they casually mention that they haven't installed it. Every single time.

You will need printed agendas, period.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 9:52 AM on March 17, 2011

No stuff. Don't give people a reason to grumble "I thought this conference was no waste, and here they are handing out X." The attendees are already there, they don't need a gift, and if the conference is good, they will be happy. No stuff.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:56 AM on March 17, 2011

> a world where stuff shows up in one's life for free doesn't encourage a thoughtful approach to acquisition

What about a smaller quantity of some extra nice items, branded only discreetly, for sale (at cost)?
posted by Dragonness at 11:35 AM on March 17, 2011

I agree with the majority - no swag, and better food and coffee. And a printed agenda - sometimes I need one just to wrap my gum in or to jot a note on in the old-fashioned manner.

But if you feel like you MUST do swag - how about reusable sporks? That, from a food conference, is the only thing I'd keep and re-use.
posted by peagood at 12:44 PM on March 17, 2011

Having attended conferences as well as been involved in the process of organizing them: this is something where you're just going to have to suck it up and accept that you can only make half the people happy.

Half your attendees think swag is dumb. Just a bunch of cheap crap that they have to tote around and eventually throw away before packing up to fly home.

This half will be excited that you're not obliging them to carry around a bunch of plastic trinkets, and that you're taking real steps to make a difference in the world.

The other half of your attendees are rabid swag fans. They will bitch and moan about the lack of swag, no matter how good the reason.

On the up side, that second group? You're not going to make them happy no matter what you hand out. I'm serious: you could hand out $10 bills, and they would bitch that they weren't $20s.
posted by ErikaB at 3:37 PM on March 17, 2011

The best bit of conference swag I got was when I attended a fire investigation workshop. It was seriously chunky and robust tape measure (with the logo of the host organisation). We still use it regularly years later. If you could find something that was practical and associated with the conference theme, but not quite as common as something like a water bottle, it might be worthwhile.

Usually the sort of conferences I go to I don't expect to get anything. Mostly I have a look through the supplied bag with its various handouts and brochures and dump it in the bin at the hotel before I leave. I don't think many people will complain if you don't leave them anything to take home.

One really handy thing to supply, however, is a small program that folds up and slips in the back of the name-tag holder. That way you always know where it is and it's easy to get to. Whilst I agree something like a smartphone conference schedule is cool and worth making available, not everyone has a smartphone to access it on.
posted by damonism at 5:04 PM on March 17, 2011

Best answer: Your conference attendees presumably have the wherewithal to purchase the items they require

They're graduate students, so they presumably do NOT have the wherewithal to purchase many things that they actually need, but are also more likely to be appalled by waste. Seconding ErikaB, half will despise all swag, half will dive for ANYTHING that you give them and ask for more.

Also seconding PareidoliaticBoy and others who say that you'll do yourself a big favor by being prepared with some printed agendas. (Better that then paying top dollar to use the business center at your conference facility.)

Consider putting the conference program on a flash drive and offering it on request. (Protip: Fill more flash drives than you think you'll need. But only affix labels to brand them as you hand them out. After the conference, all you've got to do is wipe the contents of the surplus drives.)

Options like this go over great when you can manage it -- it tells your attendees that you're acknowledging them as people, and not just a horde who all get the same thing-they-may-or-may-not-want.

Name tags are non-negotiable, really. Conferences are for networking -- you gotta be able to see who you're talking to!

/worked for 12 years for a membership organization, handled programs for grad students and postdocs, worked conferences both big and small.
posted by desuetude at 7:18 PM on March 17, 2011

I would offer proceedings on a flash drive for a small fee. Make them cheap (a dollar), but sell them. Then only the people who actually want them will buy them, and the unwanted ones won't end up in a landfill somewhere. Use stickers for branding instead of printing on the drive, and you can use the leftover ones in following years or for other events or around the office.

Having delicious food is definitely a good thing, though. And use real plates, cups, and silverware instead of disposable ones!
posted by that girl at 8:02 PM on March 17, 2011

Well here is a topic dear to my heart. Avoid ordinary swag and that includes bags and water bottles. Now the conference proceedings on disk or USB stick is not swag -- that is work. Laser pointers are a bit past date.

I would suggest that you get, something like this electronic cleaner or this one, umbrella (not an obvious choice and spendy) or you could be humorous with giving carbon miles (I was vetoed on that one.) If you go whimsical, you must go all the way whimsical.

I loathe getting low end bags; crap mugs; key chains and cheap pens. I prefer something different, portable and useful.
posted by jadepearl at 10:59 PM on March 17, 2011

It kind of depends on the quality of the swag as well - get samples from the company if you can. My mom's boss gets a free tote bag (a different one every time) with every order from his particular office supply company - some of them are great, some are crap and quickly fall apart.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:52 AM on March 18, 2011

Response by poster: I'm not sure where this impression came from, but don't worry, we are printing name tags. And it looks like we'll probably be printing full programs, too. In the past couple days, it's become apparent that the university has a crazy strict process for giving outsiders access to the wifi, so that's limiting how paperless we can be.

The comments for high quality food have been noted. Luckily, our academic disciplines are food-oriented, so every foodie business in the city wants to give us free stuff. And we found an amazing zero-waste, local/organic caterer to handle lunch. Few have addressed the idea of a food gift, so I'd appreciate additional feedback on that if people are still stumbling upon this question. Thanks!
posted by sk932 at 11:44 AM on March 18, 2011

Food gifts are tricky, in the sense that food allergies can make things difficult.

That said, it's a good opportunity to showcase local products. You don't mention where you're located, so I can't exactly make concrete suggestions, but it's something to consider. I've seen teeny bottles of maple syrup given out as gifts at meetings before, for example.

Is your area known for some food specialty?
posted by LN at 12:20 PM on March 18, 2011

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