Conference Swag: What Works and What Doesn’t

Hans Moritz Günther is a research scientist at MIT. He works on high-energy emission from young stars and their jets and outflows. He was the chair of the LOC for the Cool Stars 20 workshop in 2018 (550 participants), and was on the LOC for two TESS related conferences in the summer of 2019. This post is the third in a series of posts on tips for organizing conferences.

I was recently on the local organizing committee (LOC) for three different conferences with 125 to 550 participants in attendance. For each conference, the LOC had a discussion about what swag to give out. When I say “swag,” I mean the items given away at conference registration that are often printed with the conference logo such as pens, water bottles, and backpacks. In the U.S. alone, the promotional products industry is worth 18 billion dollars, and an internet search for “promo product” or “conference swag’” turns up plenty of cheap suppliers with all of the impacts that cheap consumer goods can have on the environment and the workers who make them.

On one hand, conference swag seems like a great way to get your logo out there and gives conference attendees something to take home as a souvenir. The advertising industry certainly does its best to advertise advertising (see this “study” by the Advertising Specialty Institute). On the other hand, I’ve come home from a conference with a plastic bag full of promotional flyers for shops and restaurants in the host city (which most people throw out as soon as they get the bag), a small sample of local alcohol (which I thought was a cute idea, although I don’t drink alcohol), a slinky with a logo (why?), a cheap pen (everybody has a pen and every hotel gives them away), and a cheap notebook (many astronomers take notes electronically and don’t want to carry a notebook home, so they throw it out).

During the LOC discussions, the topic of swag typically comes up a few weeks before the conference and in my experience, it was one of the longest and most controversial discussions we had. After all, swag is relatively cheap, typically only a few dollars per participant and should not dominate the work of the LOC. Based on these experiences, I’m writing this post to discuss conference swag as a reference for future conference organizers and attendees.

My own opinion is to not have any swag at all, or at the very most a single high-quality item that can be ordered after registration ends if there is money left over in the budget. If you think about large, recurring conferences that are organized by professional organizations like the AAS or SPIE, none of them have swag paid for by the conference registration fee, although they do have exhibit halls where vendors and institutions give away items such as pins, pens, and water bottles as outlets for advertising.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not specifically opposed to coffee mugs. I’m just opposed to ordering a bunch of swag that less than half of the participants will actually use. My opposition to that stems both from environmental consciousness and fiscal responsibility.

Not all swag is bad. For example, Cool Stars 18 in Flagstaff, AZ had water bottles and sunscreen with a conference logo, both of which were widely used by participants during the conference. Very few people anticipated the effect of the high altitude and dry air. Many participants would have undoubtedly come home with severe sunburn if not for the conference swag. I think this is a great example of well-chosen swag. But this is an exception, not the rule. If you have a great swag idea that’s specific to your conference and your location, go for it. If not, don’t go with standard mugs, pens, and notebooks (see this take it or toss it list). Go empty-handed and reduce the registration fee or spend that money on extra catering. Everybody appreciates more cookies!

Are there any particularly good examples of swag you’ve seen? Put that in the comments to collect some really good and useful ideas for the future.

5 comments… add one
  • Dave Klassen Nov 18, 2019 @ 21:10

    The 40th DPS gave out a fair quality plastic insulated mug with cap. I’ve been packing it to every conference for the past 10 years now and I get more coffee per visit to the urn than anyone else.

    The only downside is it was gray printing on a black mug…

  • Marshall Perrin Nov 18, 2019 @ 23:38

    Once upon a time, some AAS meetings did have swag: Best conference swag I’ve ever gotten was a Seattle AAS winter meeting umbrella. I still use mine on a regular basis more than a decade later! Same idea as the Cool Stars sunscreen, just the opposite weather.

  • Alexis Lavail Dec 9, 2019 @ 10:38

    The CS20 beer glass is great ;).
    You make a good point: most swag will fall apart or become unused very quick.
    For the couple of conferences I helped organized I tried to push as much as possible for having few high-quality locally manufactured products but it’s difficult and time-consuming to find those and then arrange for procurement.

  • RW Dec 13, 2019 @ 11:21

    I think I must have been to around 30 conferences and workshops. Things that I did not need include innumerable pads of paper and pens, and a number of laptop bags, some of fairly high quality. The total of what I found useful is two quite nice mugs, one portable power bank, one 4Gb flash drive, and one small pack of sunscreen. I could have happily lived without all of those.

    I’ve been on a handful of LOCs, and we have given away some clutter including things like an outreach DVD produced by the institute. I think all the participants were indifferent to this and I expect most chucked it away. Whatever future LOCs I am on, I would strongly argue against giving away anything. If conference organisers really want to give me things, I would like them to be 100% recyclable.

  • Captain Kirk of the Feds Jan 1, 2020 @ 1:29

    Here are some conference swags I’ve kept and still used from the last 10 years (which I think is indicative of usefulness):
    o> USB drives
    o> Power bank
    o> Folding cheese knife! And it’s a Laguiole! A really great conversation starter at every party I’ve attended (that involved cheese!)… Too bad a lot of fellow attendant threw them away because they can’t bring it into the plane (good thing I took trains then).
    o> Big tote bags. I’ll forever need those bad boys to do groceries!

    My idea for a conference swag: Postcards with international stamps! Just write a message to your loved ones and slip them into a mailbox… or give them to a conference organizer.

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