Everyone was pretty shocked when South by Southwest canceled its 2020 event at the beginning of March. At that time, the U.S. hadn’t fully understood the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, and it seemed like a rash decision when other things like MLB Spring Training and the NBA were playing things by ear.
Now, about a month later, we know that this was the right call, and others followed suit almost immediately. As government officials limited gatherings to smaller sizes or issued stay-at-home orders, attending trade shows and festivals with thousands and thousands of other people became unthinkable. Just about all of those events ended up canceled.
This, as we know, puts a major strain on promotional products companies that rely on these events for millions of dollars in revenue.
That has forced both events companies and promo businesses to be innovative, adaptive and nimble in ways they haven’t ever had to be before. The ones who can work remotely with little interruption are lucky, but there are still financial ripples through just about every sector. For in-person events, and the promotional products distributors who count them as vital clients, it’s not so easy. But it also hasn’t been impossible.
Restaurants have started to rely heavily on things like branded merchandise and meal kits to create cash flow while their doors are shut. For events like SXSW, there’s no sense in throwing out all of the merch just because things didn’t happen as planned.
With technology being what it is, a lot of these events that can move online have. In these instances, promotional products companies are still fulfilling their orders, just a little differently.
“What we are working with them on is creating a gift to send to these thousands of people around the world, to make them feel they were a part of the experience,” John Alagem, president of Harper+Scott, told Fortune. “That has been a positive.”
SXSW has opened up an online merch store, where it’s selling apparel, bags, posters, mugs—basically everything you could’ve gotten at the actual event.
— SXSW (@sxsw) April 3, 2020
For events that are smaller-profile than something like SXSW, but still a big-time revenue stream for promotional products businesses, many suppliers are offering discounted or free drop shipping.
Let’s say a conference or education event opts to go online. Had the event taken place in person, each attendee would’ve received a branded notepad, pen and backpack. Rather than canceling or postponing these orders, customers can have them drop shipped to attendees’ homes, maintaining brand visibility for the customer.
Sure, it’s not ideal, but ultimately it accomplishes the same goal set in the first place. A growing number of promotional suppliers have waived or reduced drop shipping fees, making it much easier for distributors to get products in end-users' hands.
For a time like this, that’s invaluable.
For the future, once things return to something like normalcy and businesses are able to open their doors again, distributors are going to have a brand new opportunity. A lot of these businesses will be looking to coax customers back, so it’s almost like they’re a brand new business looking for initial marketing tools.
Distributors should look into direct mail campaigns and gifting opportunities once non-essential businesses are up and running again.
"If people aren’t going to malls or retail shops, their companies are going to have to try to welcome people back,” Alagem said. “Everyone is kind of waiting it out, day-by-day, to see what happens."