Moving the needle on The PPAI Expo 2018 from great to extraordinary was a collective goal and significant accomplishment for all those involved, including PPAI staff, the board of directors and other volunteer leadership, and the professional team at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, the longtime location of the January show. 

In its 16th year at the Mandalay Bay, Expo delivered an extraordinary experience on all fronts, including the highest distributor attendance in 10 years, with 12,400 distributor attendees representing 4,550 companies and 1,222 exhibiting companies displaying thousands of products in 3,120 booths. With an estimated 20,250 overall participants from the U.S. and 30 countries, the total economic impact of visitor spending during this year’s Expo was estimated at $40 million by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Dale Denham, MAS+, chief information officer for Geiger, who took office as PPAI 2018 board chair immediately following the show, was elated with the show’s outcome. “The PPAI board challenged the staff to take Expo from great to extraordinary; however, it appears staff is aiming for epic,” he says. “There is always something that can be better, and PPAI will find it. Yet, at this Expo, I heard only positive reactions from exhibitors and attendees alike. I experienced quality attendees, a well-designed show floor with excellent traffic, phenomenal speakers and great opportunities for learning as well as connecting on and off the show floor. Expo further solidified the show’s position as the place you have to be.”

Distributor attendees got a close-up look at thousands of new and inventive promotional products, and firsthand insights on what’s trending in hard good and apparel design, decoration techniques and technology innovation. In addition, they were treated to new and upgraded amenities on the show floor, including free water refill stations, improved wi-fi throughout the hall and added features through SAGE Mobile to enhance and enrich their show experience. 

During the five-day event, Expo also offered more than 125 education events within eight different learning tracks, plus several general sessions featuring expert and real-world insights from business speakers including Roy Spence, president and CEO of GSD&M, the creative mind behind classic and highly successful ad campaigns such as the “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-litter program.

Expo has come to be known as the industry’s annual gathering place or “big tent” for many member companies and other industry organizations that schedule events around the show. This year, Expo was the co-location for the SAGE Conference, iPROMOTEu’s A Woman’s View, commonsku’s skucon conference, and PromoKitchen and PromoStandards workshops, and it was the setting for more than 20 national sales group meetings held throughout the week for companies such as AIMastermind, Jack Nadel International, HALO Branded Solutions, iPROMOTEu, Geiger, Proforma, AIA Corporation and American Solutions for Business.

“The PPAI Expo is so much more than a trade show,” says Paul Bellantone, CAE, PPAI president and CEO. “It is the industry’s convention where relationships are built and strengthened, and community is nurtured. Distributor and supplier attendees have embraced our drive to take The PPAI Expo from great to extraordinary and were excited to see so many of their ideas implemented in the creation of the 2018 event. The tone is set for a successful and exciting 2018.”

Enhancing a trade show the size and scope of The PPAI Expo and perfecting the experience for thousands of attendees and exhibitors year over year has its challenges, but it was a target PPAI was determined to achieve. Reaching that goal required laser focus on what members asked for and working hard to deliver on that promise.

Mary Jo Tomasini, MAS+, CEO of distributor CE Competitive Edge, whose term as PPAI board chair concluded after the show, was delighted with the feedback she received onsite. “I heard many attendees comment that the 2018 Expo was the best ever,” she says. “Everyone was enthusiastic and optimistic about the year ahead and our industry overall. Suppliers commented that the distributors who visited their booths came with projects in mind and were more engaged than ever before. You could feel the excitement in the air. I was so proud of our entire team. We have the most dedicated and passionate professionals I have ever seen. This year it was all about the details. The team was tending to so many little details that made a huge difference in the attendee experience. We did our best to say ‘yes’ whenever possible.”

Volunteer Appreciation

Above: PPAI 2017 Board Chair Mary Jo Tomasini, MAS+, passes the gavel to incoming Chair Dale Denham, MAS+, during the Volunteer Recognition Luncheon.

PPAI hosted a luncheon to honor contributions from all volunteer leaders, including those serving on the PPAI board of directors, committees and advisory groups, the Regional Association Council board and the Promotional Products Education Foundation board, as well as recognizing new inductees to PPAI’s Fellows program. During the luncheon, Bellantone gave an update on Association activities and reviewed progress on the strategic plan, then expanded further on the goal of strategic foresight. Outgoing PPAI Board Chair Tomasini passed the gavel to incoming Board Chair Denham, and she and Bellantone recognized retiring board members Tom Goos, MAS; Larry Cohen, CAS; and Lee Strom, CAS, and incoming board members Lori Kates, Jim Hagan and Todd Pottebaum, MAS+.

Awards And Recognition

Above: PPAI Hall of Fame inductee David Woods, MAS, with PPAI Distinguished Service Award winners Bill Lazarus, MAS, and Charles Duggan II, MAS+. 

PPAI hosted an elegant black-tie dinner early in the week with nearly 200 in attendance, including current and past board members, volunteer leaders and industry legends who came to pay tribute to this year’s honorees. In the spotlight were two 2018 inductees into PPAI’s Hall of Fame: the late Janelle Nevins, formerly senior vice president at Silver Spring, Maryland-based distributor Summit Group, and David Woods, MAS, retired president and CEO of Neenah, Wisconsin, distributor AIA Corporation. The event also honored two other volunteers, Charles Duggan II, MAS+, national and strategic key accounts manager at Goldstar, and William “Bill” Lazarus, MAS, owner and vice president of Promotional Breezes, with the PPAI Distinguished Service Award for their selfless dedication and volunteerism to PPAI and the industry. In addition to the four award winners, PPAI also recognized three individuals in its annual Promotional Products Pioneers tribute for their vision, drive, innovation, character and leadership in the industry: Marty Lott, owner and president of SanMar; the late Bill Schmidt, former owner and president of Hit Promotional Products; and S. Allen Dohan, CEO of The Allen Company. 

This year, all of PPAI’s company award categories were rebranded under the Pyramid umbrella, and 160 awards were presented in a fresh, fast-moving format during an evening networking event. Recognized were some of the best examples of supplier decorating, technology, marketing programs and client programs, along with 22 supplier companies named as Supplier Stars. See the full list of award winners in our flipbook.  

AboveAlso honored at the Chairman’s Leadership Dinner were PPAI Promotional Pioneers Marty Lott, SanMar; CJ Schmidt (standing in for his late father, Bill Schmidt), Hit Promotional Products and Allen Dohan, The Allen Company.


Along with the trade show and networking, professional development completed the third side of the experience triangle, with more than 125 education sessions that were taught by industry experts, professional speakers and business insiders. More than 9,200 seats were filled during the five-day run. Programs began on Sunday and packed a full day on Monday, punctuated by the Power Keynotes offered that afternoon. In a highly successful format, attendees listened to opening pitches from three exceptional speakers—Seth Mattison, David Avrin and Rita Davenport—then chose one to attend. The highlight for many attendees was the powerful opening general session presented on Tuesday by advertising executive Roy Spence, who inspired his audience with his personal support of promotional products and shared advice on how listeners and their medium can become more impactful.


A Generous Industry

Through onsite and online donations during the show, and the proceeds from a golf tournament held prior to the show’s opening, the Promotional Products Education Foundation raised more than $57,000 for its scholarship program. This year PPEF will award $200,000 in college scholarships to industry professionals and their college-bound sons and daughters. 

Expo exhibitors also donated nearly $50,000 worth of samples and promotional products after the show to the Kids In Need Foundation, which provides schools in lower-income areas with classroom incentives and supplies. PPAI and its members have supported the organization since 2008.


Observations And Opinions

“This was my first PPAI show and I really enjoyed it. I appreciate PPAI for all the great publications, the annual show and for being such a great resource for industry information. Thanks for everything!”
 —Eden McClellan, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, president/COO, Icon Blue, LLC, Los Angeles, California

“I think the Expo is stunning in an epic way. It’s everything that marketers want in a customer experience.”
—Russ Klein, president and CEO of the American Marketing Association, Chicago, Illinois 

“This year’s PPAI show was the best trade show experience we have ever had. The PPAI staff helped us engage with tools like the New Products Showcase and email marketing that connected us with prospects. The quality of business leads from PPAI is unsurpassed. We saw clients and old friends who brought new people to our booth to see ideas and success stories. We couldn’t be happier. Sign us up for 2019!” 
—Diane Katzman, owner, Diane Katzman Design, St. Louis, Missouri

“Vegas was my first PPAI show. I seriously can’t tell you how impressed I was at the show—from the booths to the speakers to the staff to literally everything. I’ll be back next year.”
—David Sears, founder and CEO, PrintResource, Westborough, Massachusetts

“We got to meet a lot of vendors that we’ve only been able to talk to on the phone. I really loved connecting with them; being able to see each other was one of the biggest things for me.”
—Zehra Sayani, owner, Sayani’s Business Services, Surrey, British Columbia

“The room is getting younger. Three years ago, I felt like the median age of people walking the floor was 45. This year it looked much younger—there were a lot more young professionals, especially on the supplier side.”
—Joseph Sommer, 28-year-old owner of Whitestone Branding, Brooklyn, New York

“Carlson Craft had a great show, and we are very pleased with the success we are having on our follow-up calls to the distributors we connected with in Vegas.”
— Linda Hiniker, national sales manager, Carlson Craft, North Mankato, Minnesota

“The Expo exceeded my expectations and delivered an abundance of new contacts and enlightening education, and based on feedback, we anticipate a substantial boost in sales.”
—Richard Becker, president, Garland Writing Instruments, Coventry, Rhode Island

“Awesome speaker, great presentation. It really changed my thoughts on my day -to-day at work and at home!”
—Graeme Dawes, MAS, division manager, Elite Sportswear & Awards, Stony Plain, Alberta.



Relive your favorite moments from The PPAI Expo 2018 and check out what you missed. Find more photos, stories and videos from the show at and at


Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.