Moments Of Clarity
Everyone enters the promotional products world in their own way. It’s what makes the industry so unique. But if you ask most of the community, they’ll tell you that you haven’t really experienced promo until you’ve attended The PPAI Expo.
Different than a rite of passage, the industry’s largest trade show in Las Vegas is exposure to all the moving parts that make promo a thriving, growing and evolving ecosystem: the people, the personalities, the hustling, the education and, of course, the products.
It’s fitting that The PPAI Expo happens in January every year. After perhaps a brief lull to enjoy the holidays, the promo season comes roaring back, not with a series of emails or invoices, but with in-person meet-ups with old friends, new partners, new friends and old partners. The PPAI Expo 2024 will be held January 15-18.
“PPAI Expo always serves as our industry’s essential kickoff into the new year,” says Taylor Borst, senior director of marketing and vendor relations at American Solutions for Business. “We come together for fresh ideas, new connections and stronger partnerships to set ourselves up for success.”
Before picking up and settling down in Las Vegas, back when The PPAI Expo was still flooding the rooms and hallways of the Dallas Convention Center with promo professionals, the event had already been considered a can’t-miss industry event for decades. Since moving to the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in 2002 – one of the first events to be held at the then newly constructed complex – The PPAI Expo has only added to its arsenal of offerings every year.
The fact is, everyone goes to The PPAI Expo, a notion that’s almost taken for granted at this point. It’s a well-oiled machine, one that takes a lot of work, but always brings twice the payoff. Those of us inside the walls of PPAI headquarters are so busy making sure the event has everything members have come to expect – from maintaining its status as one of the biggest trade shows in the country, to all the educational sessions at The PPAI Expo Conference to organized meet-ups and celebrations like The PPAI Expo Party – and developing new innovations that keep it fresh, that there’s almost no time to think about which of those aspects of The PPAI Expo is bringing any given attendee back every year.
So, PPAI Media finally asked the question: Why do people keep coming back?
We figured some come back because of what they want to replicate. Some come back because of what they missed the last time around. Because you simply cannot do it all. You can’t connect with all the people you’d like to. You can’t attend every educational opportunity. You can only do so much business in a room with countless potential partners.
But why speculate when we can simply ask some Expo veterans to take a stroll down memory lane? So, we reached out with a fairly simple question:
Do you remember the moment you knew that you’d be attending The PPAI Expo every single year?
From our conversations, most promo professionals described what can be grouped into two key dynamics, what I am referring to as the Wow moment and the Aha moment.
The Wow moment usually happened pretty quickly, and it’s a feeling that can only really be summed up with that one word. You probably know what we’re talking about if you’ve experienced 9 a.m. on Tuesday when The PPAI Expo show floor opens.
The Aha moment happens a little later. It’s the point when attendees realize that the most daunting part of The PPAI Expo might not actually be the most essential part.
We’ll explain shortly. But perhaps Kirby Hasseman, owner of Hasseman Marketing & Communications, put it best when he said, “The PPAI Expo is overwhelming in such a good way.”
The Sheer Size
(The Wow Moment)
You can read the numbers. You can grow your client list and your partner list over time. But if The PPAI Expo does anything for first-time attendees, it drives home the sheer size of the promotional products industry.
“Attending Expo the first time was really the first wakeup call I had to the vast world that is promotional products,” says Josh Robbins, president of Vault Promotions.
As a supplier, Robbins was on the exhibitor side of things on the trade floor at The PPAI Expo. That first Tuesday morning, he was set up in a booth with hundreds of other suppliers hoping to find new partners to do business with. It would be easy to wonder if there would be enough distributors to go around. But as anyone who has attended knows, waiting on the other side of those doors was a crowd of eager people rivaling any indoor environment you’ve ever seen.
It must feel like a stampede coming your way. Except it’s full of smiling faces and trade show floor maps.
The sense of shock applies equally to the distributors walking through that door.
“Admittedly, the display of product when you first come to Expo can be mind-numbing,” says Hank Frisch, president of Team Promotions. “My first few shows were dedicated to finding that needle in a haystack to share with my clients.”
Veterans know exactly why they’re going to The PPAI Expo. Even those from large promo companies expecting to accomplish plenty over the course of the weekend are confronted each year with the size of the industry they are a part of. No company can make The PPAI Expo trade show look anything but enormous.
“I’ll never get over how many booths are featured on the exhibit floor,” says Borst. “It’s a powerful reminder of not only the size of our industry but also the scope of our impact, creativity and all the possibilities ahead.”
(The Aha Moment)
That’s all to say that, yes, The PPAI Expo is very, very big. And first-timers usually need a day (or maybe even a whole visit) to catch their footing. It’s totally normal to feel like you should have been leaving a trail of breadcrumbs around the trade floor.
But eventually, attendees tend to discover that what has kept The PPAI Expo on everyone’s calendar every year is more than just its size. Rather, it’s the personal collisions that size enables.
The PPAI Expo is about connections – connections between suppliers and distributors, between industry peers, friends and colleagues. According to Expo veterans, this is the undercurrent that keeps the industry running.
“What I discovered was, the real treasure of annually attending Expo are the relationships built with supplier partners and fellow distributors. They become your mentors, saviors and friends,” says Frisch, who has volunteered on various PPAI committees and credits the people he met at Expos over the years with changing the trajectory of his career. “The value of Expo cannot be understated.”
Toby Zacks, CEO of Zagwear, says that coming to such a huge trade show where there’s so much potential to build upon was also a way to bring his team closer together in a way that can’t be replicated.
“I have been attending the PPAI show for so many years,” Zacks says. “Originally, we would come every year to spend time together, see the show and enjoy all Las Vegas has to offer. There wasn’t much sleep in those days, but the stories and connections made will last a lifetime. From our first time at the show, I knew we could not miss this event, as the bonds created were part of Zagwear’s foundation that still exists today.”
Kara Keister, MAS, promise keeper at Social Good Promotions, echoes the idea that attending The PPAI Expo was a year’s worth of hard work coming to life.
“When I first attended Expo, it was a spot that was earned,” Keister says. “By hitting our sales goals, we were treated to ‘the event of the year,’ and it did not disappoint. I still remember feeling very overwhelmed by the size and scope of the show floor, the hours put in and the miles put on my not-so-comfortable shoes. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”
It’s through those experiences that promo pros start to see the industry for what it really is: a community of people building something together. Robbins had the realization not long after his first Expo.
“[I thought] ‘OK, I’m not in a badge industry, or even a promotional items industry. I’m in a people and relationship industry,’” Robbins says. “The value Expo provides in setting the table to nurture and grow established bonds while also developing brand-new relationships is paramount and is the main reason we attend annually.”
Quinn Bui, owner at N9ner Marketing and a 2023 PPAI Rising Star, says that you grow in this industry with each time you attend The PPAI Expo.
“What truly convinced me that this was an event worth attending annually was the people,” Bui says. “Each year, as I returned to The PPAI Expo, I found myself making invaluable connections, staying updated on industry trends and discovering new opportunities for growth.”
That growth comes out of collisions with other distributors and suppliers, but for many in their first few experiences, it comes from wandering around The PPAI Expo Conference on Monday and stumbling into an educational session that shines a light on their own opportunities.
“For me, it’s the education,” says Hasseman. “When I was new to the industry, being able to learn from the best speakers opened my eyes to the possibility of what my career could become.”
Like, Robbins, Patrick Napurksi, president of Halls & Company, has been on the supplier side of the trade show, and after first wondering how they would handle the mass of distributors, he soon realized that you just put on a smile and do the best you can.
“My favorite part of Expo is watching all the supplier teams work together to help the distributors in the best way possible,” Napurski says. “I’ve seen teams move through their booths smoothly and effortlessly identifying potential customers and making them feel welcome.”
Mary Jo Tomasini, MAS+, CEO of Competitive Edge and a past PPAI Woman of the Year, describes The PPAI Expo as the place “where innovation, connection and inspiration converge annually under one roof.”
You can only attend your first PPAI Expo once, but for most first-time attendees, they know they’ll be back, usually packing more comfortable shoes the second time around.
“I still am very nostalgic when attending Expo,” says Keister. “I love seeing new sales reps and team members experience that overwhelming yet excited feeling for the first time. It’s still the event of the year in my eyes.”
Auping is a news editor at PPAI.