Promotional Companies Hit Hard Find Niche In Crisis

There aren't as many face-to-face events right now, but promotional companies like PMSI and iPromo remain as busy and relevant as ever.

Marty Bear PMS

Professional Marketing Services, Inc. President Marty Bear recently hung up a sign, “Gone Fishing.” After two days of going 0-fer on trout in North Georgia, he returned to a setting he’s used to getting some bites: The Georgia Society of Association’s annual meeting in nearby Savannah. 

If only the rest of the world return to normal as quickly.

“That’s about it for face-to-face,” laments Bear of the GSAE event. 

Bear, like the rest of the events industry, bemoans the loss of in-person meetings. Promotional sales have been particularly hit hard because so much of the business is reliant on coffee mugs, keychains and other swag distributed at conferences.

A study by the Advertising Specialty Institute found North American promotional products distributors saw sales drop 44% during Q2 compared to the previous year. 

Conference Safety Kit PMSI
PMSI's conference safety kit

But since it’s not fruitful to pine for the past, PMSI and other promotion experts have shifted strategies. Some are staying afloat and others, like Chicago-based iPromo, have become big fish in a different kind of pond.


Staying Busy

CEO Leo Friedman reports iPromo generated 500% more revenue in the first half of 2020 than in all of 2019, by converting to PPE products like face masks, hand sanitizer and gloves. The huge numbers came as all traditional sales were canceled during the early COVID-19 stages.

“A committed and passionate team allowed us to pivot almost 180 degrees within five days of the pandemic shutting down the meeting and convention industry,” Friedman says.

Leo Friedman ipromo
Leo Friedman, iPromo


PMSI, too, is in demand as ever. Like Friedman, Bear tapped into his resources in China to gather face coverings, sanitizer holders and the like.

Masks were the hot ticket item in March, but now, as Bear notes, everyone has an array of coverings and “a billion” retailers are selling them. Now, Bear’s best-seller is a health pouch, which is more coveted than the disposable masks and 10-pack of wipes packed inside. Antimicrobial bags are another new product, although some states have already asked that any bags received out-of-state not return home with a traveling attendee.

If that’s not enough, his company provided 9,500 health pouches to event professionals affected during the crisis

“We’re staying busy,” says Bear.

A Shift in Resources

If a true-to-life movie about meetings and events were to be made, Bear would the narrator. His bright-colored suits are an industry staple at this point—one of the many reasons Bear has lasted 37 years hawking goods at tradeshows. 

But beneath the pastels, Bear has proven as an approachable person who provides a needed service. His company plays a key role in providing many of the products synonymous with a conference experience—knickknacks like keychains, sleek Yetis and reusable tote bags, to name a few.

Bear’s presence at a show is an unofficial acknowledgment that an event has made it. Before COVID-19, his schedule was down to 32 conferences and expos (it used to be 52) per year. In the past five months, he has been to just two—GSAE in Savannah and July’s Together Again Expo in Orlando—and is eagerly anticipating manning the floor at Connect Oct. 19-21 at Wynn Las Vegas.

The limited amount of in-person events, and small crowds at those meetings, have released funds benefitting promotional companies. Corporations and associations are relying on PMSI, iPromo and others to stay connected to their target crowds.

kn95 mask
iPromo's KN95 masks

“We will see an uptick due to employee and client engagement, entertainment, and travel budgets being used for corporate gifts and giveaways instead of in person gatherings/meetings,” predicts Friedman. 

Bear’s company has assisted 250 clients, many of which are associations, in distributing gifts to virtual attendees. Bear is on six or seven conference calls per day with event planners discussing the various shipping and freight costs. He is giving out quotes for in-person and virtual versions of the same conference. 

They’ll Be Back

Ultimately, promo companies are as reliant as other vendors for in-person events to occur—at least in a hybrid state and not only virtual. A good deal of Bear’s brand, for instance, is built off his clothes and charm. He acknowledges it’s almost impossible to replicate either when he is not interacting in-person with clients.

Friedman says next year should be better for promotional outfits, in part because it’s reasonable to assume the events industry will start to resemble itself again.

“It all depends on when people will start meeting again, which is unpredictable,” he says of next year. “However, it will be substantially better than 2020 as marketers adapt.”

Bear, too, is ultimately confident in the industry’s resiliency. For his part, Bear is already committed through the end of next year.

“As my mother says, ‘This too shall pass,’” he says. “But it’s not passing soon enough.”