The Promise of Schwag

I want those Vans in the worst way.

The inevitable outcome to going to any trade show is coming home with armfuls of stuff. Mostly, it’s product literature. That’s true no matter what sort of trade show you attend and after a bit, it all tends to run together. Believe me, when you’re read the specs on one closed-circuit television camera, you’ve read them all.

What makes a trade show visit a success on a personal basis, however, are those items brought home that weren’t product literature, weren’t free for the taking and because of their limited supply were rationed out as scores to select few. The technical term, of course, is schwag.

The irony of the situation is how the attendees who most want schwag are often the ones doing the least amount of actual business. Back in the 1990s when I attended my first bike trade show in Atlantic City, each sticker and key ring I scored told me I was an actual part of the bike industry. Perhaps I overestimated my significance. Yeah, definitely.

I’ve been on the giving side of schwag very rarely, but I’ve come to appreciate the emotional calculus that goes on when trying to consider who is an appropriate recipient for a T-shirt, a trainer, a leather card case—even cycling jerseys. As recipients, we’re supposed to show not just excitement, but passion for the brand; the last thing someone wants is some kid in his booth who doesn’t care what he’s given, so long as it’s free.

In my first few visits to the show, any free sticker was a sticker I didn’t have, and as such, was something I wanted. I still dig stickers; most companies give a fair amount of thought to them and any sticker that can make me smile is worth taking home. And as I scoured the booths for stickers, I did so with the belief that I might head home with something of real value—actual bike parts. And while on a few occasions manufacturers slipped me a handlebar or saddle to take home with me, it took some years for me realize that the stuff I really wanted, the stuff I liked well enough to pay for, would never ride home with me as schwag.

The big epiphany came when I began to see things at the show that I’d never have learned about otherwise, or if I had, by the time I tried to buy one, they’d be all gone. These days, knowing I’m in the loop is the real schwag.



  1. Dan O

    Stickers rule. I’m headin’ towards 50 years young and still dig stickers. Sure they represent “products”, but also bike culture – past and present. When at a show, shop, or anywhere stickers are offered, I can’t help but to grab a few. I have a decent collection that spans the ’80s though current stuff.

    I recently bought a used car, a really clean ’94 Toyota wagon. After a fresh Yakima rack installed on top, a trip through the sticker collection for some suitable window dressing. As a insider joke to myself and the few that might get it – applied stickers from the mid 90s era to match the age of the car. Fat Chance, NORBA, Dirt Rag, and a few others from that time zone.

    Call me Dork Boy.

  2. wvcycling

    @Dan O

    There’s a guy in our neck of the woods that still rides a Fat Chance rigid MTB, and keeps up with us 29’ers and FS’ers on the XC trails… He was in Boston during the east coast MTB uprising.

    I’m a sticker horder myself. If I have spares, they will go on my laptop or toolbox, but usually… they go into a nice little ziploc baggie for prosperity… is this weird?

  3. Katherine

    Yeah, I learned this the hard way being an Interbike newbie this year. I thought I was going to walk away with all kinds of cool stuff. Did score a few T-shirts when I went around thanking IMBA corporate sponsors. Got an Osprey pack for about 80% off retail, but decided that the real swag was meeting cool people and making connections.

    I did someone in an RKP kit walk by the IMBA booth at Dirt Demo. I don’t supposed you guys mountain bike too … ?

  4. randomactsofcycling

    As a former Coffee Industry guy, Trade Shows were all about getting in early to secure the limited quantities of exotic beans some of the importers may bring along. More often than not if you were in-good with the right people they would keep some for you even when all other stock was gone. Like Padraig says, being in the loop is the schwag.

  5. Dan O


    Weird to save stickers? Not at all. I’m guilty as charged. When it comes down to it, not sure what I’m saving ’em for. Well, not totally true. The pipe dream of creating a sano bike room/work area, or opening a shop still looms, thought I’d bust ’em all out for that.

    There’s only a few things “sticker worthy”. My toolbox is already covered, no more room there. Yakima rack fairing and car windows – that’s allowed. As mentioned, just picked up a “new” car, so valid excuse to use a few.

    Fat City Cycles made some killer nice stuff “back in the day”. I’ve been riding mountain bikes since ’84 and I’m originally from New Jersey – so familar with the ’80s east coast scene. Fat Chance bikes were pretty trick and well known at the time. The cult factor continues many years later. I was a big Fat City fan.

    I still own two Fat Chances – a ’86 Fat Chance and ’91 Yo Eddy. If interested, some pics and info:


    Fat Chance forever….and stickers!

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