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.