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A ‘swag’ table at the Tastemakers Lounge at the Toronto International Film Festival

Three years ago, Toronto handbag designer Jessica Jensen, owner of Jessica Jensen Inc., first placed her products in the Tastemakers Lounge at the Toronto International Film Festival, where celebrity visitors drop by to choose free gifts, or 'swag.'

Such placements don't come cheap: The top-tier fee for this year's Tastemakers Lounge was $12,000, as well as 200-plus products to give away, says Debra Goldblatt-Sadowski, president of Toronto-based public relations agency Rock-It Promotions, and owner of the TIFF Tastemakers Lounge, with lesser packages also available.

Though Ms. Jensen didn't pay that much, her fees still ran into the thousands, and it would have been cost-prohibitive for her to supply 200 or more of her high-end handbags. So she put up small leather items and gift cards, and brought along about a dozen purses for display – some of which were given away to A-list celebrities.

Since then, her handbags have been photographed on the arms of actresses including Freida Pinto, Emily Hampshire and Kristin Booth, and singers Sarah McLachlan and Fefe Dobson. Last year, Academy Award winner Helen Mirren appeared at a British preview screening grasping a Jessica Jensen Collection envelope clutch she received at TIFF.

Though she moved into a different gift lounge this year, TIFF has become an annual marketing investment for Ms. Jensen, and, while she can't quantify how much the swag supply has translated into sales, she believes it is money well spent.

"When a celebrity is wearing our bag, we can use the images on our website or for promotion," Ms. Jensen says. "It helps other customers to justify the purchase. If a celebrity approves a brand, others perceive that it's quality and it's something they'd want to invest in, not just a bag with a high purchase price."

Many small business owners might drool at the publicity of a big celebrity snapped with their wares. But while supplying swag to marquee events ranging from film festivals to award ceremonies to big sporting events might seem like a dream investment for promotion and exposure, such high-profile events are not all that easy to get into, and can come at a cost that might be too steep to afford or pay off for many businesses.

Even supplying swag at lesser events might not be the right promotional strategy for all businesses, marketing experts say.

It was at Ms. Goldblatt-Sadowski's suggestion that Ms. Jensen took her products to the film festival.

But that doesn't mean it's an open door. "Sometimes we receive many, many calls" from businesses wanting to participate in the gifting lounge, Ms. Goldblatt-Sadowski says, but only about 15 companies were accepted this year.

"We're particular about the brands we take in," she says. "Because we're working with talent, only certain things will be received well. You are not going to give a coffee maker or something else that's difficult to take home. And we really like to bring in a few Canadian brands."

Andrew Au, president of Toronto marketing company Intercept Group, has helped clients get into gift lounges or swag bags at a range of events, from TIFF and the Much Music Video Awards to sporting events, consumer and trade shows, exhibitions and conferences.

He says it can be very competitive to get products into swag bags or gift lounges, as well as expensive, with fees ranging up to $100,000, not to mention the products that must also be supplied.

"Event organizers have the final say about what products are included, the process is very competitive and everybody wants their product in that bag (or gifting lounge), " he says.

While businesses can contact event organizers or swag lounge operators directly, marketing or public relations agencies often have existing relationships and may be able to negotiate an entree, as well as a lower rate, Mr. Au says. For instance, "we may have 10 or 15 brands at the same event and due to economies of scale, we might be able to get a $15,000 sponsorship for $5,000."

Ms. Goldblatt-Sadowski says small businesses have to determine whether they have the budget to participate.

"The bottom line is that anybody looking for a reputable gifting suite should know that there is an investment – it can range from a few thousand dollars for some lounges to over $20,000 for others," Ms. Goldblatt-Sadowski says.

"You don't want it to kill you financially. If all you have is $20,000 a year for public relations, it might not be the right way to go."

She also cautions that just because you place products, there's no guarantee they will actually get into what you would consider the right hands.

Businesses also have to consider whether an event attracts their target demographic, and should be "contextual," or fit the event, Mr. Au says. For instance, a music-themed app would be a good fit at the MMVAs, while TIFF "is a lot about accessible luxury items."

Small businesses may also want to look at trade shows or conferences, but even those pens, lanyards or stress balls branded with your logo can add up, if they cost $1.50 to $5 apiece to produce, Mr. Au says.

Moreover, Mr. Au says that some shows require companies to be sponsors before they have the right to place items in gift bags; sponsorship fees can run up to $60,000, before adding in the costs of the swag itself.

Events such as consumer shows or wellness fairs may be better places to give out food or beauty samples than a film festival or music awards show, he adds.

Lisa Spodek, director of marketing for National Event Management, which operates the National Women's Shows across Canada, says businesses pay 15 cents a sample to place items, from snack food to skincare products, in gift bags given out. Samples have to be light, non-perishable and the number of items per category is limited to offer some exclusivity.

"It's a very targeted audience," she says. "A lot of companies launching new products want to give in-hand samples. You know you are getting them to the person you want it to get to. If they take it home, there's a 99-per-cent chance they'll try out your product."

Mr. Au says that many small businesses might find it more productive and cost-effective to lease a booth at a trade show. "Talking to people often can deliver the most product in a bag is not going to drive significant value. For a small business, you need to drive to the bottom line and get leads."

Jenny Hughes, founder of Me & You Manufacturing Co ., a small Vancouver-based company that designs and sells reusable, fashionable shopping bags made from recycled fabrics, organic cotton and vegan leather, has supplied the Tastemakers Lounge at TIFF with 200 bags for the past six years, and spends most of her marketing budget on that one event. Celebrities, including Corner Gas actress Tara Spencer-Nairn, have also been snapped with her bags.

"There is always a need for a bag for celebrities to fill up with their stuff and it's a Canadian-made product. It's a perfect swag bag," she says.

"When I get the pictures of celebrities with my bags, I use them on social media and my website. It's a great marketing tool."

Ms. Jensen agrees, but says businesses should not expect measurable results nor an immediate surge in sales. To help give a boost, she not only hopes the celebrity factor will pay off, but includes gift cards that offer a generous discount on website sales of her bags, as well as 'share' cards that can be given out to those who admire her products.

"You can't say that X amount of orders came through this, it's an incremental thing," Ms. Jensen says.

"We use several different strategies at our company.… It is just one small aspect of our overall strategy."

Ms. Goldblatt-Sadowski agrees.

"It's like public relations marketing in general," she says. "One ad, one great story may have an impact, but it's more about building word of mouth over time and great brand association. You are not going to see instant gratification."


  • As enticing as it might be, ensure you have the budget to cover fees and free product giveaways.
  • Consult with a PR or marketing consultant. If it represents several clients at a particular event, it may be able to negotiate a lower rate to participate.
  • Look into spin-off events or parties associated with big-name events that may have lower fees yet attract the same crowd.
  • Give away items that are lightweight and non-perishable.
  • Consider how you might fulfil event organizers’ needs and see if you can work a deal, for instance, to supply free uniforms to staff that bear your logo.
  • Think of visibility. A reusable shopping bag with your logo that people can use to gather other samples showcases your brand more than a pen at the bottom of a gift bag.
  • Target: Pick events that connect well with your product or service, and appeal to the audience you are trying to reach.
  • Determine whether renting a booth at a consumer or industry trade show or conference and networking with possible customers might yield better results than supplying swag.
  • Make swag part of your overall, not your only, marketing strategy.