On Wednesday, PPAI hosted its annual Association Update in a live format as part of PPAI Expo Direct-2-You, which featured a virtual, informative conversation among PPAI leaders on updates and changes made to the Association and its services over the past year; trends and issues affecting the state of the promotional products industry today, and growth opportunities for PPAI’s member companies and the industry as a whole. The chat led by PPAI President and CEO Paul Bellantone, CAE, featured Ira Neaman, MAS, the outgoing chair of PPAI’s Board of Directors, and founder and president of supplier Vantage Apparel; and Todd Pottebaum, MAS+, incoming PPAI board chair and president of distributor Quality Resource Group (QRG). The conversation also included a virtual “passing of the gavel” from Neaman to Pottebaum, and covered the heavy, yet unavoidable, topics of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on business, the move to make Expo virtual this year and their projections for the industry’s future.

The Association Update opened with a look at some logistics between Day 1 and Day 2 of PPAI’s first-ever, fully virtual trade show. Bellantone shared that in the first two days of the show, some 10,000 distributors participated by interacting with exhibitors, joining in professional development sessions and networking with their fellow distributors. During this time, there were around 20,000 booth visits—something that wouldn’t be possible if the trade show took place at its usual location inside the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Bellantone said—215,000 product views and 20,000 total professional development visits, which include education, and 6,400 lounge visits. On Day 2, more than 2,000 of the participating distributors, one-fifth of participating distributors who attended during the first two show days, logged in for the first time, suggesting that attendance is likely to continue rising for the duration of the show. “We’ve been saying this week that we’re not where we want to be,” Bellantone said. “We want to be giving hugs, and we want to interact with suppliers and distributors in their booths, and we’re not where we want to be—but we’re where we should be; engaging with each other and engaging with our members.”

One of the benefits of this year’s virtual format highlighted in the discussion is the availability of more anecdotal data. “The ability to get metrics on the show is going to almost be like hitting a trampoline and bouncing that much further,” Neaman said. Also discussed were the challenges experienced during Day 1 of the show, which PPAI and SAGE, PPAI’s technology partner, worked quickly to resolve. By the end of Day 1, Bellantone said the Association was operating “at almost 100 percent again,” and by Day 2, was fully operational.

Bellantone also shared how the planning of PPAI Expo Direct-2-You has been an unprecedented and unique experience in itself, but it’s one that was approached by sticking to the core of the industry’s mission. “When you start with the ‘why,’ it made it a lot easier for us to run this event, plan for it and execute it,” Bellantone said. “We started with, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ‘Why is it important for us to actually be having this event?’ And then we built it from a zero base, recreating what Expo could be using that ‘why.’” Using feedback and data collected from PPAI Expo Direct-2-You, Bellantone said the Association will be considering what worked and what didn’t, and the strategies, services and experiences that will be recreated at the PPAI 2022 Expo.

Bellantone, Neaman and Pottebaum shared their thoughts on the common denominators of companies that may have had a successful 2020. Neaman noted the distributors and suppliers that were able to pivot production to PPE relatively quickly due to existing supply chains, which helped with the need to swiftly get branded PPE products into the hands of health care and other frontline workers in the pandemic’s onset. He also mentioned the need for companies to remind their employees that they’re thinking of them during these challenging times. “There was a need for everyone to touch their employees and stay connected, to send them things and let [employees] know they cared, that the business cared,” Neaman said, and a need to still “reward, recognize and engage people,” Bellantone added. Pottebaum shared how, at QRG, they tripled down on their digital marketing efforts, built a digital gift site and restructured one of the company’s lowest-performing areas into a full-time fulfillment center.

Over the next 90 days, Pottebaum said he foresees a decreasing demand in PPE, which will be influenced by the growing distribution of a COVID-19 vaccination and the easing of government regulations. Going forward, the leaders agreed there will be a hybridization of in-person and virtual meetings, with an increase in drop-shipping and the continued reshaping of marketing plans. “We have to adapt to sales meetings that are going to be likely and soon, and we are going to have to figure out new ways to market, and no one is better [at] figuring out new ways to market than the promotional products industry,” Neaman said.

The leaders also discussed the Association’s rapid re-planning throughout the pandemic, and the Board’s ongoing consideration of which components of the plan should kept and which should be updated or eliminated. “We set up some guardrails, benchmarks and side posts to let us know how much things were moving forward,” Bellantone said, noting factors such as the state of restaurants, airport traffic and regional matters that may be affecting business. These “guardrails,” Pottebaum said, solidified what the Association needed to do, what it needed to refrain from doing and what it needed to stay away from altogether. It also entailed recognizing what is timely to PPAI from what is timeless—such as great member value, growth and protecting the industry, Bellantone said. One of the Association’s goals, moving forward, is the return to a physical show in 2022.

Bellantone assured listeners that regardless of the Association’s financial situation stemming from 2020, PPAI is prepared to continue operating successfully for two years, and that its members can “rest assured” and “be confident” in this commitment. He added that when members were asked to participate in a survey concerning their plans to renew membership in the midst of the pandemic, three-fourths (75 percent) of distributors and 70 percent of suppliers said they plan to renew their membership, while 15 percent were uncertain. “I’m nothing but an optimist about this industry, the companies that are in it [and] the members that are in it,” said Bellantone.

Throughout and in closing, the leaders shared general feelings of positivity about the industry and its future. “With gratitude, optimism is sustainable,” Neaman said. Oding to Bellantone’s love for music, Pottebaum shared a lyric from musician Ray Wylie Hubbard’s song Mother Blues: “And the days that I keep my attitude higher than my expectations, well, I have really good days.” Bellantone said, “We are a scrappy, resilient, entrepreneurial industry. We tend to find opportunities to be successful in any environment, and I’ve heard so many positive things from members coming out of this.” He added, “Promotional products work because we reward, we engage and we motivate. We’ll always need to be doing that, but we just need to be doing it differently.”