PPAI’s SPARK conference, the annual event targeting young professionals in the promotional products industry, finished strong with high-energy involvement and unmatched enthusiasm from its 67 attendees, 39 who were there for the first time. The conference, which took place July 17-19 in Charlotte, North Carolina, was designed to be mobile, giving attendees the opportunity to experience some of the host city’s treasures, while learning and networking throughout.

Following the kickoff event on Wednesday at Lucky’s Bar & Arcade, a venue that encouraged networking in a playful environment complete with classic arcade games, the morning began the conference’s first full day of workshops, which commenced on the pool deck of the Omni Charlotte at 8 am and closed at the NASCAR Hall of Fame at 6 pm. First up was Transparent Accountability to Launch Success, an interactive discussion led by Bill Petrie, president of PromoCorner, who shared the importance having an accountability partner to leverage your own success. Petrie used a direct approach, opening his discussion by asking participants, “Why did you come to SPARK?” and following with his own reason for entering the promo industry: to build a business.

The next session brought the conference inside for breakout sessions, Your Personal Influence on Facilitating Change and Finding Your Voice to Advance Professionally, when attendees separated according to years spent in the industry: 0-3 years for the SPARK breakout, was led by Alyssa Inkrott, national account manager for 3M Promotional Markets, and Mason Linn, CAS, national sales representative for Raining Rose, and 4+ years for the Ignite breakout, led by Petrie. Throughout, attendees were encouraged to contribute to the discussion, providing input on personal strengths, weaknesses and how to embrace change. This followed with Overcoming Adversity To Maximize Personal Growth, led by Petrie, who opened up to the group about vulnerabilities and struggles in his personal life, which led him to embrace and learn from failure, and rely on mentors along the way. Petrie led his final discussion of the conference after a lunch break, The Power Of You: Storytelling To Engage, Influence And Inspire, explaining how promo professionals are not just experts at selling product, but also helping to piece together a larger story and achieving an overall greater purpose.

Discussions continued at the NASCAR Hall of Fame with the Increasing Your Leadership Skills Workshop, led by Dr. Leah Flynn Gallant, associate dean for the student activities office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the start of the workshop, attendees broke into smaller groups depending on their personality test results in the workplace. The findings showed that out of all attendees, 17 different personalities were represented, with categories including guardians, collaborators, persuaders, promoters and analysts. This segued into Tops On Getting Out Of Your Comfort Zone, also led by Gallant, when attendees identified what they needed in order to try something new.

The fast-paced day wound down—or shall we say, “up”—with NASCAR simulators, when attendees tested their leadership skills in team challenges. Teams competed head-to-head in tuning up a car during a NASCAR race “pitstop,” while others strapped into NASCAR vehicles to participate in a virtual race. The evening closed with dine-around groups, where SPARK attendees teamed with a member of the SPARK work group to enjoy tasty meals from some of Charlotte’s popular restaurants.

At the end of the first day of workshops, attendees shared some of their key takeaways. Tasha Everhart at Sock 101 says her biggest key takeaway was that “once you fail, have your moment and get back up, because good things are around the corner.” Tasha Garcia from HALO Branded Solutions says, “Hashtag #BeIntentional. I loved what Bill Petrie said about that—having intention, do what you’re intending.” She also shared that during the conference, she started looking for an accountability partner.

Friday marked the last official day of SPARK, and started 8 am at the Mint Museum Uptown, where the day’s discussions were held, beginning with Develop A Profit And Purpose-Driven Organization, led by Danny Rosin, CAS, co-president of Brand Fuel, and Stephen McFadden, CAS, president of Perfect Promotions & More, Inc. Immediately following, attendees participated in a community service project, facilitated by McFadden and Meghan Kory, key account sales manager for Hit Promotional Products. Every year, SPARK includes an annual giveback to its host city, and this year participants helped assemble 166 bags of food for local schoolchildren through Blessings In A Backpack, an initiative of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Foundation, a Mooresville, North Carolina-based charity that provides underprivileged individuals with opportunities to succeed.

The workshops started back up with Shaping the Industry of Tomorrow, led by Brittany David, MAS, vice president of sales for SnugZ USA, and the chair of PPAI’s Board of Directors, who discussed how promo professionals can shape the industry’s future by identifying key challenges and areas of opportunities. After a break for lunch, David also led roundtable discussions focused on how to start strategic conversations and the necessary steps to do so. The SPARK group then changed locations and ventured to Coco and the Director, a coffee house in Charlotte, where attendees recapped their experiences from the morning sessions and sat in on Quality Materials, Fair Labor Practices, and Why It Matters, a discussion led by Blair Potts of Potts Chocolate, followed by thought-provoking roundtable discussions.

On Saturday, an optional whitewater rafting trip was held at the U.S. National Whitewater Rafting Center in Charlotte, which drew 14 attendees for a morning of adventure, including ziplining, biking and, of course, a few trips down the whitewater “river.” The activity put to use much of the material learned at SPARK: teamwork (paddling in the right direction), helping one another during times of need (assisting a teammate who went overboard) and celebrating wins (being grateful to have reached the finish line).