by Jonathan Vatner | February 01, 2004

When it comes to promotional items, “so little time is spent thinking about them, yet so much money is spent on them,” says Marty Bear,
president of Professional Marketing Services Inc. in Fairfield, Conn. “Everyone uses them,” he adds, “but very few people get training on
how to buy them.”
   Following are tips for selecting and ordering those ubiquitous custom-made items that keep a company’s name in the limelight, help orient attendees and provide a keepsake from a particular event.

Choose a vendor
Only about 10 percent of promotional-product distributors (PPDs) specialize in providing goods for meetings, according to Bear. To find a good supplier, Bear and other marketing experts suggest the following criteria.
   Look for meetings know-how. Find a company that works with meeting planners all the time. These companies usually exhibit at meetings industry gatherings. Also, ask other meeting planners for recommendations.
   Some of the benefits of using good, meetings-focused PPDs:
   " They know the details and pricing of their catalogs, as well as what is in stock.
   " When dealing with gifts or prizes, they will ask whether to send them to the meeting or to recipients’ homes.
   " They offer quick turnaround times. Once-standard turnarounds of up to 120 days are not acceptable in today’s faster-moving business world. 
   " They provide proofs of the product for your approval before it goes into production.
   " They have a good system of tracking items, and they guarantee accountability.
   " They understand the narrow window of time through which they can send items to a hotel or convention center. Too early, and the venue will not want to store the items; too late and, well, it’s too late.
   " They can demonstrate good value. This is not about who can offer the cheapest price, but who provides high-quality products with efficient and comprehensive service.
   " They understand transactional  issues such as drayage.
   " They are willing to pre-stuff the tote bags with registration information for large conventions.
   " They have proven capabilities for processing digital artwork.
   Search out innovation. There aren’t a lot of truly innovative items nowadays, says Bear, so try to find a company that concentrates on discovering interesting new products. Keep in mind, of course, that innovation ultimately is less important than consistency and reliability.
   Investigate fulfillment. Ask if the PPD has a fulfillment house a warehouse in the United States where items are packaged and quickly sent out. That helps if lead times run short, says Michael McGurk, president of Greenwich, Conn.-based Classic Sportswear & Promotions.