Regional Promotional Products Associations

Regional Promotional Products Associations

Ken Masterson

‘In the trenches’ local associations are adamant about keeping their own shows and providing services only a regional can deliver. By Vicky Uhland

It seemed like a good idea. Take the two promotional products associations in Florida, partner with the national association, and produce a statewide show. Instead of two smaller shows, invite distributors and suppliers to a 600-booth mega show. More bang for the buck, bigger is better, etc. etc.

The only problem?

“The majority of our members don’t travel out of south Florida,” says Gary Tuchler, president of the Gold Coast Promotional Products Association, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Even though the show was just up the road in Orlando, “It didn’t work.

“Quite a few of our members weren’t there,” Tuchler says.

Gold Coast also took in 25 percent less in revenues than it would have received had it put on its own show, he notes. The group also lost about half of its supplier members, since they didn’t have to sign up with Gold Coast to exhibit at the Orlando show.

In the trenches

Tales like this illustrate why the regional promotional products associations are so important to their members and dependent upon them. It’s all fine and well to have nationwide or super-regional programs under the auspices of the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), but someone needs to service the people who just want to stay home. The regional associations — not officially arms of the national association — provide this valuable service.

“The regionals are the trench soldiers,” says Lew O’Donnell, president of Promotional Products Association Chicago.

Larry Littman, president of the Norfolk, Va.-based Mid-Atlantic Promotional Products Association, notes, “The regionals are becoming more important. Sometimes you can do things better than a bunch of bureaucrats that are five states over.”

Kimberly Fischer, PPAI’s director of regional relations, says, “There’s a certain set of services and opportunities that the national association can’t do. We can’t see members on a monthly basis or have a networking dinner. (Regionals) are great for new people coming into the industry.”

Also, points out Dennis Gorman of the regional Specialty Advertising Counselors of Delaware Valley, based in Lancaster, Penn., “With all the turmoil in the promotional products industry, there’s a greater role for regional associations to play. They help smaller members grow big, and you can build lasting friendships and relationships with competitors and suppliers.”

Size doesn’t matter

There are 28 regional associations serving promotional products distributors and suppliers locally around the country. They range in size from the 900-member Specialty Advertising Association of California, serving southern California, to the 65-member Mid-Atlantic Promotional Products Association.

Each regional is its own organization, and technically speaking there is no automatic allegiance to the national PPAI; membership in the national organization doesn’t bring a regional association membership, and conversely, joining the regional is no entree to membership in PPAI.

For many years, going back into the 1980s, the regional associations were members of a loosely official branch of PPAI, the Regional Associations Advisory Council. The old RAAC met once a year, during PPAI’s Dallas Winter Show, but there was never any formal voice for the group within the national association, an arrangement that didn’t sit well with many of the regionals.

That all changed in 1998 with the RAAC’s reformation, in a more formal way, into the Regional Associations Council, or RAC. Under the new organizational format, RAC is a separate entity, with its own board of directors. To garner a greater voice within the PPAI and to stay on top of PPAI developments, RAC, beginning in 1999, was given the status of a standing committee of the PPAI, which gives the RAC board access to all PPAI communications, and, most importantly, RAC now designates one person to act in its behalf as a full board member of the 17-member PPAI Board of Directors.

Each regional pays $1,000 a year in RAC dues, and Fischer, the PPAI staff liaison officer for RAC, reports that she expects all 28 regionals to be RAC members this year.

“It (RAC) gives an equal vote to every regional association regardless of size,” Fischer says.

“RAC is really beneficial to the regionals. So many are really small, and it shows you how to develop regionals,” says Laura Harris, president of the Rocky Mountain Region Promotional Products Association in Denver.

“The smaller regionals are more dependent on PPAI for assistance,” adds Greg Johnson, immediate past president of the Promotional Products Association Mid-South, based in Nashville, Tenn.

Rebellions adolescents

Like any parent-child relationship, the alliance between PPAI and the regionals has not always been smooth. PPAI began seriously addressing that problem with the formation of RAC.

“Before then, we only had part-time staff support. It wasn’t a very active effort. The communication just wasn’t happening,” Fischer says.

The formation of RAC really grew out of a new competitive environment in the promotional products industry. For many years, PPAI ran the only national trade shows exclusive to the industry, the Winter Show in Dallas each January, and the Summer Show at various locations around the country in August.

That all changed in 1998 when the for-profit Advertising Specialty Institute hired away PPAI’s two chief show directors and launched its own trade shows for the first time in more than 30 years. Beginning in 2001, The ASI Show is being held three times annually, in Orlando, Las Vegas and Chicago, and that organization has teamed with a number of regional associations in producing its shows.

In response to the new competition, PPAI announced a new initiative in 2000 to partner with regional more associations and hold more shows of its own. The PPAI initiative was billed as a net reduction in trade shows because the regional partners would agree to go “dark” on their own local shows in the years they partnered with PPAI. No one ever really believed this was the goal, as the “dark” regional shows were most often nothing more than tiny table-top operations, with the PPAI-sponsored partnered shows billed as much, much more. And the strategy didn’t work, neither for the regionals — as the experience of the Gold Coast Promotional Products Association exemplifies — nor for the PPAI, which two months ago announced that its two slated partner shows for 2002 had been cancelled. (PPAI announced in July a new strategy for its secondary shows next year, see Editor’s Letter on page 6 for details).

“ASI has forced PPAI to be more proactive, but the horse may have already left the barn,” says Mid Atlantic’s Littman.

ASI not only offers a show with no admission fees, Littman says, but it also has a group of speakers who will address regional associations free of charge.

“ASI has helped shake up PPAI. Where was PPAI five years ago when I was working my tush off?” Littman says.

ASI pressures apparently haven’t affected PPAI membership. PPAI President Steve Slagle says membership continues to increase by 100 to 200 companies a year. PPAI has about 6,500 member companies, with a retention rate “well over 90 percent,” Slagle says.

Despite the perks ASI offers, some regional association presidents believe the non-profit PPAI is still a better deal than the for-profit ASI. They believe PPAI must be accountable to its members, while ASI is accountable to the bottom line.

“PPAI is the 80-pound gorilla, but ASI is the 100-pound gorilla,” says Mid-South’s Johnson.

Nevertheless, Johnson believes PPAI’s response to the ASI trade show to become more dictatorial. “They’ve taken on the role of a for-profit business and made a lot of regionals uncomfortable.”

Regional shows important

Each regional association puts on at least one trade show a year, and several have two or more. Most of the shows are quite small, however they are extremely important for the regional associations.

“If you take away our show, you’re taking away basically the only member benefit people deem valuable,” says Shannon Silber, past president of the New England Promotional Products Association, based in Boston. She estimates 90 percent of her association’s 450 members join because of the, show.

In the Mid-South region, “absolutely, categorically the show is the No. 1 fundamental member benefit,” Johnson says.

Francie Levy, past president of the Promotional Marketing Association of Northern California, says her association’s trade show in Monterey gives many small exhibitors who don’t go to Dallas an opportunity to meet with the president of a large supplier that they don’t normally get access to.”

Also, a big national show doesn’t have as many intimate settings for conversations as a regional does, she says.

Paul Rizzo, president of the Wisconsin association, says his group agreed to partner on the Chicago PPAI Promotions Midwest show because it was convenient for members to attend. However, Wisconsin will still put on two shows of its own this year.

“People are used to our shows. They’re kind of unique, kind of Wisconsin-friendly,” he says. “They show suppliers they need to do business in Wisconsin.”

Not only are shows perceived as a valuable member benefit, they’re the chief revenue miser for regional associations.

A show can net $5,000 and up, depending on the regional’s size. For the Arizona Promotional Products Association, which has 210 members, the yearly trade show brings in $20,000 to $30,000.

It will finance the entire year. Without the show, there is no money, says President Bruce Perryman.

Most associations charge low membership dues, around $100 a year, and break even on educational programs and networking dinners. Expenses can be high, with speakers at educational seminars charging as much as $5,000.

PPAJ changes focus

By backing backed off of the partnership plan to consolidate shows, PPAI has established a Partnering Opportunity Task Force designed to work with the regionals about show strategy, and is also working on an Internet trade show database that contains information about attendance.

Slagle says PPAI is changing its emphasis more toward education. This past January s PPAI Expo in Dallas offered about 75 education sessions and seminars.

We re really opening up to education. (Members) can learn a lot about how to sell and use products. Our long view of trade shows is all about education, something that s often overlooked or forgotten, Slagle says.

A lot of our services are aimed toward small- and medium-sized businesses who are not always able to match up with the bigger companies.

The (PPAI) leadership development programs get rave reviews, says Arizona s Perryman.

Back to school

Regional associations are also emphasizing education.

We re a contained little atmosphere up here, says New England s Silber. We need to offer good educational programs because most of our members don t go the national show.

Northern California s Levy points out that regional educational programs are quicker and cheaper than the nationals.

With PPAI, you ve got to pay for air planes, hotels, take a block of time, she says.

Still, with rising speaker fees and boards made up of volunteers, it can be difficult for regional associations to find the time and money to pull together seminars and meetings.

There s so many PPDs (who) need education, points out Arizonas Perryman. But trying to put a quality program on is like pulling teeth.

The Arizona association sponsors an education day once a year, and has speaker programs on topics including event planning, improving memory and staying organized and focused.

Other regionals are increasingly sponsoring high-tech how-to programs.

Before, we were more sales-oriented. Now we re more technology-oriented, says Greg Johnson of the MidSouth association.

Regionals are better able to poll members and offer customized education programs. And many believe that s a benefit that will keep regionals healthy for years to come.

Really, its the regional that s left to try to help the people on a regional level, says Gold Coasts Tuchler.

Vicky Uhland is a Denver writer and a frequent contributor to Wearables Business


If PPAI is the parent and the regional associations are the children, then you can expect a lot of sibling rivalry.

The Specialty Advertising Association of California tried to get the Arizona Promotional Products Association to merge its annual show with the bigger SAAC show. No dice, said President Bruce Perryman. With revenue of $20,000 to $30,000, Arizona’s yearly show is the association’s big moneymaker.

There’s been talk of merging the two Florida associations. Forget it, their representatives say, but they have been working together more on educational programs and seminars.

With 28 regional associations, it makes sense to consolidate. After all, there are two California associations, two Texas associations, two Florida associations, two Pennsylvania associations, two Ohio associations, and two South Carolina associations.

But each association says its members don’t want to commute to a super-regional association meeting or show. Even a small group like the Promotional Products Association of Wisconsin holds end user shows in three cities: Green Bay, Madison and Milwaukee.

“They like that we come to them,” says President Paul Rizzo.

Some associations, by virtue of isolation, are left alone.

“Because of our location, we haven’t been involved in all the little battles going on,” says Laura Harris, president of the Rocky Mountain Region Promotional Products Association. With headquarters in Denver, the next closest association is Arizona, more than 1,000 miles away.

Thanks to the PPAI show partnership program, high speaker fees and modern technology, some associations are finding that working together can be beneficial.

“We’re hoping to work much closer with PPAF on a package rate for speakers,” says Gary Tuchler, president of the Gold Coast Promotional Products Association.

Tuchler says this newfound cooperation between the Florida regionals resulted from the two associations’ partnership on the Promotions South show. “It was very competitive before, but it’s changed.”

On the other coast, there’s also less sibling rivalry.

“Over the last three years, our relationship with associations in the western states has really grown, especially with the advent of e-mail,” says Francie Levy, past president of the Promotional Marketing Association of Northern California. “We did a speaker combo with SAAC. We’re trying to share more speakers.”

Vicky Uhland

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