At a past Morningstar Investment Conference, I spent much of my time going from booth to booth and meeting exhibitors. 

They were more than happy to talk about their funds, how they set themselves apart from their competitors and what makes them different from the folks at the booth next door. I enjoyed learning about each fund’s newest offerings and I hope that several of the people I met will prove to be valuable business contacts in the future.

This got me thinking, though: what if I hadn’t stopped by to make that connection? What drew me to some booths more than others? Beyond the obvious answers, such as my own professional or personal interests, I noticed that what set one fund company apart from the next was its giveaway item, or tchotchke. Tchotchkes are usually random items—it may have nothing to do with the company itself—but it may also be the very thing that draws initial interest from the crowd or catches the attention of a prospective business partner while they’re walking through the exhibition floor.

Maybe you’re speed-walking to the back of the exhibit hall to see the next speaker and suddenly your attention is drawn to candy, or a fish-bowl promising a free retina-display iPad Air to one winner that evening. Whatever it is, the giveaway item may be the best opportunity you have to connect with someone you will wind up being happy to have met.

At SunStar Strategic, we’ve tried several different giveaways at conferences over the years. From metal water bottles to high-quality notepads--always adorned with our logo, of course. However, two SunStar Strategic displays from the last few years stick out in my memory as having been the most successful for us: the first was having folks hit home runs on a Nintendo Wii at our SunStar Strategic booth; the second was having them stop by to spin a prize wheel and win gift cards ranging from $5 to $50.

The reason those giveaways have worked the best is because they’re fun and engaging and they caused a crowd to form. One thing that I’ve learned from my years of helping to recruit volunteer auxiliary officers for the New York Police Department on Broadway in New York City is that if you have a crowd, even a small one, you’ll soon draw a larger crowd. Two people who have stopped to talk with you will attract two more people who want to find out what’s going on.

Generally speaking, people love people the most. More than free iPads and Snickers bars, people value the chance to interact with each other. Each additional person that a giveaway item or experience draws to your conference booth represents an additional chance to make a meaningful connection that could help your business sometime in the future.

So while I was happy to say hello and collect a phone charger or a stuffed animal for my kids at the Morningstar conference in Chicago, what I carried away from each table that had the most value was the personal connection that was formed.

The next time you’re thinking of giving away something at your booth to attract folks, remember that it may be the only chance you have to meet a prospective customer or client. Make sure the experience is engaging and that it will lead to opportunities for you to connect with new people. Because while you’re giving away an item of value, what you’re really giving away is you.

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