Present Perfect

Everyone appreciates an expression of thanks, whether it’s for a job well done, for delivering a keynote speech, or just as a reminder of a special experience.

Conference and incentive planners go to great lengths to ensure their programmes are filled with interesting and memorable activities, and they augment this with relevant mementos; with gifts which last long after the closing ceremony. As a result, gifts are an integral part of the conference and incentive industry. They can leave a lasting memory and can transport the participant back to the event experience each time they are used or looked at.

Gifts can be broken down into five main categories – speaker gifts, programme teasers, room drops, sponsor gifts and programme mementos. These categories are not to be confused with merchandise used as either the primary or secondary reward in an incentive programme.

Present Perfect

Speaker gifts

Speakers come in two forms – paid and honorary. Often, associations call for speakers from within their ranks to address their industry colleagues at a conference and the speaker happily donates his or her time to either further the association’s cause or raise their own personal profile. Whatever their agenda, they are not being compensated for their efforts.

Professional and keynote speakers however, usually command large fees, and although a conference budget is often stretched to accommodate these fees, a token of appreciation is still considered correct conference protocol.

All speakers expect to receive a gift of some sort and will accept whatever is offered to them graciously. However, depending on the speaker’s status, the gift can represent either a form of payment or merely a token of appreciation. Offence may be taken if the gift is inappropriate, undervalued, politically incorrect or excessive. Just as much thought needs to be given to the selection of a gift as to the selection of the actual speaker.

Selecting an appropriate speaker’s gift requires research.

Speaker gifts do not necessarily have to be elaborate. Rotary clubs all over the world often call for speakers from the community to address their chapters on a variety of topics. Speakers oblige willingly and without a fee. In appreciation, they are usually given a gold pen which features the Rotary “wheel” logo on the clip. The exclusivity of the pen, which can only be obtained either by being a Rotarian or guest speaker, holds a certain cache as it is only owned by a selected few. It is earned.

An association member, who was asked to act as master of ceremonies (MC) for a three-day conference in Bangkok without a fee, was presented with his gift at the end of the event. Accepting it with grace, the hard-working MC was disappointed later when he opened the gift to find he had been rewarded with a US$5 silver coin (admittedly, packaged in a presentation box). If that were considered a form of payment, his daily rate equated to US$1.66.

Balance between compensation and tokenism must be a consideration.

Winston Broadbent is the managing director of Saxton Corporation, Australia’s largest speaker’s bureau. Recently he organised for Monty Python legend, John Cleese, to speak at a function in Melbourne for one of his clients.

“Our client contacted us to ask what would be an appropriate gift for a speaker of this calibre. We researched his likes and dislikes and discovered that apart from being a comedian, actor, trainer, raconteur and an all-round famous person, he is a passionate animal lover and in fact, owns his own zoo in California. After a lot of discussion and weeding out possible gifts, the client organised for an elephant at the Melbourne Zoo to paint a portrait of Cleese.

(Editor: Yes, apparently there are two very talented elephants in Melbourne, Mek Kapah and Bong Su which actually paint portraits, see above) 

“Cleese was absolutely delighted and touched with this gift, which was presented to him at the end of his address, and apparently it takes pride of place on his wall to this day,” Broadbent said.


Programme teasers

Teasers for conferences or incentive programmes are an important component of the programme’s collateral material. They create anticipation and build the excitement of the event.

Again, the first point to remember about teaseras with any form of marketing collateral is to allocate funds at the budgeting stage of the planning process.

Depending on the selected location of the conference or incentive trip, the teaser should clearly reflect the theme of the event. The task of searching for appropriate material to use as a teaser is made easier by enlisting the assistance of your DMC, PCO or tourist bureau.

If a site inspection has been organised prior to the destination’s selection, the local bodies can enlighten you on what is available. It is more likely they will suggest something that has been used countless times as teasers for other programmes, and although you may be seeking something unusual and different, it is important to remember that your delegates will be receiving it for the first time. Often, the most obvious form of teaser is the most appropriate, providing it is consistent with the specifics of the programme.

If budget is a restrictive factor, an effective programme teaser can be as simple as a postcard provided by the selected hotel. But it is important to remember that the teaser’s quality reflects the potential quality of the eventual programme and should act as a promise of things to come.


Room drops and welcome gifts

Room drops can be expensive and add significantly to the overall conference spend. While some hotels do not charge for room drops, others do. The total cost (gifts and delivery fee), when multiplied by the number of rooms is often a deciding factor in their viability and frequency.

If budget allows, however, room drops can be a very effective form of reinforcing the previous day’s activities, pre-empting those of the following day or just saying “good night”.

Conference delegates in Ho Chi Minh City were greeted with what they thought were pyjamas laying on their beds at the end of a day’s conferencing. Upon reading the attached card, they learned the PJs were in fact a uniform for their tai chi class the following morning. Another group of incentive delegates in Vienna was delighted to receive a high-quality canvas rucksack one night only to discover they were to travel to the Tyrolean Alps the next day for a spot of mountain climbing.

In each case, the room drop was an appropriate gift which had a practical purpose, relevant to the programme activity.

Other room drops are more basic but still as effective and appreciated. A simple bottle of spring water on the bedside table in a Delhi hotel room can say just as much as a diamond on the pillow in a hotel in Johannesburg. It all depends on budget.


Memorable mementos

Finding imaginative and special gifts for participants can be difficult. To find the perfect gift, several considerations need to be taken into account – conference theme, cultural expectations, unique qualities of the programme location and costs. For it to be truly memorable, it must be something the delegate would otherwise not have access to.

A high-end incentive group was travelling through the  Australian Outback by coach when the group leader spotted something happening on the side of the road. Ordering the coach to halt, the leader invited the delegates to get off the bus and watch the activity. On the side of the road was the famous late Australian painter, Pro Hart, busy at his craft, painting a huge canvas – the type for which he achieved world fame.

The delegates were introduced to this Australian icon. Hart, in his inimitable style, chatted with the group as he continued his work, explaining his reason for creating the huge painting in a grid of smaller images.

After interrupting Hart from his work, 
the group returned to the bus and continued on their outback adventure, happy in the knowledge they had met a world-renowned artist.

That night, as the delegates retired to their rooms, a boxed gift sat at the end of their beds. When unwrapped, it was revealed as a section of the canvas Hart had painted that day, signed by the artist and framed in a beautiful wooden mounting. That’s a memorable gift!


Gift guidelines

•   Allocate a reasonable allowance in your conference budget for substantial and memorable speaker gifts.

•   Cut the cost of gifts by soliciting sponsorship from organisations which support your company or association and have them sponsor the speaker gifts.

•   Select a gift that is unique and not one that the speaker would have a drawer full of already.

•   Make a decision to either individualise the speaker gifts or give all speakers the same item.

•   Research the interests of the speaker and select a gift appropriate to their likes and dislikes. If possible, talk to their PA, spouse or speaker’s agency.

•   Publicly acknowledge the speaker or contributor by presenting the gift in a public forum, usually at the end of their address.

•   Ensure the gift is appropriately wrapped and presented.

•   Be aware of political protocol (some organisations and government departments prohibit their employees from accepting gifts).

•   Look around for a talented elephant!


Culture shocks

Gift giving can cement business relationships and strengthen employee loyalty, but it can also unwittingly give offence if the gift is considered inappropriate or insulting according to the recipient’s own culture. Event organisers should be aware of the differing customs among countries and cultures to find a present that is suitable and well received.

Food and drink

A bottle of champagne or a rare malt whisky might seem a perfect reward for one of your top achievers in Japan or the Philippines but alcohol is prohibited in a number of religions, not just Islam, so it’s generally best avoided unless you know the receiver will appreciate the gift.

Furry friends

Leather is lovely for some, but that expensive calf-skin wallet that is highly prized in Beijing may offend your Hindu delegates from Delhi just as a pig-skin one will be unacceptable to Muslim or Jewish colleagues. These days, many non-religious people object to the use of fur or animal products and its appearance on fashion catwalks is a recipe for controversy and protest. There are always plenty of synthetic alternatives. Dogs are considered unclean by Muslims and gifts with pictures or images of them should also be avoided.

Beware bribery

If your VIP or speaker is a government official or a politician, be careful that the gift cannot be construed by the press or jealous rivals as a bribe. A number of countries, Singapore especially, have strict rules or monetary limits on what officials can accept. In these cases, check beforehand. If there are problems, you might want to consider other options such as a donation to a neutral charity on their behalf.

Clocking out

While younger Chinese people will probably not turn down your offer of an engraved Rolex watch, timepieces may not be an acceptable gift in Chinese societies. “To give a clock” sounds similar to “go to a funeral” and is still considered unlucky especially by older people.

Knives and swords

Aside from all the hassle of getting these objects through customs and security checks, giving ceremonial knives, decorative daggers or imitation historical swords and the like can unintentionally signal in some cultures that you want to “cut” your links with the recipient.

How to give

Presentation is everything. In some Asian cultures, ostentatious protocol will be considered far more valuable than the gift itself, the giving of face is appreciated above all. However, in some other countries, such as Japan, even expensive gifts should be presented in a polite low-profile manner accompanied by deprecating remarks along the lines of “This is only a small token of our gratitude compared to the huge contribution you have made at our conference”.

Choose a neutral colour for wrapping paper if the gift needs it.                                                                                                                                – Kenny Coyle



Ancient wonder

While travelling down the Nile on an incentive trip, the participants were asked to surrender their passports to the purser of the ship. Reluctantly they obliged, not being fully informed of the reason.  On the final night of the cruise, they were all presented with a small metal ingot with their names stamped in gold hieroglyphics. The medallion was the ideal size to be worn on a neck chain and instantly, each delegate had a personal connection with the wonders of ancient Egypt, and a memento of their trip. They will keep both forever.



l    USB storage sticks – everybody uses them, and they’ve become affordable

l    Clothing items of a particular nature – ensure they really are a “one size fits all” item like a scarf, tie, socks or cap

l    DVD of the event – can be professionally produced and distributed to delegates at a later stage as a memento

l    CD of music which is unique to the area but not too esoteric

l    Small food items which have a local flavour and can be consumed en route

l    Collapsible hand luggage – everyone makes purchases on their trip and often needs an additional piece of luggage to get everything home

l    Sunglasses, especially if the event is held in a tropical location

l    Useful items like sunscreen, insect repellent and aromatherapy, especially if the climate dictates their necessity

l    Electronic gizmos with a purpose, eg retractable laptop cable, pedometer, MP3 player and so on

l    Vouchers which are redeemable for in-house services such as a massage, golf lesson and beauty treatment



l    Bottles of wine – they can impact on a duty-free allowance and are too heavy and fragile to carry –and not everybody drinks wine

l    Souvenir drinking glass – too fragile and unless you attend the same conference six times, you will never have a matching set

l    Glass paperweights – a relic from the last century which relied on mountains of paper to conduct business

l    A picture or photo that requires framing – it will be placed in the “to be framed” box under the bed and never see the light of day again

l    Large pictorial coffee-table books – lovely, but a heavy load to take home

l    Overprinted plastic water bottles – they may be used during the event but will end up  in the hotel room bin

l    T-shirts – there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to T-shirts


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