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Conference swag companies crushed by coronavirus cancellations: More hand sanitizer, please

March 17, 2020, 9:45 PM UTC

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

As word of coronavirus first started to spread, the first hit to businesses came in late February with the cancellation of major conferences. Fast forward a couple of weeks to Monday afternoon and President Trump upped the ante, saying gatherings of more than ten people should be limited. In the meantime, business as usual for companies both large and small has come to a screeching halt.

When the first wave of coronavirus hit the economy, the $25.8 billion promotional products industry got soaked. Big conferences are massive money-making opportunities for firms that print everything from corporate branded stress balls, to hats, to miniature bottles of hand sanitizer bearing a company’s logo. Canceling conferences drained the lifeblood from swag companies, firms that now sit at the bleeding edge of a hemorrhaging economy.

“We had been working with some of the big conferences—all multi-million dollar projects for us—and they were canceled,” says John Alagem, president of New York City based swag company Harper + Scott.

For promotional orders, the typical turnaround time is 11 days on average, says the Advertising Specialty Institute’s Annual Supplier State of the Industry Report. But for every one in three orders, clients require a delivery time of just five days, the trade group for promotional products says. That means that after conferences such as SXSW canceled cancelled with little notice, many swag companies were left without work.

Alagem said one thing that clients love about his company is the fact they are set up to manufacture with a short lead time. There’s no need to put in an order months in advance—but that now has Harper + Scott waiting to see what will happen next. One of the company’s clients that recently canceled its order now plans to move its conference online. Alagem said his company is discussing ways to get their swag bags to participants at home.

“What we are working with them on is creating a gift to send to these thousands of people around the world, to make them feel they were a part of the experience,” he says. “That has been a positive.”

Timothy M. Andrews, president and chief executive officer of the Advertising Specialty Institute, tells Fortune that some companies are finding creative ways to still generate business.

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“The promo industry is nothing if not creative,” he says. “One member suggests sending registered participants at a canceled event branded tissues with messaging suggesting it ‘blows’ that the event was canceled.”

Yet while many companies are pausing their orders, one product is hotter than ever: Miniature bottles of hand sanitizer have become like liquid gold.

Andrews says one of the promotional industry’s hand sanitizer manufacturers can’t currently offer rush orders, but it isn’t limiting quantities on its orders—though massive requests may be capped. Other suppliers, meanwhile, say they’re out of stock and are advising clients to check back in a few weeks.

Llorenç Sola, Vistaprint’s general manager of promotional products, tells Fortune it’s too early to comment on the longer-term impact of coronavirus on its business, as its customers tend to plan events and tradeshows several months ahead of time. “Many of our Vistaprint customers are small businesses with a primarily local reach, so they have been less impacted by the cancellation of larger events that draw in an international crowd,” he says. “The decreased local activity in communities will likely be more impactful.”

Harper+Scott’s Alagem says during the downtime, the company is planning for what its clients might need after the COVID-19 pandemic clears. Every industry is hurting right now, he notes, and offering some fun gift with purchase might help get people back in the door.

“If people aren’t going to malls or retail shops, their companies are going to have to try to welcome people back,” he says. “Everyone is kind of waiting it out, day-by-day, to see what happens.”

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