Just about everyone in the promotional products world is more than familiar with the process of checking into an industry event at a hotel somewhere. Perhaps spelling their name for someone at a table, maybe they are given a lanyard with their company’s name on it.

The attendees of Promocations’ April event enjoyed a slightly more memorable experience.

Check-in was at a pool bar at a Fort Lauderdale hotel, where attendees could casually meet and hang out ahead of that night’s welcome dinner and open bar at a tiki restaurant. It would be their last on land for the next four days.

This was the first official PromoCruise, an all-inclusive networking event to Nassau, Bahamas, born out of Bill Petrie and Josh Robbins’ vision to recreate those unofficial happenstance moments of fun and networking that occur between the scheduled parts of industry events.

The inaugural event, with 52 distributors and suppliers aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, was a success, and a second cruise, to Cozumel, Mexico, is already planned for early November. The early bird deadline for registration is June 1.

Petrie and Robbins took some time to chat with PPAI Media about the idea behind PromoCruises and spilled some dirt on who crushed it on karaoke night.

PPAI Media: What was the genesis of PromoCruises? How did the idea come about?

Josh Robbins: The seed was planted years ago. I’m a supplier so I was very familiar with doing power meetings. I had personally always found that the best return for me as a supplier at those events was not necessarily the meetings, it was always everything that encompassed the event after those meetings.

I would always shut down the bars. I always made sure we had a group of people that went out, and we established relationships to get to know these people as more than just a distributor or supplier.

Bill and I started talking about there has to be a better way to do these meetings. Why can’t we cut through the boring, mundane stuff and get to a more purposeful bonding experience? Instead of me trying to round up a few people to take them out for a good time, what if that was the event?

Bill Petrie: We had a meeting in my backyard while we smoked some barbecue and drank some bourbon for about six hours with pen and paper and fleshed out what it would look like.

We’re in an industry where people generally like each other. What if we made the event about those happenstance collisions that happen at other events? We focused on the cruise ship because you have people who are in one place at one time, and you’re intentionally creating situations where people can have fun with people they work with.

PPAI Media: A cruise is a big commitment. Did you send feelers out to see if people would be willing to participate?

Petrie: We had plotted out cost and breakeven and all that, but we also reached out to people we knew in the industry. We asked them to be honest.

You could almost see the lightbulb go off and people were saying, “That sounds really interesting.” Especially when we incorporated things like including a plus one, which is not something any other industry event does.

Robbins: This industry does not need another event. There are plenty. You could travel nonstop from event to event in this industry if you wanted to. We didn’t want to create something that was similar to everything else. We wanted to take the vacation aspect, where it’s so easy to make memories and roll that into this industry in a sales capacity.

This industry is based on relationships. We all sell the same stuff. We all pretty much do the same thing. If all things are equal, what’s the deciding factor. It’s always going to be the relationships.

PPAI Media: How did you determine the nuts and bolts of who would be invited?

Petrie: There were two things we wanted to make sure were different about PromoCruise.

First, your cost is flat. It’s fixed. There’s no bar bill at the end. Everything’s included. That helps with budgeting.

Number two, we wanted every supplier who spent money to go on the PromoCruise to have an enormous say in what distributors attended the cruise. So, we asked each supplier sponsor to give us three distributors they would nominate.

For once, suppliers had the opportunity to say, “this is who we want to spend time with.” It’s not just handing them a spreadsheet and saying, “here are the people we think you want to spend time with.”

PPAI Media: Did you see the benefits of that on the first cruise?

Petrie: The ship is big. We traveled as a pack by choice. Everywhere we went there were people congregating. People were not splintering off into their own cliques. That’s because we were intentional about creating an environment where people could have fun and talk about business, too.

We had suppliers getting orders from distributors on the boat that they had never worked with. Actual POs on the boat. When you have tangible results like that and you have suppliers almost lining up at the end of the first one saying they’re in for the second one, we knew we hit on something.

Robbins: Everyone went from place to place as a group, and it wasn’t just the distributors and suppliers, it was the plus-ones that were involved. And not just tagging along at dinners. They were actually part of the conversations. I got to know every single one of the spouses that were on board.

Petrie: We had the goal of setting the tone early with the hotel check-in the day before, and we were hyper intentional about every single detail. We had room drops every night of the cruise. There was a bottle of wine and two glasses in every room. We made sure every room was a balcony room and not an interior cabin.

PPAI Media: We need some juicy details. Who stole the show at karaoke?

Petrie: Karaoke was the debut of “Tennessee Alex.” That’s Alex Moltz from Shepenco.   

Robbins: Was there a song that he didn’t sing?

Petrie: I think he DJ’d in a previous life, so he worked the crowd. He’d be walking around, sitting in people’s laps. He was just great. It was the best show on the ship.

It was also the debut of “The Susan.” Susan Lewandowski from Bel Promo introduced us to The Susan, which is a shockingly delicious concoction of fireball and ginger ale, which you wouldn’t think would be good, but it was delightful.

PPAI Media: Is there anything different planned for your second PromoCruise in November?

Robbins: The model works. The only big change is the location. The next one is cruising to Cozumel instead of Nassau, Bahamas.

Most of the changes will be small behind-the-scenes, internal changes.

It surpassed our expectations. We had really high expectations because of all the work that went into it and all the details we labored over. It turned out, every little single detail is what made the difference and made it successful. Our goal is to replicate it.

Petrie: We’ll have some returning suppliers. I don’t think we’ll have returning distributors because we want to vary that for value for the suppliers.

It will be a different experience because there will be different people, but we just want to replicate those collisions.