The pandemic pulled the plug on most in-person business interactions. Meetings shifted to Zoom, events were postponed, and office visits became few and far between. While a prudent step to stem the spread of COVID-19, it limited the social connections that are an important part of the sales process.

But the world has started to reopen, in-person business meetings are returning, and many promo professionals are navigating what that means as they visit clients and colleagues face-to-face.

“Most of our owners have resumed in-person selling,” says Steve Flaughers, president and CEO of Canton, Ohio, distributor Proforma 3rd Degree Marketing and president of the Proforma Owners Advisory Council. “There are a few clients that seem to prefer Zoom at this point, and our owners do accommodate those requests. However, overall, we are primarily back to in-person meetings;, it is working very well.”

Two years into the pandemic, sales meetings don’t always look like they did in the Before Times. COVID-19 restrictions are easing and for many there is an appetite to meet face-to-face, but concerns over the corona virus also linger. Professionals in the promotional products field have become proficient with virtual interactions, however, and are connecting with clients in ways they are comfortable with. Customer comfort levels steer the shape of sales calls, in-person or virtual.

“It varies depending on how comfortable customers are with having on-site visitors and if key contacts are working from home versus in the office,” says Simi Kasakwe, speaking for Glenwood, Minnesota-headquartered distributor American Solutions for Business. “ASB associates, SOS and vertical markets teams stay in front of the customer whether it be face-to-face or virtual, and we let the customer drive how they want the meetings to be handled. We have learned how to make virtual meetings very effective over the past couple years as we’re able to actively engage people from many different locations.

“In addition, online ordering is more popular today than ever before. Requests come in daily for new online stores to be built for customers to easily order product and have it shipped to their desired location.”

Danny Rosin, CAS, co-president of Raleigh, North Carolina, distributor Brand Fuel, says, “We are meeting with clients on the daily, but meetings are still at about 50% of our pre-pandemic meeting cadence. So, virtual meetings continue to be a big part of our selling process.”

As welcome as the return to in-person meetings are to many, they haven’t necessarily picked up where they left off before the pandemic. Two years of social distancing, mask-wearing and generally being more cognizant of one’s surroundings have left its mark on people’s behavior.

“We take our cues from the customer, gauging their comfort level with hand shaking, masking, social distancing, touching samples, etc.,” Kasakwe says. “Prior to meetings we ask about protocol so that we can be as accommodating as possible.”

Flaughers says, “Nothing is fully the same as it was prior to the pandemic. Typically, in an initial office meeting, folks are still iffy about handshakes. I think the new norm is just being socially aware and assessing the situation correctly. This includes having sensitivity to someone’s preferred level of contact, and people appreciate the open candor and dialog. Also, there are a few state organizations with a mask mandate, so everyone in the meeting enters with a mask. Once everyone is in the office, the masks are generally removed.”

Promo industry distributors are adjusting how they interact with their clients and adapting what they offer to customers to accommodate what new behaviors and preferences that have sprung up during the pandemic.

“We doubled down on investing in our showrooms with a strategy to engage buyers and staff in person, noting we sell a tangible medium,” Rosin says. “The goal is to get clients to our showrooms to test drive products, meet with our teams to humanize relationships and engage clients for future projects. We realize a lot of our clients are working from home, so invitations to ideate in our showrooms allows them to take a break from the often at-home grind.”

Kasakwe says, “In-person events have started coming back, but swag bags at registration may change. The process of virtual event gifting through branded boxes was very well received during COVID. For in-person events sending branded boxes ahead of the event reduces handling at registration and gives the attendee a chance to try clothes on and reduces packing at the event. So, we expect to see blended solutions going forward.”

For others, the new normal aligns with their existing approach to sales. Rama Beerfas, MAS, CTSM, owner of Santee, California, distributor Lev Promotions, says, “I’ve never done cold calling and very few of my clients are in a drivable distance from me. We do face-to-face marketing through our trade show exhibit—we did our first one since 2019 in November and have another one coming up in June.”

A recent complication to distributors’ in-person calculus has been the recent spike in gas prices, in part driven by the economic impacts of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and its effects on oil pricing in the global markets. For some distributors, it’s an added calculation when they choose to meet with clients.

“It depends,” Flaughers says. “Many of our owners are moving to hybrid or electric vehicles, and the higher fuel costs have less of an impact on them. For those who are still completely fuel reliant, the benefit of an in-person meeting still far outweighs the incremental fuel costs. In those cases, physical meetings can be balanced with some virtual appointments, if necessary.”

Kasakwe says, “ASB associates love face-to-face interactions with customers and prospects and will continue this practice as it makes sense. Again, the customer will drive how they want meetings and presentations handled, and ASB will make sure we’re as effective as possible with the content, delivery and follow up.”