Visiting the Salon CTCO trade show in France this week, most of the exhibiting suppliers would be unfamiliar to a promo pro from the United States. The style of doing business is a little different, too. And in every other way, the American would feel perfectly at home.

French industry leaders’ hospitality to Americans and the general European desire for cooperation may be at an all-time high, as the promotional products market appears bound for increased globalization. Europeans seek American investment, American attention for their products and processes, and data that might unify a disparate industry throughout the continent.

Throughout Europe, the business is perhaps only half the size of the U.S. market. And yet its influences are likely among the most important factors to the future of the industry stateside.

On sustainability, in particular, European standards are a vision of the future.

“I would love for CTCO to become the United Nations of promotional products,” says Antony Villeger of 2FPCO, France’s largest industry association. “I think we can create something bigger.”

At The Show

This week was a bounce-back for CTCO, which began Tuesday and concluded Thursday at Eurexpo Lyon exhibition center in conjunction with printing trade show Salon C!Print.

  • Pierre Mirlit of the shows’ presenting company, Infopro Digital, reports 330 exhibitors and a significant distributor attendance boost from 2023, when strikes across the country complicated travel.
  • France is widely understood to be Europe’s third-largest market for promo, trailing the U.K. and Germany.

This is the 15th year that CTCO has been held. Mirlit says the French market tailed off toward the end of last year, and CTCO serves as an important opportunity for distributors and suppliers alike to spur business in 2024.

“Visitors are happy to use the show to source the novelties,” Mirlit says. “And this year they’ve told me they’ve found a lot of novelties, which is important and good for our market, because it means they’re going to have better quality discussions with their own clients.”

  • Visitors from numerous European countries were in attendance, both on the supplier and distributor side.
  • The leading presence from a company headquartered in America came from Goldstar, supplier No. 16 on the PPAI 100 listing of industry leaders. Goldstar Europe employs roughly 100 people on the continent, including six in France.
  • Goldstar’s presence was headed by General Manager Howard Cubberly and Director of Global Sales Kenny Ved.

Cubberly says, “The fundamental differences between the North American trade show versus the French trade show is, No. 1, the booths or stands are more elaborate and bigger, and built to really host the distributor who wants to come and sit, have a cup of coffee, maybe even a glass of wine, and talk over our business together and our partnership. It takes relationships to the next level.”

Seeking Allies

In addition to the global flair of show attendees, numerous associations, trade show groups and industry member organizations were in attendance.

  • PPAI, promotional products’ largest non-profit trade association, represented associated industry companies from North America.
  • Other countries sending delegations included Germany, Spain, the U.K., Turkey and Sweden. CTCO and 2FPCO brought international association representatives together on Tuesday for a lunch and discussions organized by CTCO.

Afterward, one of the week’s most highly attended conference sessions eyed USA-Europe collaboration, with comments from Villeger, Emilo Estelles-Zanon of Spain’s AIMFAP, Tom Robey of BPMA in the U.K., and ASI’s Michele Bell.

Bertrand Genevi of C!Mag moderated the discussion, aimed at helping explain the American market and to identify opportunities, such as combined research efforts.

“Maybe today is the start of something,” Villeger said in his final statement.

Uniquely European

Only a handful of companies exhibiting at CTCO currently do regular business in the U.S. American distributors were even more hard to find in Lyon.

Among the Euro suppliers who crossed the Atlantic for The PPAI Expo 2024 in Las Vegas last month were Pagani Pens, a Swiss company with an American outpost in Tampa, Florida, and Atlantis Headwear, headquartered in Italy. Both exhibited at CTCO this week as well.

Goldstar ranked as the leading U.S.-headquartered supplier to exhibit at CTCO in Lyon, France.

Pagani Pens’ Chief Commercial Officer Tom de Kleyn, who lives in the Netherlands, says the American market has room for specialist suppliers from Europe: “This is the added value we are able to offer them – the knowledge, the history, the communication, the quality and experience you’re able to give when you present yourself as a brand.”

Atlantis Headwear sells into the U.S. market through S&S Activewear and Sportsman Cap & Bag, but also presented products independently in Las Vegas. Federico Pasini, the company’s vice president, said the Las Vegas show provided the opportunity to connect directly with U.S. distributors, “The opportunity to tell them what we really do. It’s the reason why we want to come back to Vegas next year and in the future.”

In CTCO’s elaborate booths, with room to sit and chat at a comfortable pace, many of the conversations inevitably steer toward sustainability.

“They’re very much past the greenwashing phase,” Cubberly says of French and European distributors. “‘We need certification and documentation – what’s your clear ESG roadmap and strategy?’ They want to work with a little bit more transparency in the supply chain.”

As much room as there is for new partnerships between the U.S. and the European market, Mirlit says opportunities also exist for the continental firms to do more business with the EU.

  • In France, the largest distributor firms top out at perhaps $30-40 million, and not all are equipped to do business in other languages.

There is no denying the desire, however.

“This market is clearly global,” Mirlit says. “So, come to Lyon and visit us.”