In a city rich with history and tradition yet churning with powerful new ideas and visions, Washington, D.C., is the backdrop for this year’s PPAI North American Leadership Conference. The annual event opened Sunday night at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel hosting more than 140 top movers and shakers from across the industry.

“The Washington, D.C., location allowed us to take advantage of some of the talent in the area and to bring some discussion about the impact of government policies,” explains Larry Cohen, CAS, president of Axis Promotions and chair of the NALC Work Group. “The goal was to be as apolitical as possible while educating attendees on some of the implications of recent legislation such as the tax bill and other policies.” He adds that organizers also made a concerted effort to bring new attendees to the meeting, including a younger demographic. “One of the things people love the most about this event is the ability to network with their peers, competitors and supplier and distributor partners; therefore, diversity of attendees is key.”

Adding to the mix of generations at the conference was the annual presentation of this year’s PPB Rising Stars on Sunday night. Nineteen young go-getters were recognized at the opening dinner which also featured a thought-provoking ethics presentation by CPSC Commissioner Robert S. Adler.

Monday’s programming opened with a general session on creating loyalty in businesses by speaker Andrew Davis; a panel discussion on industry issues featuring three PPB Rising Stars that was led by PPAI Chair-Elect Brittany David, CAS; and sessions on differentiation strategy with author Stan Phelps; tax reform with Gene Marks, CPA; and automation and AI with industry tech experts Catherine Graham and Jon Norris. Monday’s education programming wrapped up with a presentation by award-winning documentary filmmaker Brett Culp, who is also founder of the nonprofit The Rising Heroes Project, on inspiring a culture of everyday leadership and people who, through their passion and commitment, have changed the world around them.

That evening, attendees enjoyed dinner in small groups at area restaurants, giving them further opportunities to network and discuss the ideas brought up during the day’s sessions.

Today, Scott Steinberg opened with a general session titled Leading With Innovation, followed by two break-out sessions. In one, Steinberg further explained change management; in the other, Monday’s speaker Phelps discussed implementation techniques for his Pink Goldfish strategy. This afternoon attendees heard owner of distributor Brand Boulevard Chris Sinclair’s presentation on culture, and Washington observer and analyst Jen Psaki will share an overview on Washington, D.C., and global issues and their impact on business.

“One of the overriding goals [of NALC] was to provide practical knowledge that leaders could bring back to their organizations to help make key decisions,” says Cohen. “As many people know, the rate of change is accelerating, which requires leaders to continually evaluate their business and business processes. One of my favorite things about our industry is people’s willingness to share best practices and to help their ‘competitors.’ This event is about bringing people together, raising awareness, encouraging reflection and facilitating discussion.”

Longtime attendee Brett Hersch, president of supplier Admints & Zagabor, was particularly impressed with yesterday morning’s presentations on loyalty and differentiation. “My takeaway was how to continually communicate with customers in a relevant way.”

Gail Deutchman, president of distributor Distinctive Promotions, an iPROMOTEu affiliate, was one of two attendees who won scholarships from the Specialty Advertising Association of Greater New York to attend NALC; Mike Schenker with Mike Schenker Consulting received the other scholarship. “It’s a privilege to be here, and it’s an amazing event that PPAI puts on,” Deutchman said.

“I learned something from every speaker, but those not from the industry shared special messages we don’t hear on a daily basis,” she said, referring specifically to the day’s final session, which focused on deeply impactful ways companies can give back.

“I probably get more value out of the networking and talking with the individuals here than from the speakers,” says Chris Vernon, MAS, president of The Vernon Company. “It’s fascinating to hear about the various business models and successes that people have had in this industry.”

The session on taxation piqued the interest of Gavin Long, vice president of distributor Tugboat, Inc., particularly a segment on the research and development tax credit. “I always thought that was for ag or another industry, but a savings between six and 14 percent is big,” he says.

David Zheng, president of supplier Riteline, Inc., says he was most impressed by the session on differentiation. “You have to be a little different—that’s the way to survive in the market.”

Perry Wehrle, CAS, president of distributor PAW Marketing, says, “The amount of energy that (speaker Andrew Long) brought to the stage was what this group needed to see and hear. His excitement, his research and how prepared he was—it was a powerful presentation.”

Tonight, attendees will have more time together to discuss and debate the issues at a closing event at ARTECHOUSE, an immersive exhibit that combines technology, science and creativity. They’ll join more than 100 other industry members coming in for the PPAI Tech Summit, which starts Wednesday morning for a two-day run.