This week, SAGE, the Addison, Texas-based provider of information, marketing and business management solutions to the promotional products industry and PPAI’s technology partner, is hosting its annual users conference. A virtual event for the second year in a row, the two-day SAGE Conference kicked off on March 23 and offers an extensive lineup of live and on-demand sessions that explore business trends and best practices, making the most of SAGE’s tools and applications, and the unique needs of the Canadian promo market.

The first day of the SAGE Conference began with an update on the promotional products industry featuring David Natinsky, MAS, president of SAGE; Dale Denham, MAS+, president and CEO of PPAI; and Jonathan Strauss, president and CEO of Promotional Product Professionals of Canada (PPPC). The conversation was moderated by Ryan Hanchey, MAS, director of distributor sales at SAGE.

Hanchey got the ball rolling with a question on what the three organizations—SAGE, PPAI and PPPC—were focusing on. Natinsky highlighted efforts to bring all modules and functionality of SAGE’s Total Access to all of the platforms industry members use, and to grow and add more value to distributors’ websites. Strauss emphasized the partnership between PPPC, PPAI and SAGE, and his organization’s advocacy for its members and recognizing the unique aspects of the promo community in Canada.

Denham shared five areas of concentration for PPAI—deliver good member value, running a financially stable organization, elevating the corporate social responsibility (CSR) conversation in the promo industry, leading its digital transformation and the Promotional Products Work initiative.

The panel also shared what they saw as some of the big, overarching challenges facing the industry. These included macroeconomic challenges like inflation and the supply chain, building communication between distributors and suppliers, and the evolution of work-from-home and hybrid business models.

“I think that everything that has allowed the industry to survive and thrive will help it move forward,” Strauss said. “This means having good technology and working harder. There’s a lot of good products in the market, but you need to have the right technology to take advantage of them. Next to people, technology is the biggest expense among promo businesses. It should be. If it’s not your second or third largest expense, you need to look at that.”

Hanchey prompted the panelists on what they saw as the most interesting trends for 2022-2023.

“Everyone’s really excited to get back together,” Natinsky said. “We saw it at Expo, we’ve seen it internally. People want to get out, see each other and engage with each other. We’ve seen it on the regional side and at trade shows. I think that’s going to continue to grow. It’s somewhat getting back to normal.”

Strauss pointed to the growing importance of brands in the promotional products industry, both adopted by it or created within it, and said that he expects them to remain part of the conversation going forward. Building on what had been said earlier in the conversation, Denham said that it’s the increased investment in technology, from both firms large and small, and in both dollars and time, and the growing adoption of CSR initiatives, particularly among the industry’s larger companies.

Denham also proposed a terminology update: “We’ve steered away from ‘swag,’ over the years due to what it connotates. But I’ve noticed a new one lately, ‘merch.’ I’m completely OK with it. I think it’s good for our industry. ‘Merch’ elevates promotional products in people’s minds.”

Looking ahead, all three panelists emphasized the path back to “normal.” Be it face-to-face meetings, in-person events and reconnecting with peers and colleagues, normal brings a lot of value to their organizations. Strauss shared a caveat, “The challenge for us is not just how do we go back to normal, but to not only go back to normal. We don’t want to just get stuck there. How do we build on the past but not forget the world has changed?”

Following up, Denham noted, “We heard over and over, ‘best Expo ever,’ after The PPAI Expo in January. There were fewer people there but better conversations. One of our challenges as it grows back is how do we keep that vibe.”

Also part of the conversation: the supply chain and growing a business today. The outlook on the supply chain crisis was generally positive, as some of the systemic issues constraining it have been resolved, but it could have lingering effects on the industry, with Natinsky suggesting that suppliers may have to pair down their catalogs some and focus on their most meaningful or best-selling products. “They’re going to focus on their best few hundred products instead of thousands.”

Wednesday’s live sessions also included a discussion on driving traffic to websites, case studies on CSR, and a panel conversation on company stores. SAGE CEO Eric Natinsky shared what was new at SAGE and spoke about some of the company’s key initiatives, including enhancing the client digital experience, the scope and quality of data, and analytics and business intelligence, and reducing friction at checkout. Natinsky’s session also updated the audience on what was new with SAGE Mobile 11, SAGE Chat, SAGE Community and the company’s other products.

The SAGE Conference’s Thursday schedule includes sessions presented by Cliff Quicksell, MAS+; Taylor Borst, director of marketing, events and public relations at American Solutions for Business; and other industry experts.