On conference schwag

When I moved to Chicago I realized I had a ton of conference bags. I was lucky enough to have a large closet in San Diego, and they kind of piled up in a back corner, from various ISITs and so on. I gave a few to Goodwill, but I have no idea if they will get used. I was recently talking to folks who work in public health and they were shocked that we get these “nice” bags at conferences — they get water bottles. Computer science conferences give out shirts. Why do we get bags? It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine, for a number of reasons.

How much do these bags cost? I should find this out, but I imagine a full messenger bag with laptop sleeve (c.f. ISIT 2012) isn’t cheap, and that cost gets directly transferred to registration fees. It probably only works out to 20 bucks but still…

Why don’t we get pens and paper? Most of the time you get a bag, a USB stick with the proceedings, the program booklet… and that’s it. I was shocked at SPCOM in Bangalore that they gave us a spiral notebook (handy!) and a pen (and really nice one at that) on *top* of the bag (which is pretty nice, as backpacks go).

Don’t people already have bags? You’re traveling halfway around the world with your laptop. You must have some sort of bag that you use already — why do you need another one? How are you going to fit it into your luggage?

Of course, after thinking of these complaints it turns out my ISIT 2012 bag has been a lifesaver — my apartment was robbed and they took all of my computers and electronics and carried them off in my bag, so having a ready replacement sure was handy. Furthermore, I use the tote bags (ISIT 2007-2009) all the time for groceries or going to the gym or the beach, so those are great.

What kind of schwag would you prefer? I use my IPSN 2005 mug all the time at work for tea…


14 thoughts on “On conference schwag

  1. I’ve held jobs many jobs as the secretary for various engineers, computer scientists, and the like, and have had to go through offices FULL of inane conference schwag or gifts from foreign collaborators. The stuff has often been offered to me, and I’ve taken a few of the grocery-style totes you mentioned because those are always useful. I feel like tshirts definitely make more sense than laptop-type bags, since they can at least be worn to bed or at the gym, and I know I’m picky as hell about exactly what I want a laptop bag to look like. But the worst gifts of all are the bizarre trinkets – the puzzle boxes and figurines and the like. Completely useless space-wasters.

    One of the first bits of schwag that was gifted to me was a small replica Gaudi lizard figurine (a miniaturized porcelain version of this: https://www.google.com/search?q=gaudi+lizard&hl=en&safe=off&client=firefox-a&hs=m0X&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&channel=fflb&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=WA5BUM3eLO71igLZpIGgDw&ved=0CCAQsAQ&biw=1256&bih=938) which was the giveaway at a conference held in Spain.

    I also have a mug from ‘Cruz 70th Workshop on Advances in Systems and Control’ which is my absolute favourite mug of all time – apparently for his 70th birthday Prof Cruz decided to invite all his control systems buddies to a “conference” at his university, which is a brilliant sneaky trick because it means that his pals can all charge the travel to their own universities, and his university can legitimize footing the bill for all the food and beverages. The best part was, I later ended up working with that Prof. Cruz’s son at another university.

  2. I remember a black (with yellow letters) ISIT backpack (ISIT 2004?) that I liked so much that I adopted as my main backpack. It ripped after a few months unfortunately, probably because I used to carry too many books around.

    I remember how surprised I was at seeing people still using them after 5 years. I wonder if any of them are still in use.

  3. As I remember it, the ISIT2004 backpacks were paid for entirely out of funds donated by companies (which is why their logos adorned the bags). Of course, there were overhead expenses that the Conference paid for: moving the bags from the Conference hotel loading dock into storage and later for bringing the bags to the registration desk area where they could be handed over to registrants. Getting the bags stuffed with goodies (notebook or pad, mug, Proceedings copies, etc) is difficult in view of the time constraints and the cost of the labor as well. Graduate students are not nearly as eager to help as they used to be in days of yore, and paying for union labor (overtime rates!) or having the bags stuffed in China before shipping is far too expensive, etc etc etc

    • Yup, I’ve worked a LOT of overtime as some-professor’s-secretary stuffing packets/bags or organizing shirts or running things to the printer last-minute for conferences.

  4. I was just thinking about how I need a new bag and nobody makes them for the 19″ laptops that I use 😦 I should have been bugging you about this for a long time it turns out. They just give the grocery bag style ones out at the conferences I go to, which is nice at the grocery store and the beach, but not for laptops in the rain :p

  5. This thread is pretty hilarious to me, as I would just like to note that I have received a conference bag exactly three times, and only once was the bag actually made of an actual fabric material that one could wash. This was at Agricultural History this year, and it’s a thin cotton tote of the type you can buy at most grocery stores in Europe. It is by far my favorite conference bag I have ever received, as it is essentially the only one, since it qualifies as something I wanted to use again and be seen with in public. (Yeah, that’s right! I’m an agricultural historian! I use a reusable bag!) The nice flip side of that is that I have also never received any stuff that was adorned by a corporate logo: the most commercial thing I routinely get is a pen or pad that come from a university, a press, or a local chamber of commerce.

    This is basically my way of pointing out that conference schwag, as you put it, seems pretty much exclusive to the sciences. I have never received a mug, a laptop bag, a USD drive, a backpack, or anything remotely close to that costly. I did receive a free umbrella at the History of Technology conference when it was in Tacoma, which I considered an extremely sensible gift (and which I still use as my primary umbrella), but that is the biggest-ticket item I have ever received as a part of my registration package. I guess it’s because there are no big-ticket sponsors for historical gatherings eager to paste their logo all over everything.

    The one thing we always, always get at history conferences, though, is a pen and paper. In the end, when you’re traveling across the country with a small bag, I can’t imagine wanting to bring much of anything more home than the program and my notes.

    • Sure, corporate sponsorship makes the wheels go round. But there are more structural reasons for high conference fees in some engineering conferences — IEEE technical societies use the revenues from conferences to fund the publication of the journal. As a result, our registration fees are something like $700-$900 for a flagship conference (or even more). The schwag, whose cost can be offset by corporate logo-ization, helps attendees swallow the bitter pill of exorbitant registration costs. It’s a verrrrry thin sugar coating but it’s something.

    • As another point — at your conferences do attendees receive the full text of papers presented at the conference? The humanities conferences I have attended don’t have published proceedings. By contrast, in computer science, many results only appear in conference proceedings, so the USB drive (it used to be a CD) contains the PDFs of conference papers. Some events may eschew the USB in favor of having the proceedings available for free online (thereby saving costs), but that’s the reason for the USB.

      I got a free umbrella from a conference in Dublin, which was very handy.

      My view on bags is that in general they are not used, cost a lot, and are more hassle than they are worth.

      Finally, as another note on corporate sponsorship, it’s not done in the same way as the pharma companies — it’s not a Qualcomm bag, it’s an IEEE ISIT 2004 bag with Qualcomm, Motorola, and a few other companies as technical co-sponsors. Their logos are correspondingly smaller, like you would see on one of those charity 5k t-shirts. Perhaps this is a small difference, but it doesn’t feel insidious like a giant Paxil tote bag would.

    • All of this long winded response is to say : I am bored on an overcast Saturday morning. I’m not trying to defend the way science and engineering conferences are run, just more to say that to make them less ridiculous requires fixing the reasons for “needing” schwaggage.

  6. I have been to once conference where they distributed a bound copy of all the paper and panel abstracts at the conference to everyone, but this was a huge pain, as this conference was in Budapest, and I did not check a bag, and this thing was like two inches thick of A4 paper. Crazy. I can only imagine that 90% of those ended up in the trash before people departed. But I guess there is little reason for me to want a copy of the proceedings of a conference for my own personal use. I can see why the drive would be useful if I did, absolutely! Is there some reason why conference proceedings are needed by attendees in your field? Code or equations or somesuch detail? I usually find the program contains everything I need, although the thing I like most in those cases is a list of attendees and their contact information so that I can follow up with people whose talks I enjoyed. I can’t imagine requiring historians to have publishable versions of their conference talks ready in advance of the session. It’s usually hard enough to get everyone to send their stuff in to the commentator in advance, and that can be a rough draft! Clearly there are some huge differences in disciplinary norms here.

    I guess all this makes me want to know more about how academic societies fund their conferences and journals, because I consider anything over $150 to be an outrageous cost for a conference. (This is one of the reasons why I rarely attend AHA.) But this always comes out of my pocket, even as a grad student, so that is why. (It’s the hotel that really gets you, though.)

    I wasn’t trying to attack the sciences for sponsorship or anything, just expressing my amazement and offering a point of what I thought was some pretty stark contrast, having never been to a conference in the sciences, engineering, or a technical society. I suspect the experience of attending a such a conference is very different, and there are many good reasons why the fee structure and the schwag are different, but I also think it’s good for folks to know that this is certainly not the norm in every field.

    A grey Sunday morning here Madison today, and I just deposited my diss on Friday, so that is why I am writing so much about conferences. Free time! An amazing feeling. Although now that I am all doctored up I must say goodbye to all those discounted conference reg fees. A bittersweet moment to be sure.

    • Well, the norm is to submit a “camera ready” copy of the paper for the proceedings — there used to be actual volumes of published proceedings (and yes, for the proofs or outlines thereof, the actual formal mathematical results, plots, etc). In “big science” I think they don’t have more than a book of abstracts (and posters), but in computer science, for example, most papers don’t ever appear in a journal but instead the conference proceedings version is the final version of the work. I have strong (negative) opinions about that way of doing things, but I’m old-fashioned that way.

      As far as paying for fees go, that’s your advisor’s job in technical fields — $600 (student reg. fee) is still a lot to have a grad student cough up. We used to have an informal contest to see who could get the cheapest hotel though (near *enough* to the conference but still cheap).

      Not only is the financial organization different, but the whole manner in which scholarly communication is done at conferences is different. I think engineering conferences would do well to have commentators or panel chairs, and I think some of the dryness of humanities paper presentations would be enlivened by things like poster sessions. Oh the suboptimality! Woe!

      Time to land the lucrative book deal now, Amrys 😛

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