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Counselor Senior Editor Michele Bell's slanted view of the world.

ASI Orlando: Here Comes the Sun…

Filed under: ASI Shows, Editorial, Fun, Travel

Hi Everyone!

Despite the sketchy weather on the East Coast, I’m back from the ASI Orlando Show, where multiple records (number of distributor attendees, exhibitors, education day participants, etc.) were shattered. This proves to me that the sense of resurgence and recovery I felt at the PSI Dusseldorf Show two weeks ago wasn’t a fluke: The industry’s bad days have passed, and, as they say in NoLa, laissez les bons temps rouler! Trust me — the good times in Orlando were plentiful and memorable.

A special shout-out to my supplier panelists who shared their secrets for success (and mistakes they’ve made along the way) with their supplier peers at a free luncheon on set-up day: World Wide’s Kim Newell; Counselor Top 40 supplier Hit Promotional Products’ C.J. Schmidt (huge congrats to Hit, this year’s ASI Supplier of the Year!); MediaTree’s Rob Watson; and Shepenco’s Dan Townes — all of whom were simply spectacular!

Were you in Orlando? Post a comment below sharing your favorite moment(s)! (You’ll see some of mine in the photos below…). Couldn’t make it to the show? Meet us in two weeks for the ASI Dallas Show, where we’ll keep the good times and optimism for the industry’s success in 2011 rolling!

Cheers, and more next week!

— M

PS: If you will be at the ASI Dallas Show, check out my Education Day session on how to create effective, measurable self-promotion campaigns (Wednesday, 2/16, from 9:45-10:45 a.m.), with my superstar panelists Brad White, vice president of sales for Counselor Top 40 distributor Boundless Network, and Billy Booe, sales & self-promo guru at Bluegrass Promotions, one of Counselor‘s fastest-growing distributor companies.

Some of my fabulous ASI colleagues (from left to right): Managing Editor and star of The Joe Show, Joe Haley; Computer Support Specialist Jason Cissorsky; Manager of ESP’s Data Processing department, Sharon Pullins; Advantages‘ editor, Kathy Huston; and one of my two “work husbands” (the other is vice president of supplier sales Ron Ball!), Christian Brandt (aka, “Tigerbeat”), executive director of ASI’s Distributor Services. My second-favorite publisher (after ASI’s executive vice president and publisher, Rich Fairfield, my boss), Matty Barnes, publisher of Promo Marketing (left) and his industry BFF, Jeff Lederer, president of Counselor Top 40 supplier Prime Line.
My colleagues Phyllis Mutnick and Suzanne Rozick, ASI supplier sales reps, hosted an awesome dinner at the Palm restaurant in Orlando for their clients who were the winners and finalists of the prestigious Counselor Distributor Choice Awards. I was honored to host a table, and imagine my delight when I discovered it was me and six gregarious and hilarious men. Here, meet the very charming Tim Hanson (left), president of Ball Pro, and Kent Davis, the regional sales rep for Counselor Top 40 supplier Vantage. I couldn’t have asked for more wonderful and entertaining dinner companions. To say we were raucous is putting it mildly… ; )
After 14 years, it’s a rarity that I meet someone new in the industry whose quirky hilarity and Dionysian excess makes me giggle with delight. Pleased to meet you, Michael Moore (national sales manager for supplier Bay State Specialty Co.), hope you guess my name. Partying with you is like dancing with the devil — sinfully fun. Michael and I drank martinis and wine like it was our job.
My pal Jason Grindall (left) of Graphco Line, with whom I once did a legendary week on an Advantages roadshow (complete with a fully-stocked bar on the bus and $200 worth of fireworks… Oy. Don’t ask…), and his colleague, David Byrne — equally as cool and lots more fun, I suspect, than the Talking Heads frontman of the same name. ; )
My ASI colleague, the always-effervescent Candace Hershey, executive director of the ESP Information Team and my pal Paul Kory, director of sales for Counselor Top 40 supplier Vantage, the winner of a Distributor Choice Award for Best Decorated Apparel. Mucho kudos to Paul and his team!
As I decided to drink my dinner at the Palm, Graphco’s Jason Grindall kindly stepped in and ate my filet like Fred Flintstone with a slab of brontosaurus. Bay State Specialties’ Michael Moore, my new favorite person in the industry. Witness the sea of empties at our dinner at the Palm… From that moment on, I was entranced, intrigued and utterly enthralled by his love of excess, second only to my own. If you haven’t met Michael, take my advice: Search him out at the next show and invite him to your dinner party. His entertainment value does not disappoint and he reminds me of how Lady Caroline Lamb once described Lord Byron: “Mad, bad and dangerous to know… .” In all the good ways. ; )
Here’s my pal Paul Kory from Vantage, with the thing that used to be me — before a demon overtook my body and made my eyes look like that — downright frightening. I think I was inhabited by the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson that evening in Orlando… Ah, Mr. Bistocchi. Michael Bistocchi (left), the senior vice president of sales & marketing for Clegg Promo, and I go wayback, to the old days when we carried on like Keith & Mick. But we’re so much more mellow now. Really. We are. Swear to God. Michael’s the driving force behind Clegg’s success and its win of the Counselor Distributor Choice Award for Best Glow/Light-Up Products. Next to him is his new employee, Chris Gohl, Clegg’s southeast account manager. Isn’t he the cutest thing (asks the creepy cougar…)?
Billy Booe, sales expert and self-promotion aficionado extraordinaire with one of my favorite distributor companies, Bluegrass Promotional Marketing in Charlotte, NC, and the hilarious Kent Davis of Vantage. Some of my ASI editorial crew (from left): Andy “Captain Killjoy” Cohen, editor of Counselor; Kathy “Give me wine or give me death” Huston, editor of Advantages; and Nicole “Don’t make me impale you with my 5″ stilettos” Rollender, editor of Stitches and director of education. I couldn’t ask for better — or more delightfully kooky — colleagues.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Joe Haley, ASI’s managing editor, star of The Joe Show, and my editorial “handler.” Next time you see Joe at a trade show, buy him a drink — as his office is next to mine, he needs it! The Joe Show is now so popular, Mr. Haley was asked for autographs at the Orlando Show! Seriously. It’s a bag, it’s a pen, it’s PromoMan, ASI’s new mascot for the industry! Fans couldn’t get enough of PromoMan’s spongy muscles and sense of truth, justice and the ad specialty way.
At the Peppermint Twist event, starring music legend Joey Dee of the Starlighters, this festive couple began dancing the minute they entered the room. Love it!
Here’s my editorial girls doing the Peppermint Twist (from left): Nicole Rollender; Senior Vice President and Editor-In-Chief Melinda Ligos; and Kathy Huston.
One of my favorite people in the industry, Tim O’Boyle (“Ringo” to you and I…), who runs the Polyconcept North America company JournalBooks, which his family founded, took me, Jamie Raynor, JournalBooks’ director of sales and operations, and Scott Anderson, national sales manager of Counselor Top 40 supplier Polyconcept North America, to Christini’s, an Italian restaurant that’s an institution in Orlando. Between the amazing food and company, that meal ranks in my top five of all time.
Scott Anderson and the lovely and talented Jamie Raynor, enjoying the exquisite wine ordered by Ringo during our sumptuous dinner at Christini’s.
You had to hear it to believe how great it was, but this accordion player at Christini’s did a dead-on version of Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Kid. You. Not.
Scott Anderson, looking quite fetching with one of the roses the waiter at Christini’s gave Jamie Raynor and I.


The fantastic Rick French, sales manager at Polyconcept North America, upon returning from the Universal Orlando Harry Potter theme park, where the ASI Show had its gala. He loved it…

PSI Dusseldorf: Back & Better Than Ever!

Filed under: Editorial, PSI Shows, Travel

Hi Everyone! 

I’ve just returned from Europe, where I attended my favorite show of the year, PSI Dusseldorf. It is a HUGE event in the European ad specialty marketplace, where you’ll see trends that will have an impact on the North American industry in the coming year. Trust me: No one does packaging, fashion and design better than the Euros. 

Optimism permeated the show floor, with business, sales and moods rebounding after two years of doom and gloom. The German Association of Promotional Products, for example, announced that sales of ad specialties in that country reached 3.43 billion euro ($4.61 billion US) in 2010, up from 2.97 billion euro ($3.99 billion US) in 2009. Another sign of good things to come? The European arm of Polyconcept, the world’s largest ad specialty supplier — PF Concept — once again held its grand party, which had been on hiatus for the past few years. Billed as “Imagine: The Party of the Century,” the fetewas back and better than ever, courtesy of Cees Martens, the Netherlands-based CEO of PF Concept International, with help from the supremely organized and capable Annette de la Rie, the Goddess of PF Concept. (See more on the party with tons of photos, below). 


The PSI Show itself, the 49th annual event, is Europe’s largest ad specialty trade show. Held from 1/12-1/14, it showcased 849 exhibitors from 30 nations, covered 35,000 square meters of floor space in five halls, and drew 17,122 attendees, up from 16,464 last year. Michael Freter, PSI’s managing director, noted that while this year’s show numbers “are by no means record-breaking,” they do allow for “careful optimism.” “PSI is a barometer of public opinion … and reflects the performance of the manufacturers and distributors of promotional products,” Freter said. “The signs are positive that this year’s PSI Show will be carried by the current economic upswing.” 

Taken from the vantage point of the VIP Lounge at the Messe Convention Center in Düsseldorf, the show had yet to open, but Hall 10 — which contained some of the largest suppliers in Europe (PF Concept, MidOcean and Senator) — readied for the crowd of 17,000+ attendees.  
Even the lighting fixtures brought in by the exhibitors to decorate their booths at the PSI Düsseldorf Show are aesthetically amazing, as evidenced by this chandelier made from wine glasses and these multi-colored light-up spheres (right) that alternated blinking lights.  

That sense of optimism for increased industry sales carried through to the show floor, with distributors and the heads of Europe’s largest suppliers, such as Polyconcept’s Chairman Philippe Varnier and Senator’s CEO Michael Nick, indicating increased sales in the second half of 2010 and high indicators for a successful 2011. 


Product trends from the show floor include an emphasis on creative eco-friendly packaging, such as sports drinks in toothpaste-shaped tubes constructed of recycled material and vegan bags constructed from vegetables. Earth-based, rustic colors such as bark brown, pine green and leaf orange were the hues shown most prominently. Additionally, QR (Quick Response) codes are ubiquitous on the show floor, on suppliers’ booths, on attendee badges and exhibitor catalogs. Intermed Asia Ltd. attracted crowds to its booth with a video demonstration of a new application that allows logos to act like QR codes; by merely scanning a company’s logo on a bag or mug, for example, a client can launch additional promotional messages. 

So how cool is this? To tout its new “Verve” pen, the clever folks at Senator built this vending machine into their booth, with each slot housing a brightly colored pen and corresponding descriptive info. Prior to the show, Senator reps send out tokens to select clients and prospects, asking them to stop by the booth and redeem the token for a coin to get a Verve pen from the vending machine. Of course before attendees were give the coin, they got some face time with their Senator rep. Brilliant! Further tying in their promo, the booth’s bar (all the large suppliers have bars built into their booths that serve complimentary coffee, tea, water, soft drinks, champagne, wine and beer… Kid You Not) they had a special cocktail concoction named for the Verve pen that was so potent, I’m convinced it was designed to keep one in the booth as long as possible. If you’ve never met Michael Nick, Senator’s CEO, put getting to know him on your “to do” list.
Each year at the PSI Düsseldorf Show, Philippe Varnier, Chairman of Polyconcept, and his team nicely let Rich Fairfield, ASI’sexecutive vice president and publisher, and I stay on the River Queen, a huge boat (it sleeps over 100 people and has a bar, a restaurant, a workout area, etc.) they bring in and dock on the Rhine outside the convention center in Düsseldorf. It’s very convenient and very, very gracious of them to let us stay aboard with the PF Concept team. Here, everyone’s favorite multiline rep from San Diego, Jodi Friedman-Antonelli, who now lives in Lucca, Italy, and my colleague Ed Koehler, ASI’s associate publisher, yuck it up in my cabin.
At one of the booths on the PSI Show floor, a man was doing caricatures of attendees who stopped by. Witness, then, the truly terrifying drawing of my boss, Rich Fairfield, who in this picture looks like he should be lurking under a bridge with the other trolls, waiting to eat billygoats attempting to pass. Now this, my friends, is how you build buzz for your booth and attract hoards of attendees: Have a mid-day fashion show, as Bella did, with a bevy of Euro beauties strutting their stuff to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok.”
Another clever way to lure soccer-crazed attendees? Have a pro soccer player do tricks in your booth.
Have you met Ed Koehler? He’s ASI’s associate publisher and a great person with whom to travel. His baritone-rich voice is so deep, it resembles Lurch from The Addams Family. http://www.addamsfamily.com/addams/yourang.wav
My fun group at the PF Concept party at the Sofitel Hotel in Düsseldorf (from left): Rich Fairfield, Jodi Antonelli, Ed Koehler, Polyconcept’s Shanghai-based sourcing director, the lovely Michelle Armstrong and Karen DiTomasso, ASI’s vice president of sales for the ASI Show. Karen is officially my new favorite person to travel with!
Hans-Joachim Erbel, the executive director of PSI, or “Ha-Jo,” as he’s known to his pals. Ha-Jo is one of my favorites, since an infamous night years ago when I threw one of my stilettos at him at a bar in Düsseldorf and he promptly drank champagne from it.
The host with the most, the Chancellor of All Things Suave, Mr. Philippe Varnier, chairman of Polyconcept and personality extraordinaire. Philippe is as comfortable with a mic as I am at a vodka bar.
A few German beers in, and Ed Koehler really lets his hair down, as shown here after he commandeered a bottle of Riesling for our table at the PF Concept party.
If you’ve never been to the PSI Show, or want to know anything about the European marketplace, these two are my top “go-to” guys: Philippe Varnier (left) and Michael Freter, the stunningly knowledgeable and charming managing director of the PSI Show.
Manfred Schlosser, the editor-in-chief of the PSI Journal, the association’s excellent monthly magazine.
One can never have too many “Micheles” in their life! Here, Polyconcept’s Michelle Armstrong, Philippe Varnier and I at the PF Concept “Imagine” party. The party, the entertainment and the atmosphere among guests could best be described as “electrifying.” How much do I adore Yann Leca, the CEO of Polyconcept’s Supplier Group? Let me count the ways… Here, he takes solace in the arms of The Micheles.
Philippe Varnier and one of his favorite clients, Howard Trilling, vice president of international sales for Counselor Top 40 distributor Staples. Howard attends the PSI Show in Düsseldorf each year, and it’s always so nice to see his familiar face.  

Next year’s PSI Dusseldorf Show — which, for the first time in years, won’t overlap with any U.S. show — will be held from January 11-13. I’ll be there, and would be happy to be your guide to the show and all the fun events, including an international reception to be hosted by ASI in the VIP Lounge of the convention center at the close of the first show day! From there, we’ll all go to PSI’s PHENOMENAL party at one of the best nightclubs in Dusseldorf. Trust me, it is quite the time. ;  For more information about next year’s PSI Show, go to www.psi-network.de.

  PF Concept’s amazing party, attended by nearly 900 people and held at the SofitelHotel (a shot of the room pre-party, to the left) in Düsseldorf, featured gourmet food, alcohol and a surreal and spectacular event that was a mix of kabuki theater and Cirque du Soleil. The riveting theater, told in four acts, regaled us with the story of an Ice Queen who lost her light and the trials she went through to regain it. It was just stunning… And just when you thought it was over, the curtains on the stage parted and a 13-piece disco band, The Boston Tea Party, began playing and didn’t stop until 2:00 a.m.
Cees Martens, the Netherlands-based CEO of PF Concept International, was the mastermind behind PF Concept’s jaw-dropping “Imagine: The Party of the Century.” Kabuki-esque musicians like this one weaved their way through the crowd at PF Concept’s party, rhythmically thumping their tribal drums to signal an especially poignant moment in the four-act play.

Cheers, and more next week from ASI’s Orlando Show! 

— M 

If you’re a supplier who’s attending ASI’s Orlando Show, please join me for a free luncheon panel discussion on Sunday, 1/23, on the show floor from noon til 1:30 p.m. Take a break from setting up your booth to hear my panel of esteemed suppliers who’ve experienced growth in their businesses and are ready to share how they’ve done it: C.J. Schmidt, vice president of sales for Counselor Top 40 supplier Hit Promotional Products; Kim Newell, president of World Wide Lines Inc.; Rob Watson, president of MediaTree; and Dan Townes, owner of Shepenco.

Customer Disservice

Filed under: Personal

Hi Everyone and Happy 2011!

Hope you’re all having a great new year so far and looking forward to show season!

How were your holidays? I traveled to Florida to spend Christmas with my mom and stepdad, and had a few incidents happen that made me go “WTF?” (Why the Face?, in Modern Family parlance) and really contemplate what constitutes good customer service. I’m also in the midst of compiling the profiles on some of the industry suppliers who won this year’s Counselor Distributor Choice awards (to be announced at ASI’s Orlando Show on 1/23 — if you’re going to be there, join us for the awards celebration and cocktail party at 5:00 p.m. in room S320 of the Orlando Convention Center). What do they all have in common? Stellar, “save the day” customer service.

Here are two examples of craptacular customer service, from companies that could take a lesson from the award-winning suppliers in our industry.

1. TD Bank. As I was at the Philadelphia Airport two days before Christmas to fly to my mom’s house in Sanibel, Florida, I stopped at a McDonald’s to get coffee. I used my debit card, which was promptly declined. When I called TD Bank, with whom I do my banking and have credit cards, they informed me that my card had been cancelled due to “suspected fraudulent activity in Homer, Oklahoma.” According to the customer service person, Homer is a hotbed of identity and credit card theft. Who knew? I’m just guessing here that there’s not much to do in the thriving metropolis that is Homer, Oklahoma. Just sayin’.

Now, while I was thankful that the bank was vigilant in spotting the attempted fraud and shut down my credit card, couldn’t they have, you know, TOLD ME? As I explained to the customer service woman that I was ready to board a plane and would need a new card overnighted to me, she informed me that I’d have to “fax a handwritten letter” giving them authority to ship my new card to an address (my mom’s) that wasn’t my own. Couldn’t I e-mail an authorization to them, providing telling data to authenticate my identity? Nope. Ladies and gentleman, you’ve now met a business in the year of 2011 that “doesn’t accept e-mails.”

Brenda, the first in a long and undistinguished line of customer service people I dealt with, suggested — wait for it — that I find a fax machine AT THE AIRPORT and dash the letter off to them that way. Yes. Because the Rosetta Stone kiosk and the Relay magazine stand have fax machines at the ready. Clearly, Brenda doesn’t fly.

At this point I didn’t freak too much, because I was traveling to be with my family and knew they’d lend me cash, etc. But what if I wasn’t? What if this happened as I was boarding an international flight to Dusseldorf, as I will be next week? When I landed, my mom took me to an Office Max where I faxed (so archaic I might as well have used a chisel and a slate) the handwritten letter to TD Bank, who — as I called to confirm its arrival — assured me I’d get my new card the next day.

Long story short? I didn’t get my card until the following Tuesday — nearly a week — which is baffling to me in this day and age. I’ve gotten phones, flowers and shoes overnighted to me — but apparently a 2″ x 3″ piece of plastic is outside the realm of possibility. Those of you who know me can imagine how my demeanor steadily declined as I checked twice daily on the status of my card, each time speaking with a different supervisor — none of whom were “allowed” to give me their last name or direct phone number and all of whom gave me different information (“we never overnight cards,” “your card will be delivered today,” “your card is stuck in the snowstorm”). My favorite had to be when one customer service agent told me she couldn’t provide me with a tracking number “until the card was delivered.” Not a high point for my patience, I suggested she “take a moment of silence for the death of logic in that statement.” I was also so tired of repeating my personal information that I began to get more snarky than usual.

Customer Service Rep: “Can you spell ‘Sanibel’ for me?”

 Bitchy, Exasperated Michele: “Sure! S as in Subpar, A as in Asinine, N as in Nonsensical, I as in Inept…”

The lessons to be learned here (which I enumerated in a letter to the president of TD Bank):

* Allow your customers to have direct access to customer service reps so they can deal with one person and not have to repeat their story again and again. It’s annoying and frustrating.

* Get everyone on the same page. I think the thing that made me the most incensed was that even reps at a supervisory level all had different answers for me. The message conveyed was confusion and distrust — not what a bank wants to put out there, I would think.

* It bears noting that every one of the 14 people I spoke with at TD Bank was extremely nice and empathetic. However, when you’re getting the runaround and incorrect information, nice only goes so far.

* Communicate clearly with customers when there is a problem. The main point of contention with me was that the bank never notified me that my credit card had been canceled — McDonald’s did. The numerous reps apologized for this oversight and said I “should have been contacted immediately.” Shoulda Woulda Coulda. Follow through on your methods of operation.

* Let Brenda out of the office to visit an airport, for the love of God.

As an amusing little epilogue, when the credit card so guarded and protected by the bank that it was like The Grail finally did arrive at my mom’s house via FedEx, I was neither required to sign for it nor show identification. Kid. You. Not.  

2. Southwest Airlines. Truly, Southwest is one of my favorite U.S. companies. Its employees are cordial and kooky, they don’t charge for baggage and still offer complimentary beverages and snacks. And you’ve just got to love a company that was started by a genius, loony libertine (Herb Kelleher) on the back of a cocktail napkin while drinking a snoot-full of Scotch. However…

While in Sanibel and dealing with the credit card clusterduck over at TD Bank, a wicked snow storm socked the East Coast, causing my flight back to Philly to be canceled. Now, I fly enough that disruptions like this do not even phase me and I was able to go back to my mom’s house for two more days. The quandary? As I had already checked my bag for the flight that was ultimately canceled, no one at Southwest could tell me where my bag was  — still on the plane, sitting at the Fort Myers airport or on its way to Philly. What I find interesting is that these days (creepily) you can track anyone and anything with technology. Except my Louis Vuitton bag, which was apparently sneaky enough to avoid detection.

The lesson for Southwest? You guys are amazing at practically everthing you do… Perhaps you should focus as much on your technology as you do on your people.    

That’s it, I’m all bitched out. Despite these events, I had an awesome Christmas and am ready to start traveling for show season — just not to Homer, Oklahoma. ; )

Do you have a customer service story that sent you off the rails or restored your faith in humanity? Post a comment!

Cheers, and more next week from the PSI Dusseldorf Show!

— Michele