Games, gimmicks and giveaways

Some people came for the speeches, some came for the networking, but at Sibos this year everyone was on the lookout for the freebies.

Conference overload has left most financial professionals rather blasé when it comes to the free gifts and promotional items that are handed out at these events. In the face of such apathy, companies are donning their thinking caps - after all, a corporate T shirt, pen or golf ball just doesn't cut it any more. If you want people to come to your stand, you need to offer something a bit special.

At Sibos this year, the exhibiting companies found creative ways to draw in the jaded conference-goer.

To catch the eye of passers-by, the architects had been called in to design some truly remarkable stands. In keeping with the legacy of Brunelleschi and Michaelangelo, Italian bank SanPaolo IMI put up an exhibition stand of roman colonnades round a central piazza. Add a few chaps on Vespas, wolf-whistling the ladies, and you could be in downtown Rome.

Bank Wachovia's inverted waterfall created waves, while Standard Chartered's Asian spa cum rock pool come Turkish coffee house was perhaps an architectural expression of its status as a global emerging markets bank (with equal results). The burghers of Bayerische Landesbank offered a taste of Bavaria complete with frauleins, bratwurst and of course beer. It being October, beer festivities were certainly in the air.

The newly public Tata Consultancy Services had two booths, curved like skateboard half pipes. FinanceAsia is still checking to see if the outlay for this was mentioned in the "use of proceeds" section of their recent IPO prospectus.

The gimmicks were also fully out in force. Citigroup hired a small bald man called Atom, apparently the fastest artist in the world, knocking out spray-painted landscapes every 30 seconds or so. Whether they liked the paintings or not, the audience would have been high from the paint fumes after watching him for just a few minutes. On another day they had the world's fastest writer, banging out your life story in a novel within one minute. What this says about the lives of conference goers doesn't bear close scrutiny.

Back at Bank Wachovia, on day one sculptor John Hair was busy crafting a bust of Jim Carey, quite why, no-one knows, but it was extremely life-like. On subsequent days the stand starred a guitar-maker and a Japanese print-maker.

If the intensity of back-to-back conference sessions was getting to you, the good people at Deutsche Bank had masseuses on hand to ease away the strain of talking cash management. We were told there was a special room round the back of their stand for their better clients but couldn't get this confirmed.

And to get the adrenalin pumping again, Pega Systems provided two arcade driving games. Your correspondent was roundly beaten by a gentleman from the French bank CDC Ixis, who had clearly learnt his driving on the streets of Marseilles.

The finest offer came from the stand of Checkfree Software, who had installed a flavoured oxygen bar at their stand. "Its good for jetlag and hangovers," said the delightful Wendi Carlsson, diagnosing two ailments from which most delegates were suffering. Choosing a hit of Mandarin Grove, I indeed found it uplifting, cheering and balancing. So cheering that I forgot to ask what Checkfree Software actually did.

But what about the freebies? The usual pens and stress balls were joined this year by a USB handed out by Microsoft, perhaps the first indication that the software giant is moving into hardware. CSFB, I-Flex and others were all handing out toy cars, perhaps so that traveling execs could just hand them over to their kids rather than buying them last minute gifts from airport duty free as usual.

The fashionistas at American Express were handing out hand-woven scarves, which quickly became the fashion item of the week - though I'm not sure mine went too well with my tie. The 3,000 scarves given away at Sibos had provided the Guatemalan weavers from Cooperative La Primavera with six week's worth of work and income - so more power to the Amex lady who had championed this karma-friendly freebie over the usual stress ball and golf tees.

But most of the exhibitors went light on the handouts this year and instead focused their budgets on top end raffle prizes. At least three firms were raffling off I-pods: Oracle gave away nine during the conference. The fine people at Smartstream had a 'guess the number of golf balls in a cookie jar' game. Having guessed the correct number (484 to be precise) the winner drove off in their own golf cart.

Easily the best prize on offer was the Harley Davidson motorbike being raffled by DST Software. The winner was Brian Steel, a corporate communications director for Citigroup, who apparently already owns a Harley. Typical.

All that was missing was a ghost train and some dodgems and Sibos would have provided all the fun of the fair. Who said going to conferences has to be dull?

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