Making History at ASI Show Chicago

The first promotional products trade show since the COVID-19 pandemic – and my first trip to The Windy City – was an epic whirlwind.

Within 30 seconds of meeting Mark Jesselson at ASI Show Chicago, I could tell lockdown must have been torturous for the affable industry veteran.

Mark Jesselson

Mark Jesselson, vice president of Smart Incentives, in Elk Grove Village, IL.

Striking up conversations with everyone who passed by his colorful display of logoed barstools, the vice president of Elk Grove Village, IL-based Smart Incentives (asi/87675) is someone you’d love to grab a beer with. When a local distributor glanced at his display, I got to see him in action.

“You’re right down the street from me,” Jesselson said, giving directions while squinting at her name badge. “We should be doing business.”

When she agreed, he asked for her business card. Regrettably, she didn’t have one, but that didn’t stop the canny salesman. He pulled out his notebook, asking for her email address and phone number. As soon as her info was scribbled down, he asked if her company was using counter stools in any of their programs. It just so happened that one of her clients was a major player in the liquor space, so he promised to follow up.

That brief chat illustrated the importance of ASI Show Chicago, the promotional products industry’s first major trade show since the COVID-19 outbreak. While Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other video software have their benefits – and were vital in connecting with colleagues and clients last year – they just can’t compare to in-person interaction. Trade shows allow for business professionals from around the country, around the world or even around the corner from each other to meet and develop relationships.

After nearly 16 months of isolation, it was euphoric to be surrounded by over 3,500 people, mostly unmasked and all eager for a taste of normalcy. After all, there was a time during the pandemic when it felt like we’d never gain our freedom back. But here I was, shaking hands and eating Maple Ridge Farms’ chocolates out of the same bowl as everybody else. Heck, keynote speaker Terry Bradshaw shuffled through the crowd hugging strangers!

colleague dinner

It was great to be back with my favorite colleagues and Nate.

While suppliers and distributors planned future projects together, the show was also a chance for me to catch up with my co-workers, many of whom I hadn’t seen in person since March 2020 – when I naively thought we were sent home for “spring break.” It was fun to toss a couple of drinks back, sharing laughs, memories and our summer vacation plans. It almost made me long for returning to the office, but that was probably just the rum and Coke talking.

Chicago skyline

Getting some fresh air after hours.

In between education sessions, keynote speeches and scouring the show floor, I was able to tour Chi-Town, my first time in the beloved city. Before stuffing my face with deep dish and hot dogs, walking the Magnificent Mile and cracking up at The Second City, I was honored to have a seat at one of Michele Bell’s notorious dinners at Flo & Santos, run by Lion Circle (asi/67620) owner Rich Carollo. Just listening to the wild tales of Dave Saracino, aka “the straw that stirs the drink,” was worth the trip. Of course, as a diehard wrestling fan, I couldn’t leave without swinging by Pro Wrestling Tees’ retail outlet.

Macho man mural

“Macho Man” Randy Savage dropping the elbow.

On the long Uber ride to the airport, which ASI social media maven Melissa Newman totally stayed awake for, I swelled with pride over the success of the event. ASI leadership took a huge risk back in March (when only 20 people could gather anywhere in Illinois) when deciding to go through with ASI Show Chicago and now we’ve made history. Thanks to the hard work, dedication and resiliency of our team, we pulled off this herculean effort. Just call us the ’85 Bears.

For all the industry pros who joined our extravaganza, we can’t thank you enough. Hopefully, you share the same sentiment as Jesselson.

“Initially, I was skeptical about coming,” he said. “But exhibiting today is one of the best corporate moves we’ve made. The industry has hatched out of its shell, and it’s exciting to see the aisles filled.”

John Corrigan

Staff Writer

John writes for ASI’s family of magazines and More importantly, he covers WrestleMania and the Wing Bowl along with other dignified events.