I wonder when and why conferences picked up the habit of giving out conference bags to attendees.

  • 11
    I strongly suspect the "tradition" originates way outside of academia - cf. seminars and trade shows. Jun 13, 2016 at 6:07
  • 4
    When sponsors started to pay conferences to give out buts with their name on it......
    – Ian
    Jun 13, 2016 at 8:42
  • 3
    @Ian I have so many sponsor butts in my office now its crazy.
    – user20640
    Jun 13, 2016 at 22:50

4 Answers 4


For the why part: One reason is to make registration at the conference as smooth as possible. Imagine the first morning of a conference and all the attendees at the registration desk lining up and for each and every participant the guy at the desk hands over the program, the book of abstracts, the badge, the ticket for the conference dinner, the ticket for the prebooked tour (if there is any), the receipt of attendance, the receipt of payment, the complimentary notebook and pen and, of course, the stuff from sponsors. Takes much longer than pre-packed bags. (And even with all things pre-packed, there are always queues during the rush hour.

As for the when part, I have no idea. But if you have ever sat at a conference desk you'll agree that it must have been no later than the first time one guy organized a conference with more than 100 people for the second time.

  • 5
    True...but a disposable plastic bag would solve the problem just as easily. It doesn't explain why they give you a reusable tote bag.
    – user24098
    Jun 13, 2016 at 8:06
  • 19
    @dan1111 allow me to note that bag reusability isn't mentioned in the question.
    – Nemo
    Jun 13, 2016 at 8:29
  • 4
    @Nemo, I interpreted the question to be "Why do they give out free (cloth) tote bags?" I don't think it would be a question if they were just giving you a throwaway plastic bag.
    – user24098
    Jun 13, 2016 at 8:56
  • I am currently using cloth bags from conferences at least four years ago for my shopping on a regular basis. Very grateful it's become a thing :-) Jun 13, 2016 at 18:34
  • 1
    @dan1111 the same reason banks give you pens: To give you something with their name on it that you will keep and use. Jun 14, 2016 at 14:21

For the at least the first few conferences I attended, the bags had a clear function.

The attendee packet included a lot of paper, often more than could be tucked into whatever bag one was carrying. There could be several separate documents, such as a schedule grid and the printed proceedings. Carrying them around loose was inconvenient and risked losing some.

Providing a bag big enough for the attendee packet contents was a thoughtful gesture.

  • 2
    At the last national meeting I went to, I think I made use of the tote bag for various things, including the program and papers given out by the conference itself as well as "samples" given out by vendors.
    – Kimball
    Jun 13, 2016 at 5:49

The bag gives attendees a place to store all the advertising and marketing materials (such as coffee cups and notepads stamped with the company's logo) that are handed out by vendors at conferences vying for attention.

These marketing materials are often referred to as swag, and the bag for carrying all of it is called a swag bag.

Having the conference hand them out to everyone at the entrance saves vendors from the cost and effort of having to each make their own bags to hand out to attendees.

The bag also makes it more likely you will take the stack of promotional items home with you, rather than discarding them due to having your hands constantly full of loose items.

  • There are vendors at academic conferences? (Other than booksellers who, in my experience, have no freebies other than catalogues.) Jun 13, 2016 at 12:09
  • @DavidRicherby, booksellers and makers, and software and hardware vendors at a conference like Supercomputing, which is the main academic conference in my field. Also, I'd say that having all the advertising in a swag bag makes it easier to either refuse to accept or dump directly into a refuse bin.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 13, 2016 at 13:34
  • @BillBarth Ah. I'm too theoretical for anything but books and giving those away would be like giving away gold bars. *sigh* Jun 13, 2016 at 14:26
  • 2
    @DavidRicherby Yes, there are vendors too. For instance, in my field there are instrumentation manufacturers (e.g. Keysight, Fluke etc.). Frequently they can buy a booth to exhibit their products. Jun 13, 2016 at 14:56
  • 2
    @MassimoOrtolano, yeah, most of the vendors have a booth at Supercomputing, but they also may want to give out a card pointing people at white papers, their party later in the week, etc. Millions of dollars are involved in buying one of these systems, so they put a lot into their marketing budgets and don't assume that everyone will come to the right place on the exhibit floor. In fact, much of the paper in the bag is intended to entice you to come to their booth on the floor.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 13, 2016 at 16:49

Ah! I was just at an expo where they only gave out plastic bags (which is super rare these days). I can tell you what I did with it.

I looked inside it, quickly flipped through some of the junk marketing materials, found a little toy, pocketed the toy, and then I immediately placed the bag still full of junk marketing materials in a large box where dozens of attendees had already left their plastic bag.

If it had been a tote bag, I definitely wouldn't have thrown it away. Usually with a tote bag, I wait until I am sitting down somewhere before I start sifting through its content. And I only start throwing away some of its content if I happen to be sitting next to a trash can, or what usually ends up happening is that I bring the tote bag back home, and I do the triage there.

  • Nice anecdote, but this isn't an answer to the question.
    – smci
    Jun 13, 2016 at 22:39
  • This may answer the question of why conferences picked up the habit of giving out conference (tote) bags to attendees, but not when. I have no idea when. Jun 14, 2016 at 2:09

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .