by Vincent Alonzo | April 25, 2018
The 2018 Flourish: The Growth of Branded Currency Conference lived up to its name. The inaugural event last year in Omaha, NE, drew 167 attendees, 23 sponsors, and presented 52 speakers. This year, the show -- held at the Hyatt Centric Chicago Magnificent Mile -- saw attendance grow by 55 percent to 259, sponsorship rise by 56 percent to 36, and the number of speakers increase to 66 (a jump of 27 percent).

"Last year, the big issue at the show was fraud and how to prevent it," said Holly Glowaty, co-founder of K&H Connection, the producer of Flourish. "This year, the big buzz was the cryptocurrency banking trend and how that's changing the landscape for gift cards, and driving the initiative to rename these tools as 'branded currency.'" 

The rate of this change is very fast right now, noted Kristen Thiry, also co-founder of K&H Connection and Flourish. "At last year's show, the question was, 'should we refer to gift cards as branded currency?' This year, the big questions surround what will be next for branded currency and what's happening in the larger world of commercial banking that will affect our industry both on the retail and the B2B level."

Day one speaker Mark Boncheck, CEO of Shift Thinking and columnist for Harvard Business Review, spoke about how advancements in digital payments and mobile wallets have created platforms for cryptocurrencies like bitcoin to take hold. 

"This will create micro-economies that will enable branded currencies to operate in ways similar to government economies," he said. "They'll create opportunities for big brands like Amazon to create alternatives to institutions like the Federal Reserve."

At the Gift Card Network's Gift Card University, held just before the conference, Matt Davies, CEO of Powerhouse Brands Consulting and founder of Gift Card Network, pointed out how gift cards in the consumer space are spurring greater spending in the traditional economy. 

"Research shows that 80 percent of gift cards bought in retail stores are redeemed in the store they were bought it and the retailers experience a 20 percent lift (amount spent above the value of the card)," he said.

On the B2B side, Davies pointed out that many retail employees participate in recognition and performance improvement programs that reward them with "special money" distributed as branded currency for basic needs. "Most retail employees make minimum wage, so food and beverage cards are very effective rewards for this type of audience," he said.

The Incentive Gift Card Counsel (IGCC) also held a member meeting where Jim Atten, president of the IGCC, discussed initiatives such as the creation of new B2B glossary of terms to post on the IGCC website and IGCC's creation of a task force to participate in the Incentive Marketing Association's (IMA) initiative to improve buyer resources. 

"The IGCC is in lockstep with its own task force to align with and build on the IMA efforts," said Atten. "About 70 percent of businesses still don't know about our industry and how gift cards can help them achieve their organizational goals."