by Alex Palmer | June 13, 2017
Last month saw the successful completion of Gift Card University's (GCU) second year. The two-day gathering of gift card merchants and professionals provided networking, education, and the interactive problem-solving sessions. Put on by the Gift Card Network (GCN) and hosted by Hotels.com and Raise, this year's event, held in Chicago on May 16-17, included a number of new offerings, including a separate advanced education track and the entirely new GCN: Catalyst event held on May 18.

The educational event targeted both industry veterans and newbies by adding a new Advanced Topics track to the existing Introductory Topics sessions. The 101 track aimed to identify best practices essential to success in a gift card program, covering the wide range of sales channels, including in-store, third-party, B2B, and more. The 201 sessions dug into deeper topics, in a more open-discussion format. 

"It was really interesting seeing the two different styles," said Dean Williams, creative account manager for The Gift Card Network. "The intro classes were more presentations with slides and one person talking to an audience, while the advanced classes were really a roundtable discussion." 

Desiree Wiercyski, marketing and communication manager for GCN, agreed that the range of offerings proved an asset for attendees.

"At the Advanced sessions, there was this constant flow of vendors and merchants talking about ways to move the industry forward, discussing broad topics in a smaller setting," she said.

Legal questions, processor best practices, and best practices for building a gift card program were among the topics discussed in the Introductory track. The shift from the concept of "gift cards" to "branded currency," as well as the rise of self-use were explored in the Advanced Topics.

This year's new GCN: Catalyst event, held the day after GCU, aimed at creating a tech-focused, fully interactive experience for attendees, with industry-specific solutions and discussions of technologies ranging from augmented reality to direct mail.

"The focus was on helping the industry ideate the future," said Matt Davies, CEO of Powerhouse Brands Consulting and founder of The Gift Card Network. "It ended up being a bunch of experts working together to generate ideas about how specific, underserved industries could make their industries better."

For example, a session planned for discussing the automotive industry became a real-life troubleshooting for Kia's gift card program. Attendees discussed with representatives of the car company ways that it could use gift cards to better enhance its programs.

"In the moment of the event, we changed it to better match the interests of the speakers," said Davies. "We then pledged that we would come up with ideas and find a way to get them done. It really turned into an action-oriented event."

The success of this component has GCN looking to innovate how it runs events in the future, making the Catalyst and advanced-track components the central focus for next year. Davies envisions the Introductory track being reformatted as a series that can be offered as a supplementary offering at other industry events. He also added that much of the information coming out of this year's sessions will be made available to GCN members in coming weeks.

"All levels were represented," said Davies. "There were 17-year veterans along with vendors who were new to the space and figuring out how to sell better, or distributors trying to figure out how merchants worked, or merchants seeking best practices for their job. It was a good mix of everyone looking for different things."