Cowbells and Woolen Slippers — Cherished Handmade Gifts From Events

Event goers prize the handcrafted amenities they receive at conferences that convey a sense of place or a personal touch — and provide a lasting memory.

Author: Magdalina Atanassova       

hands holding two cowbells

The handcrafted cowbells given as gifts to participants of IAPCO’s 50th General Assembly and Annual Meeting, held in Basel, Switzerland, in February 2019, were sustainably produced in Switzerland.

When I registered for IAPCO’s 50th General Assembly and Annual Meeting, held in Basel, Switzerland, in February 2019, I was excited to see if the destination lived up to my mental picture of beautiful mountains hugging calm blue lakes and mellow cows grazing across green pastures. It did, and the organizers found a lasting way to help keep those images vivid in my memory.

Early in the program, all of us delegates were surprised to find something heavy wrapped in cloth waiting for us at our tables. Once the organizers asked us all to open the gifts together, the room started echoing with the sounds of hundreds of cowbells. In an instant, I was transported to the lovely scene of grazing cows that lived in my head.

The cowbells were all handmade at the Berger Bell Foundry, founded by Master René Kern, one of a handful of cowbell makers left in Switzerland. Cast in bronze, each cowbell had a thick leather strap, which also was sustainably produced in Switzerland. Since the cowbells were made by hand, each produced its own slightly different sound.

Five years later, for the purposes of this story, I asked Jonas Scharf: “Why cowbells?” “It was the perfect thing,” he responded. Not only was the cowbell a sustainable choice that supported a local maker, Scharf — who is the COO at MCH Group, which operates Congress Center Basel, IAPCO’s 2019 meeting’s host venue — said it was something that event planners could relate to because it’s a common practice to ring bells at events to inform people when breaks are over. It was also an item that meeting delegates could easily pack and bring back home in their carry-ons, unlike the gift of a Swiss knife the organizers contemplated giving that would have posed a security concern for travelers. The cowbells were not handcrafted in Basel, but in Bern, because “Basel is not super Swiss, but Bern is super Swiss,” Scharf said, and they reinforced other Swiss archetypal elements at the event — including a life-sized cow sculpture in the venue lobby, and a traditional Swiss musical welcome with locals playing alphorns, wooden horns long used by shepherds in the Alps.

smiling woman holding woven slippers

In 2020, outgoing IAPCO president Mathias Posch gifted assembly participants with slippers that were handmade by hist mother.

Personal Rather Than Local

The following year’s IAPCO General Meeting and Annual Assembly also gifted participants with a handmade item, but this one was less tied to the host destination of Vancouver, Canada. It told a different story.

The Vancouver event was planned with the bold intention to be a zero-waste conference, eliminating the use of signage and printed materials, with no single-use plastics and a focus on sustainable catering. That meant the attendee gift had to align with those values.

Mathias Posch, chairman and partner at Canada-based PCO International Conference Services (ICS), used the 2020 event as a celebration of his last year as IAPCO’s president and co-host of the event — and he wanted participants to receive something personal from him. “I am somebody who believes way more in human connection,” Posch told me recently via a Teams conversation when I followed up with him about the event. “So, for me it was more like, these are people I actually cherish and like a lot and we want to give them something special.”

Posch and his team started going through a list of potential gifts, including expensive items and those with a wow factor. But he ultimately settled on a more humble gift that he had given countless times to his closest friends: slippers, made of the wool from his father’s sheep farm in Austria — all natural, made entirely by hand by his mother, and according to participants’ sizes, which were collected during the registration process.

“It was honestly just this idea of what can you give somebody when you want to tell him something like, ‘Hey, I want you to know how much I appreciate it that you are here,’” Posch recalled. “It was very personal, really.”

man wearing large cowbell around neck

In 2019, then IAPCO president Mathias Posch received the gift of a cowbell at the group’s conference. In Switzerland, such large cowbells are given as prizes for achievements in sporting events, including skiing and wrestling competitions.

He made the gift even more personal by showing our group a video that he had made with his phone, recording his mother in the process of making the slippers. We felt like part of his family. In our recent conversation, he shared that he used to sell these as a child in Christmas markets.

Posch said that years ago, his mother discovered this somewhat forgotten craft in Austria and started making slippers to use up leftover wool after shearing the sheep. She kept the tradition alive for more than three decades as a hobby. The big batch of slippers she made for IAPCO’s meeting sadly turned out to be her last, Posch told me — soon after the meeting she had to undergo surgery that makes the taxing work of crafting the slippers too difficult.

The IAPCO “gift of the slippers” has become somewhat legendary — people in the industry, Posch said, continue to ask him about it, and he’s heard countless stories of how those who were lucky enough to have received a pair have worn them out. I had a hard time parting with mine once they wore out, but they left a permanent mark on my memory, even if they no longer occupy space in my home.

The Swiss gift I keep on display. I enjoy the chance to tell my story when house guests invariably ask: “Why a cowbell?”

Magdalina Atanassova is digital media editor at Convene.


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