Freebies unwrapped: The 'celebrity gifting lounge'

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The Independent Online

While most of us will be looking to wind down on the present front after Christmas, for celebrities the season of giving will have only just begun. Early next year at Britain's awards ceremonies, stars won't be looking to just pick up gongs, they will also be hoping to bag a few freebies before the event has even started.

Welcome to the world of gifting lounges, venues backstage at high profile events, where celebrities are handed gifts, sometimes worth several thousands of pounds, just for showing up.

Take That singer Robbie Williams summed up the mood at the lounge in a gilded private room at the London Palladium for Royal Variety Performance last week. "Everyone's tickled by a freebie, aren't they? I think even Sir Richard Branson would be tickled by a freebie," he said.

Robbie who picked up an eclectic medley of products including phone watches, electronic cigarettes and an underwater camera, looked genuinely surprised and a little embarrassed at the amount of swag he was leaving with.

"It's really nice, I've never been to one before, not even in the States. My wife was invited up, so I thought, why not?"

The concept, as one might imagine, came from the Hollywood land of plenty, dreamt up as a way of getting companies products endorsed by stars. But recently it has been making an appearance on this side of the Atlantic. Lily James, the leading UK company for hosting the lounges, has been slowly building up its appearances over the past two years. And next year will be their busiest yet, as they will be bringing their freebies to major events such as the Elle Style Awards, the Empire Film Awards, the Q Awards and the MOBOs.

The concept is fairly straightforward. The VIPs are invited to the event and are given tours of the stands, each of which has products on display geared to appeal to the sort of celebrity the event will attract. What the brands usually ask for in return is a photograph, which, it is agreed. will not be used in advertising or PR campaigns, but just on a company website or Facebook page.

The concept comes with its own terms too. Companies don't give celebrities things, instead they "gift" them presents – a distinction that offers a fig-leaf of benevolence to all concerned.

Joy Montgomery one of the founders of Lily James said they are filling a gap between the celebrity and the brand.

"A lot of people have no idea how they get a celebrity to endorse their brand, we can help them do that, by bringing the talent in and introducing them," she said. "If you just send a gift to someone, you have no idea if it arrived, or even if they liked it, introducing them face to face means it's different here. We can also go further and introduce the brands outside of the lounge as well, if either party prefer that."

Robbie's arrival caused a ripple of excitement among the ladies manning the stands. Not just because many of them were fans of Take That first time round, but also because they were delighted at the prospect of Robbie picking up one their products. And in an era where celebrity endorsement is everything to consumer companies, the concept seems to be working. At one event Wayne Rooney was pictured with a Sound Asleep pillow with speakers. The following week, the company is said to have shifted an extra 80,000 units.

While in America there might be several lounges, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to run, for each big event, here, it's a lot smaller. Gary Dickinson, whose company was promoting teeth whitening and other dental care products at the Royal Variety awards, believes these events are at the heart of his marketing strategy. "To get Helena Christensen to endorse your brand would probably cost £100,000. She used our product after we met at a gifting lounge, and it just cost us £2,000 to get a picture of her," he said.

Indeed "the picture" is a big motivating factor for these companies. A new spa where tiny fish swim around your feet to nibble away the dead skin has pictures of various stars having the treatment, while several celebrities were happy to be pictured at a Palladium stand featuring electronic cigarettes .

At the Royal Variety Performance, those "gifted", such as jazz pianist Jamie Cullum, seem to understand the quid pro quo of the night. "The concept is very simple and I know exactly what is going on," he said. Others are even more vocal in their support. Tulisa, singer with the group N-Dubz, said after happily posing with a watch phone: "What's not to like, there's lots of free stuff and people being nice and giving you gifts. I'm here for whatever I can get."

Some of the stars already know the people giving them their products and approach them to thank them for gifts in the past. Cat Deans, a publicist representing her client, a candle company, at her fifth lounge, knows all about the value of such introductions. "I've got so many personal connections now, I can use for the brand. Good friendships mean good endorsements," she said.

Her approach paid off when she met former Spice Girl Mel B at a gifting lounge a couple of years ago. The singer asked her for several boxes of candles which were lit for a photoshoot she was having in her house. "There was a nine page feature in OK! magazine with lots of photos of the candles, and that was great for us," she added.

The events always have a charitable aspect, where guests are invited to donate either money, memorabilia or a piece to camera to help highlight a cause. And while the younger visitors embrace the freebie philosophy, the older generation of celebrities seem less au fait with it. Susan Boyle, who received much negative press over her teeth, pretended to run away when the word "dentist" was mentioned at the Palladium's teeth-whitening stand.

And former Kinks' singer Ray Davies seemed uncomfortable about leaving with free stuff. "It's a lovely concept, especially the charity aspect," he said. "But I'm not sure it's for me. I don't like candles and I don't like phones. I have always thought that there is no such thing as a free lunch."

Maybe not, but in an era where even our best-known stars are feeling the pinch, the younger celebrities look as hungry as ever for free gifts.