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15 Minutes With...Tom Taraci

Tom Taraci started his company, TJT Motivation, in 1982 after working in sales and marketing for a number of years at a senior level for Fortune 500 companies like Dow Chemical, National Distillers and RJR Nabisco. For RJR Nabisco, in fact, Taraci was Director of Corporate Promotion, which meant running special events and managing the celebrity athlete department, among other things. So he has seen the incentives business from both sides of the desk.

Then the entrepreneurial bug bit him, and he started working as a consultant to Nabisco on the Dinah Shore Golf Tournament. “We began supplying ProAm gifts to Nabisco, and meeting gifts,” Taraci says. “Then gradually we gravitated more toward the meeting and incentive industry,” building a successful company along the way. “We did recognition programs and meeting gift programs that basically involved bulk shipments of merchandise to meeting sites, and the choices for award-winners was so limited that it seemed like everyone got either a cordless phone or a Walkman.”

In 1995, however, Taraci and his company had a moment of revelation. He was walking the aisles of a trade show when, “I happened to pass a guy in a booth with a laptop computer and nothing else.” Turns out he was demonstrating an online merchandise catalog for incentive buyers.

“And when he took me through it, immediately I could see that this was an industry-altering moment – it was obvious what you could do with this,” Taraci says. “You could see that the possibilities were tremendous.”

He immediately took the idea to a client. “He was less than enthused,” Taraci recalls, “but he ran the program that year and it was a tremendous success.”

Of course, programs back then weren’t as technologically sophisticated as today’s online offerings. “The first time we ran the program, we had a print catalog, a fax order form, an 800 number, an email address and the online catalog,” Taraci says. “And people placed orders online, faxed in their orders and then called the 800 number to see if everything was OK. We would get 1,000 phone calls a week from people checking the order.”

Things have come a long way since then. “Now, when you have an online program you get four or five phone calls,” Taraci notes. “Everyone is so familiar with it that things run much more seamlessly.”

That’s not to say that the latest technology alone will ensure success – not by any means. Taraci says that while the Internet was a tremendously powerful and positive force, there were drawbacks in that it became increasingly difficult to set up meetings with people. “Companies were downsized and merged, and people were so busy they would say, ‘Send me an email. Send me a document.’ It was hard to get people to commit to a face-to-face meeting,” he says. “We wracked our brains to figure out what we could do to put ourselves in front of people.”

The solution might seem like a step backward to some. “We decided to produce a very slick book – a combination magazine and catalog that we call a ‘magalog,’” Taraci says. “We would use it to showcase the premier brands we used in our collection – the best of the best – and we called it The Taraci Collection. It would reflect the upscale nature of TJT Motivation’s business and the service we offer our clients. It would also contain articles of interest to our clients and information on the science of the motivation industry.”

Naturally, says Taraci “a lot of people thought we were crazy – and it was definitely an out-of-the-box idea at a time when print catalogs were dying.” But as it turns out, Taraci’s instincts were right, and today The Taraci Collection is generally regarded as one of – if not the – premier catalogs in the industry.

“It has been a tremendous marketing tool for our company, generating many leads, and I’ve never been involved in any kind of direct mail program where presidents and CEOs call the office to compliment the book and ask about projects with us. The latest edition just went out a month ago, and we’ve gotten three new programs as a result.” To add to its luster, The Taraci Collection is now being sold on newsstands in New York City – an unheard of feat for what is essentially an incentive catalog.

Of course, Taraci doesn’t rely solely on the print catalog to get the news out about his company. “This year we came out with another out-of-the-box idea and launched Taraci.com, which is a daily blog that I write containing insights on luxury lifestyles – restaurants, travel destinations, new tech toys, great incentive products and other things we think clients would be interested in,” he says. “Ultimately, it introduces them to the Taraci Collection. Since it launched we’ve seen incremental increases in the number of RFQs and new customer inquiries we’ve received.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, Taraci has other plans in the works as well. “We have to continually update and change our technology, because the programs are so much more sophisticated now,” he says. “I mean, no one knew what a ‘wish list’ was a few years ago. We’ve developed our own gift cards and branded gift cards so program participants can bank points and qualify for more expensive gifts.”

Taraci is also developing more “experiential” gifts like a custom apparel program for men an women, where tailors and apparel samples are brought to a meeting or incentive site and custom slacks, suits, or shirts are made for attendees by a luxury designer. The company is also working on developing a global fulfillment capacity.

Bottom line: “We’re an aspirational society,” Taraci says. “Our clients want their employees and their customers to think they’re the ‘best of the best,’ and they want them to receive rewards that reflect that feeling. That doesn’t mean the budget for a program has to be through the roof, but it’s important that, at whatever level, you’re offering the best possible product– something that people will really aspire to.”

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