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TIFF '13: Esther Garnick, Swag Master
Esther Garnick's no-celebs-allowed Essentials Lounge will gift $1600 worth of product to media this TIFF. Someone better tell Bieber this is what real swag looks like.

All photos by Ryan Emberley

Some call her the “Santa Claus of TIFF”– the patron saint of overworked, underpaid media during the season of film festivities. One person tried to sell me on “Garnick the Gifterian.” Whatever you call her, people really, really like Esther Garnick this time of year. She’s the Director of Publicity of her own boutique PR firm, EGPR, but – more pressingly, because we in the media like our free shit – she heads up the Essentials Lounge along with Senior Publicist Jessica Denomme.

The Essentials Lounge is a beautiful little thing that takes place the day before TIFF begins. Where other gifting lounges cater to celebrities (‘celebrities’ often being an optimistic genteelism for Canadian C-listers), this one cuts through the crap and places products right in the hands of the media. No celebs allowed– even if Drake or Brad Pitt e-mail tomorrow and want to come.

“Well, we’d let Drake work the lounge. That’s actually one of my dreams. He could hand out bags, but he wouldn’t be going home with one,” laughs Garnick.

While the lounge certainly rakes in the green stuff (brands pay undisclosed amounts to participate), Garnick is adamant she’d never include a product that isn’t legitimately useful to media who cover the fest.  “Sometimes there are brands where I wish I could just take their sacks of money… but that doesn’t benefit the lounge in the long run,” she says. For the brands she does take in, she makes sure their ‘gift’ is actually worthwhile. For one thing, she’s not a fan of coupons. “For example, if Louis Vuitton gives you a $100 voucher for a bag, the brand thinks ‘We’ve given you $100,’ but you see it as ‘Great, you’ve invited me to spend $1000 on your product,’” explains Garnick. “Most vouchers, even if they’re really great, just end up in the recycling.”

Things you’ll see in a typical Essentials Lounge haul? Last year there was makeup from Benefit, a 3-day juice cleanse from Raw Juice Guru, mountains of John Frieda hair care, Calvin Klein underwear, Elizabeth Grant skin care, an on-site spray tan, eyelash extensions from WINKS, and much more. In addition to returning partners, this year will see swag from the likes of Sorel, HP, and Aveda added to the mix. The total takeaway will be worth approximately $1600.

So who gets the golden ticket to the land of glorious free things? Mostly traditional fashion, beauty, and lifestyle media who cover TIFF. The mix is rounded out with a few bloggers, although Garnick admits she’s wary of the blogosphere because it’s hard to measure influence (paid-for Twitter followers, anyone?) and there are a lot of people who just party or, in this case, lounge hop to guzzle free drinks and take selfies. 

As for those who don’t make the cut? Garnick and Denomme do get e-mails from would-be loungers trying to finagle an invite, but claim they’re never rude in return. “I won’t insult anyone, even if they insult me. Even if they try to tell me they have a million unique views and think I won’t know something doesn’t add up… because that is insulting,” says Garnick. 

Those familiar with the gifting lounge circuit will tell you it’s all fun and games until a PR girl gets pissed because you didn’t like a product and had the gall to share that information with your readers. Garnick admits she can be sensitive, but isn’t a fan of the blacklist treatment favoured by some other local PR despots. After all, it is a lounge geared at media, who should (although you sometimes wouldn’t know it these days) have independent thoughts and opinions. But there is a line. “There are some people who I have never seen write, post, or even say anything positive. Why would I want to introduce brands we believe in, and a lounge we’ve worked so hard on, to those sorts of people?” asks Garnick. “That said, there are maybe two people like that, in the whole country, who I can think of.” 

Garnick and Denomme start planning the lounge as far back as January and pile on the hours as TIFF looms closer, but it seems their plates aren’t quite full enough. Garnick plans to take the Essentials Lounge to other major events in the States. Her eyes are set on New York Fashion Week, but she thinks the lounge would work anywhere where there are “hordes of starving, tired media who get paid in champagne… and not even real champagne.” Finally, someone who understands.

____

Sabrina Maddeaux is Toronto Standard’s managing editor. Follow her on Twitter at @sabrinamaddeaux.

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