The experiential trend seems to be reaching every corner of the meetings industry, including conventions held by associations. The underlying idea is that attendees want meetings to deliver more than a series of “talking head” presentations. They want interaction with speakers, engaging visuals, hands-on encounters with products, dynamic networking receptions in memorable locales and so on.
Convention sponsors, too, want experiences. More specifically, they want the attendee to associate their company, brand or product with an experience at the event. The rationale is that, via experiences, sponsors make a stronger impression on the attendee than they do via a branded knickknack, for example.
Whether it’s branded mugs, pens, bags, lanyards or hand sanitizers, novelties “are kind of trending out of the picture,” observes Megan Ogden, CMP, director, meetings and events with the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).
“Not only are sponsors not as interested in those items as they were in the past, but it also takes a lot of staff time on our end to [deliver them]. You’re working with a supplier to get pricing and samples in, and working on getting them branded and shipped. Attendees put them away and, oftentimes, they get lost. So we’re trying to move toward more of an experience that’s content-related” as a sponsorship opportunity.
“If we can put the logo on an app, email or website and link to their site, that gives more impact than just [displaying] the logo throughout the meeting space.” — Heather M. Seasholtz, CMP
The lower price-point sponsorship items that seem to be maintaining their popularity are those tied in a more integral way to the convention. While not “experiences,” conference apps, Wi-Fi and charging stations are certainly facilitating and enabling the convention experience — more so than many knickknacks do — and thus, put the sponsor’s name in a more relevant context.
In this vein, Heather M. Seasholtz, CMP, director, meetings and events with Talley Management Group, Inc., relates a case where a Talley meeting planner realized that a client’s meeting room was always cold and “as silly as it is, she put blankets as a sponsorship item on her prospectus to fill the need for the attendee, and then the attendee has the blanket with the sponsor’s logo on it to take home with them.”
In that scenario, the sponsor became associated with meeting a pressing need for the attendee, an effect that a branded pen, for example, would not achieve. In another case, personalized centerpieces at a Talley client’s convention dinner were offered as sponsorship items. These items “really showcased their sponsored table vs. just having a logo and a tent card on the table instead,” Seasholtz explains. “It’s something that doesn’t cost much, but has a big impact.”
In theory, a positive impact tied to the sponsor results in a positive memory about their brand and products. And the more experiential the sponsored element is, the more impactful. NACE has seen success offering sponsorship of its Campfire Conversations, which are informal discussions of hot topics that allow for both learning and networking.
“We worked with the hotel to have an afternoon break that was tied to the campfire theme, and they served s’mores and hot chocolates,” Ogden relates. “We were able to get our marshmallows branded [by Platinum-level sponsor Chevron]. Attendees loved that break.”
NACE is also reformatting its awards dinner from the traditional onstage presentation of the awards to a series of 20-minute SmartTalks by award winners discussing their projects. This more engaging kind of recognition event will also be available for sponsorship. Bundling lower and higher price-point sponsorship items is a common practice that allows the association more flexibility in meeting varied sponsorship interests.
“One of our organizations does what’s called an Engagement Sponsorship, which is a bundling of three different items: the conference app, the Wi-Fi and a reception,” says Seasholtz. “We’re also trying to bundle smaller price-point items to create something more impactful.”
Essentially, the potential sponsor is asked, “What are you looking for? What can we create for you? We’re not confined by what’s in the prospectus,” she says.
Educational events are also meaningful sponsorship items. One of Talley’s clients, a hematology group that is meeting next March, is seeing strong sponsorship interest in its satellite symposia, Seasholtz reports.
“The satellite symposia sold out within minutes of opening our sponsorship,” she says. “In fact, we’re trying to rearrange our schedule now to create more satellite symposium opportunities because of how quickly they sold.”
Naturally, experiential education — arguably the most compelling kind — is of great interest to many sponsors. Julie Ichiba, director, professional relations and development with the Association Management Center, has seen the live demos at the Hematology/Oncology Pharmacy Association (HOPA) annual conference become popular sponsorship items. These sessions use the sponsor’s equipment, and thus, have promotional value beyond a mere logo display, for example. A new kind of experience cropping up at many conventions is virtual reality (VR), which can also serve an educational role.
Ichiba notes that VR experiences are one of HOPA’s newer sponsorship opportunities. The technology is presented as pain management therapy that puts the user in tranquil settings that distract him or her from pain, as an alternative to opioids. Other kinds of leading-edge tech elements that can be sponsored include interactive video walls and mobile app games (e.g., those that promote networking and booth visitation). Sponsors that want to position their company as avant-garde may be especially interested in associating themselves with these technologies.
On the more recreational side, the coloring wall in the attendee lounge at the HOPA convention is another newer sponsorship item for the organization. “Some of the nursing associations are really into that,” says Ichiba. “They’ll pick a theme or something specific to their association, and during the breaks, sometimes they’ll have an exhibit hall or an attendee lounge where everybody will go and participate.”
Even photo booths can be considered experiential and memorable, and Seasholtz has seen sponsors take interest in them. “You think it’s kind of cheesy, but people actually love going in and having their photo taken,” she says. “And the frame of the photo can feature the sponsor’s logo with the meeting dates — something that will always be on the attendee’s desk.”
When branding an event such as a reception, the visibility of the sponsor’s name and logo is, of course, critical to their ROI. The visibility can certainly go beyond the conference booklet, signage, tablecloths, napkins and other physical media. Digital media, such as the convention website and app, can greatly enhance visibility.
“If we can put the logo on an app, email or website and link to their site, that gives more impact than just [displaying] the logo throughout the meeting space,” Seasholtz says. “We try to do a showcase email about our sponsors, an email going out just about them.”
These digital placements make ROI measurement easy for the sponsor, via tracking click-throughs. “If the conference app is sponsored, it’s really key to get the analytics from the app company you’re using,” Ogden advises. “They should be able to provide [data on] which screens were shown, how many times, etc.” As far as measuring ROI for sponsored events, attendance is one barometer, as is Twitter commentary on the event.
Typically in the higher echelon of sponsorship opportunities is actual face time with the attendees. Some associations offer these opportunities in a more limited way.
“As conference organizers and conference hosts, sometimes you’re a little uncertain if you want to have a specific face-to-face and allow what’s going to be a sales presentation, which is what you’re usually worried about,” Ogden comments. “Something that we’re doing that’s new is instead of giving the sponsors a microphone, we’re allowing the sponsor to show a video that we approve in advance.”
The video will be played during lunchtime on a loop, or for up to a minute and 30 seconds before a keynote for general session sponsors. “We prefer the video format so we have some control,” Ogden explains. “We can make sure it fits within our time parameters for that specific event, so you’re not having someone on stage talking who you just can’t get off the stage, and they kind of start going rogue in their presentation.”
Not all associations share these concerns, of course, and some will offer companies the opportunity to present to attendees as part of a sponsorship package. HOPA’s Platinum-level sponsorship includes a 45-minute presentation, for example.
“It’s not commercial, but they have the opportunity to talk about something disease-state specific, such as metastatic breast cancer,” says Ichiba.
HOPA’s Industry Relations Council program gives sponsors truly robust face-time opportunities, with Associate, Executive and Premier tiers. At the Premier level, sponsors can host an advisory board with 10 to 15 HOPA members representing top companies.
They can also meet with attendees at receptions, board meetings and an annual summit. Opportunities like these basically provide “access to the members and attendees,” she says. “The sponsors want face time to really pick their brains.”
According to Ichiba, face-time sponsorship opportunities are getting to be standard in the medical association meeting sector. “The average Industry Relations Council may include five to 10 companies instead of the 25 to 30 companies in our case. They’re running similar benefits but maybe not to the same level,” she explains.
What is more, the Industry Relations Council program is year-round. Sponsors can do webinars for members and one-on-one meetings. Sponsorship packages that deliver year-round value are attractive to companies, even if the opportunities are not as robust as those HOPA’s Industry Relations Council provides.
Seasholtz notes that sponsors “want to keep the message going after the meeting. So, we may put their logo in an email blast every other month. That costs us nothing to do if we’re going to be sending an email anyway, but it provides them visibility that could be valuable to them.”
Sponsorship ideas like these seem simple, but devising them along with packages of different opportunities takes forethought. “We try to brainstorm what’s new and exciting, what’s the need that’s not being fulfilled right now that we could get sponsorship for,” says Seasholtz. Staying abreast of similar associations’ sponsorship tactics can also be fruitful.
NACE staff both research and attend those conferences to keep their finger on the pulse of sponsorship trends, Ogden notes. They also keep tabs on how well the offerings on the prospectus are selling, in order to inform future decisions.
“We meet as a team with the sponsorship salesperson, who (then) meets with each sponsor post-event to get the feedback. Then, we look to see which sponsored opportunities were not sold, and the frequency with which they are not being sold. So, let’s put something in their place that might sell.”
The finalized prospectus for the convention should offer numerous opportunities, supplemented by some unlisted offerings. “Depending on what your revenue goals are, you need to find a balance between too many opportunities that the sponsor can see, and some opportunities that might be in your pocket for the potential sponsor that is looking at the list and nothing is of interest to them,” Ogden explains. “I think it’s also important to have some unique opportunities you can present to a potential sponsor or a past sponsor.”
Typically, past sponsors are given first choice of the items, and then it’s a matter of promoting the opportunities by featuring the prospectus on the convention website combined with networking and outreach.
“As an association management company, we may not always have the relation with corporate support, but people on our clients’ boards do because they’re either speaking for corporations or working with them,” Seasholtz explains. “We actually work with our boards, as well, and ask, ‘Do you know of anybody that may be interested in sponsoring our meeting? If you can do an introduction for us, we’ll take it from there.’ Sometimes we just need help getting the door open.”
Usually, emailing a potential corporate sponsor’s marketing department is ineffective, she adds. Cross-promoting lists of opportunities with sister associations may be another option. The small hematology group that Talley represents even attends large conferences in their industry to try to source corporate sponsorships.
The timing of the promotion is also key. Talley begins the sponsorship outreach at least nine months out, and typically, a year out for end-of-year conventions. “Know your calendar. If you’re meeting at the end of November, you don’t want to start marketing for it in January, only because budgets have already been set the previous year,” Seasholtz advises.
While there are always new and intriguing ideas in the sponsorship realm, the “big sellers” in the current market are experiential in nature. Sponsors want to make an impact, not simply remind attendees of their presence in the industry. A sponsored experience fulfills that goal, whether the experience is a networking event, live demonstration, hot topic discussion or a technological element, such as virtual reality, video walls and mobile app games.
Face time with attendees is also prized, whether via a prerecorded video, webinar, live presentation, reception or some other medium. The planner or sponsorship salesperson can make these opportunities even more attractive by bundling them in different ways with lower-priced items and by offering year-round opportunities to connect with members, if possible. Making an impact at the annual convention is great, but why not also “keep the message going” in between conventions, as Seasholtz puts it. AC&F