Here’s one thing we know: Sponsored events are prevalent in the current meeting and event climate, but there fewer during the COVID-19 downturn. Securing a sponsor for an event is still very much possible, but it will take more flexibility and research for event planners.
“Simply put, this has been a tough year for most businesses, especially those within the live in-person events sector, which could be one of the last industries to be able to open their doors or return to their ‘normal’ operations,” says Warren Jones, co-founder of Toasted Life, an event and lifestyle brand that produces events and experiences for young professionals across a number of key markets. “The pandemic has forced so many businesses to adapt, and we are seeing the effects of it in real time as restaurants and other traditional in-person related services are reworking their operations, systems and procedures. It is truly a time for innovation.”
Matt Tuffuor, also a co-founder of Toasted Life, adds that on the sponsorship side, he has seen a few different trends. For one, COVID caused a shock in our economy that not only wiped out large events, but also caused some companies to freeze their sponsorship budgets altogether. These funds went to spending on vital business functions to keep their business afloat. “On the flip side, there are a number of large companies that have immensely reduced their overhead now that their workforce is working from home. These extra savings have been making their way to support things like producing and sponsoring events,” Tuffuor says. For companies, work from home means no more paying for those free lunches that many tech giants provide, no more luxurious team off-sites and no more pricey team happy hours. A lot of companies also saved from the reduced work travel and were able to pocket big savings. “A lot of these savings have been reinvested into different parts of the company, especially around keeping their employees happy with producing digital events or sponsoring creative digital events,” Tuffuor says.
Rachel Nelson, public relations and events manager at Margaux Agency, a health and fitness digital agency in Los Angeles, California says that, from a business standpoint, it’s important for meeting planners to put themselves in the company’s shoes when approaching that company for event sponsorship. Research the company, the industry and how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic. Aim for companies that are digital e-commerce sites, brands or other non brick-and-mortar businesses. “These companies are more likely to be ‘surviving’ the digital shift and be open to sponsorship opportunities,” Nelson says.
Carolyn Davis, CMP, president, and meeting and event planner, at Strategic Meeting Partners LLC, thinks COVID has given a silver lining to sponsors in that sponsors have never gotten the exposure they now have with virtual meetings. “Sponsors are slowly ‘dipping their toes’ into the proverbial virtual event waters and, as they are becoming familiar with the processes and the outcomes, they are getting more comfortable with the ‘new normal,’” Davis says.
Ann Bruttell, president of Meeting Coordinators Inc. says that the first problem of event sponsorship, of course, is that in-person events are very limited, so it is difficult to obtain sponsors since the exposure is low. “However, direct relationships seem to work well for those companies that want to sponsor event webinars and Zoom meetings,” Bruttell says. “This is especially true if you allow your sponsor to promote in advance and direct one-on-one follow-up after the event.”
Gail Bower, president of Bower & Co. Consulting LLC, and author of “How to Jump-start Your Sponsorship Strategy in Tough Times,” says organizations with sponsored events are all facing tumult since in-person events have been cancelled, postponed, condensed or converted to virtual. Some have successfully worked with their sponsors to transform sponsorship commitments of in-person events into commitments of the virtual or delayed versions. “Some nonprofit event leaders, for example, asked their sponsors to simply donate those investments, especially if their events were cancelled,” Bower says. “Many organizations, including my best clients, are creating brand new value and opportunities that are attractive to sponsors’ needs today.”
Re-Engaging With Potential Event Sponsors
If you had asked Keith Willard, president of Keith Willard Events, about the status of event sponsorships last spring, it would have been more about postponing events, but it became pretty evident that there wouldn’t be any large-scale events late last year in hopes that it could be held this year. “We [were] still getting some sponsorships because budgets state that it must be given [last] calendar year,” Willard says. “In these cases, we are using the funds to prepay vendors or using them for multiple smaller events. Specifically for the Southern Most AIDS Ride, which normally happens in November, we [changed] the format from 165 miles in two days to a three-day event where participants [were] connected via an app, and we changed the 165 miles to doing something 165 times — 165 pushups or 165 laps . . . but it [was] over three days.”
Due to the pandemic, a great deal of uncertainty exists for in-person events, and many states still have limits on the number of people who can safely gather until the vaccine is more widely available. “Until then, event planners need to get creative about what sponsorship value they have to offer, which is likely to be very different from value before the pandemic began,” Bower says. This focus on value will make all the difference when attracting sponsors. “Corporations, rightly, will be concerned about deriving return on their investments,” Bower adds. “Generic sponsorship programs, like gold, silver and bronze packages, will not cut it.”
At the forefront of an event planner’s future sponsorship pitch, Nelson suggests clearly communicating the event sponsors’ return on investment. Outline exactly what event sponsors will gain from participating in the event, then include the goals and details of the event. “Whether that is social media reach, increased revenue, attendees or other means of return, be clear and concise with how they will benefit from your event,” Nelson says. “The goal is to make the sponsor feel like they need to participate in your event, and that you’re doing them a favor by including them, rather than them helping you with funding. That isn’t to take away from being appreciative and grateful for their contribution.”
And remember that a lack of research, empathy and over-persistent follow up will be detrimental to a planner’s relationship with an event sponsor. That’s why Nelson recommends conducting research on how the company is being impacted by the current climate and only reach out if you know it’s within the brand’s means. “If the company is unable to contribute, be understanding and connect later down the line when things are better,” Nelson says. “Hold the rebuttals, say ‘thank you’ for getting back to you, and move on to the next opportunity.”
Bruttell adds that this is where it helps if a meeting or event planner has built strong relationships with sponsors before the pandemic. “People want to work with people they know and trust, especially when time and money is at a premium,” Bruttell says.
Indeed, Willard stresses that marketing is everything to event sponsors. Finding ways to bring a sponsor’s name up in articles, online podcasts, webinars and such is the first option to entice sponsors as the industry recovers. A second idea is creating several smaller events, so instead of the one big event, they get marketed to multiple smaller, and sometimes online, events.
Keri McIntosh, senior vice president of events at The Castle Group, says event planners should meet with sponsors, and potential sponsors, to get a deep understanding of their goals and objectives, especially if their industry has had significant changes. “When developing your program, take these goals into consideration and plan for all audiences — attendees, speakers and sponsors/exhibitors. Find creative ways to involve your sponsors into the program content,” McIntosh says. For example, when a New York City-based client of The Castle Group couldn’t host their live event, virtual attendees received a sponsored gift box with items to help make the most of their virtual experience. This included a pizza delivery gift card for a themed pizza party held during the event. The party, hosted over a lunch session, included several ice breakers as well as business content and a Q&A. “The sponsor was able to interact and converse with attendees in a casual setting, which was one of the goals,” McIntosh says.
Jennifer D. Collins, CMP, DES, president and CEO of JDC Events, agrees that future event sponsorship should start with asking what potential sponsors are trying to achieve. This will not only dictate how the event should flow — i.e., less or more content — but it will help identify the best platform to deliver the goal. For instance, at JDC Events, they had clients who were interested in networking, engagement and strong content for both their live and digital events. “However, how we delivered it digitally would be different than in-person. So we had to design an online experience for our sponsors that delivered these goals in a different way,” Collins says. “This was in the form of designing strategies where people could speak with each other via video throughout the event.” The JDC team worked with sponsors to feature a draw such as unique swag, a raffle or other items that participants could receive after the event. In order to be eligible, participants would share their information via an electronic business card. Collins created a networking directory where sponsors could reach out to participants directly to schedule meetings. There were also opportunities for sponsors to deliver introduction of keynote presenters or provide thought leadership in the form of videos and scheduled sessions.
Sponsorship of Virtual Events
While in-person events are slowly regaining traction, for virtual event sponsorships, there are certainly unique issues regarding sponsorships that planners need to be considered. As Davis explains, with a virtual event, there is a tremendous amount of attendee data that can be easily provided to a sponsor that an in-person event simply can’t. “Provide sponsors with the number of air time minutes they will have with attendees,” Davis says. “Also provide them with a list of the ways they can meet with attendees: Can they own and moderate a breakout room? Can they have time with the whole audience? Are you offering virtual round tables?” And perhaps offer event sponsors visibility of their logo/branding on the main screen or surrounding the screen, and offer an event sponsor moderator position within the program.
An example of the type of brand-building opportunities virtual events offer to sponsors can be seen in an event by Willard. “We [were] working on a Spooktacular show that we [broadcast] on YouTube — think telethon kind of vibe,” Willard says. “[We connected] to multiple acts . . . with pre-recorded pieces in between, and a live emcee to connect the different segments. Before each segment, it [said] ‘the costume contest is sponsored by’ and [showed] the company. For a title sponsor, their logo [appeared] first before every segment.”
Bower says several issues that event leaders need to consider about virtual sponsorships include:
• Avoid videos from sponsor executives talking about how great their companies are. Sponsors need to focus on adding value to the event.
• Sponsorship is a face-to-face medium, not advertising, so event planners need to think about how to create a brand or product experience for the attendee event in a virtual setting.
• Guide sponsors in developing ways to engage the audience before and after the virtual event.
And remember that it is also important to recognize that there are not any printed materials used with virtual events. Normally, there would be a program, flyers, table tents and even rearview mirror hangers for cars that would help promote the sponsors. “In lieu of these items, you might suggest that their logo is placed in a prominent spot on the organization’s website for six months or a year,” Willard says. “Same would go for any email marketing collateral, and brought up during webinars — even if they are not connected specifically for an event.”
McIntosh points out that one pitfall is selecting a virtual event platform that does not satisfy the overall needs of the sponsors. There are literally hundreds of virtual event platforms on the market today. So, event planners need to make sure the capabilities of the platform match the goals of sponsors. For example, many sponsors are looking for a way to connect with audience members. If this is a goal, make sure the platform offers interaction in the form of chat features, one-on-one meetings, networking lounges, etc. “Also, another mistake event planners should avoid is not giving sponsors enough information, guidance or support about the platform/new virtual environment,” McIntosh says. “Make sure you offer an orientation to the platform you have selected to help them make the most of the virtual experience, and give them some tips and tricks to help them engage with your audience.”
The Castle Group generally offers a recorded orientation/tutorial video prior to the start of the program, which takes users through the platform and highlights the various features. This video can be sent via email ahead of the event and encourages people to log in and get comfortable in the platform. “During the event, offer on-site support,” McIntosh says. “Their success is your success. Become true partners in the process.”
Tuffuor adds that another suggestion is to not just chase the money. Some sponsors may be strapped for cash due to our current climate, but in-kind sponsorships are just as valuable and, in many cases, easier to secure. “These sponsorships can be anything from products to even donated services,” Tuffuor says. “In-kind sponsorships can offset some of your costs which, in turn, increases your event profits.”
Also, Tuffuor advises that event planners make sure to find the right stakeholder and be more patient than they may have been in the past. A lot of companies have downsized, and many people who were initially in charge of distributing or managing sponsorships may be long gone or in a different role within the company. “Once you do find the right person, be patient with cultivating the relationship. Your contact may be wearing more hats than ever before and ramping up in a restructured organization,” Tuffuor says. “And remember, sponsorships aren’t donations; they are investments. This means be sure to align the sponsorship with the new needs of your potential sponsor, which could have been different than before the pandemic. Ensure that their contribution is tied to ROI and true benefits.”
Bower says corporate sponsorship remains one of the most powerful marketing vehicles available to businesses. As such, event leaders who can create integrated opportunities that offer sponsors short-term results and long-term brand equity will win. Businesses and corporations that are great partners and provide value to the eventgoer will be seen as heroes among a community. “Meanwhile, some companies will miss opportunities because they’ll slash marketing budgets, requiring significantly greater investment in the future,” Bower says. “In-person events may be limited now, but humans are social beings, and we will clamor to be together as soon as we can. In-person events and sponsorship of them will resume. In the meantime, creative event producers will engage us through virtual and hybrid means, using technology with innovation, and sponsors will want to join us in these intimate settings.”
Davis recently participated in a virtual event that consisted of sponsor roundtables, which allowed her to hop from table to table, and from breakout room to breakout room. She found it “wildly effective” for both the sponsor promoting their brand as well as for herself, as she was looking to enhance her education. “I believe that forward-thinking sponsors understand the true value of meetings and will continue their support, whether it’s a virtual or face-to-face agenda,” Davis says. “The ROI is proven, so it’s just a matter of tweaking the formula to produce similar results.”
So what do event planners think this year is going to look like in terms of event sponsors? Willard actually thinks this year is going to experience an influx of revenue for sponsorships. “As the larger companies start to ramp up, there is more need than ever to be in front of consumers,” he says. “Also, a lot of the sponsorship budget for 2020 went mostly unused or reduced. There is also the possibility that [those who] pulled sponsorship dollars away from your event might have folded in 2020. Less competition may be a benefit in the coming year.”
Experts agree that the future is uncertain, but Nelson, strongly believes event sponsorships will be more powerful down the line. “The way in which we communicate and engage in partnerships will be more strategic, and therefore stronger than ever,” Nelson says. “This will elevate the success of the event and make objectives that much more attainable.”
When things open up for in-person events, as long as people’s safety is put first, there will be a lot of demand and eagerness for attendees to get back to a “normal world.”
“Attendees are itching for more human connection during this time,” Tuffuor says. “Event producers should be ready for the future high demand. Where there are numbers, the sponsors will follow.” C&IT