Are budget woes leaving something to be desired with your meetings lately? Wish you could serve more than pretzels and domestic beer at your cocktail party? Maybe some of your meetings have been eliminated altogether due to lack of funds. There is at least one viable solution: open your events up to sponsorship to fund a large portion – sometimes 100 percent – of your bottom line.
“But who would want to sponsor my meeting, anyway?” you may ask. First consider your audience. What do they have in common? What companies that call on your audience members to sell them products or services time and again? If you have a group of real estate brokers attending your meeting, consider contacting builders, financial managers, banks and the like. Are farmers attending your event? Seek out equipment manufacturers, fertilizer distributors and seed companies. Consider the audience, and you have your answer.
Building a Sponsorship Campaign How do you know what to charge? You can back into this number by first determining how much you want to raise in sponsorship dollars. Then divide that by the amount of exhibit spaces or other branding opportunities you have to sell. If your sponsorship pricing is too low, you’ll sell out immediately and wish you’d started out higher. If your pricing is too high, the market will let you know, and you’ll be in the awkward position of offering discounts to fill unsold exhibit spaces, which could anger those who signed on early at full price.
Marketing Your Sponsorship Campaign If you’ve held your event before and have a track record of attendance numbers and demographics, you’re well on your way. Potential sponsors always want to know how many possible (and highly qualified) leads they can draw in exchange for the investment they make. If you’re starting an event from scratch, you’ll have a harder time getting sponsors to commit the first time, so consider outsourcing. Companies that operate sponsorship campaigns typically work on a percentage basis, so there is no risk, and you could reap far more revenue for your meeting compared to doing it yourself.
Selling Techniques Companies hate to be left out if their competition has signed on. If Chevy learns that Ford will be attending or sponsoring an event, Chevy will want to be there in a bigger, splashier way. The flip side of this: Companies love exclusivity, but make it worth your while. Offer Pepsi the opportunity to sign on at the highest level, and guarantee them exclusivity if they do, meaning you will lock out the competition. In the sponsorship campaigns I operate, I typically only offer exclusivity if a company commits at the top level. Otherwise, I’m shooting myself in the foot when it comes to finding other sponsors. If you’re selling sponsorships for a convention of millionaires and you offer exclusivity to the first bank that comes along at any level, you’ve lost the ability to fill the exhibit hall with a dozen other banks.
Build Sponsor Loyalty Every good sponsorship campaign must incorporate something to reward loyal sponsors who participate year after year. For annual sponsorship campaigns, contact last year’s sponsors first, and offer them the first look at this year’s opportunities and a chance to book at a discount long before sending the information to potential new sponsors. This builds a sense of privilege and makes your most loyal sponsors feel valued. Always make them aware, however, that this sneak peek lasts only one month (or whatever your preferred timeline), which also helps to get quick decisions. When you’re done with the preview period, you should have a number of renewals, which means you can populate your Web site or event brochure with sponsor logos. Sponsors love the extra visibility, and all these renewed sponsors will help your credibility when soliciting new companies that aren’t as familiar with your event.
Be Creative Yes, Bronze, Silver and Gold are perfectly fine and functional for your sponsorship levels. Everyone understands the varying levels of importance. But why not have some fun with it if your company’s culture allows? I ran a sponsorship campaign in Las Vegas that named the various levels after members of the Rat Pack. Several sponsors got a kick out of e-mailing me questions about their Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr. sponsorships. I work with other planners who book dozens (or even hundreds) of sponsorships for their companies on an annual basis, and sometimes it’s hard for them to remember whether they’re Bronze or Silver at this particular show or that one, but if they’re the Dean Martin level, it’s hard to forget.
Don’t Just Sell the Basics Every sponsorship campaign should come with varying levels of benefits depending on the cost, but don’t forget about the ancillary opportunities available for sponsorship. Every company wants a speaking opportunity, great branding exposure and access to your attendee mailing list (be sure to inform your attendees during the registration process and offer an opt-out, unless they are employees of your company). I encourage my clients to offer speaking opportunities only to the top sponsors, however, so their events do not turn into three-day-long commercials.
Your registration materials are very attractive branding items for sponsors because every attendee is going to receive them. Lanyards are hugely sought-after for sponsorship—they’re almost always the first item to sell (at practically any price) when I operate a campaign. Handing out attendee gifts? Consider adding a sponsor logo to offset your costs. With a sponsor, you may be able to afford 1GB USB sticks instead of 256MB or polo shirts as opposed to T-shirts. Going green? Sell the opportunity to brand refillable sports bottles to one sponsor and water dispenser branding to another.
Get the Biggest Bang for Your Buck If you’re on an extremely tight budget, there are ways to incorporate sponsors into your meeting that cost very little. For example, you could charge $10,000 for a luncheon sponsorship, which may only cost you a couple hundred dollars for custom napkins with the sponsor’s logo, plus a speaking opportunity at the luncheon. You could alternately sell two non-competing companies a luncheon co-sponsorship at $7,500 each, put both companies’ logos on the same napkins and earn 50 percent more sponsorship revenue.
Beware Rookie Mistakes Although it may be tempting, don’t oversell. Nobody likes a meeting room that looks like Times Square, full of neon billboards and branding overkill. It’s distracting to the attendees, annoying to the sponsors and can cheapen the feel of your meeting. If your walls, slides or signs look something like a NASCAR jacket with every square inch covered with logos, perhaps you’ve gone too far in your efforts. It’s better to scale back on the number of sponsorship opportunities and offer them at a higher price. Remember the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics? If thousands of sponsors are given the honor of being “the official sponsor of the 1984 Olympics,” then in the end it’s really no honor at all.
SHAWNA SUCKOW, CMP, is president of COMPASS Events, an Eagan, Minn.-based company that specializes in sponsorship campaigns. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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