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According to IEG Sponsorship Services, a Chicago-based sponsorship research and analysis firm, more than $13 billion will be spent on sponsorship programs this year in North America alone. Of that, sports will get the lion's share, at 66 percent. But the remaining 34 percent is split among other types of meetings and events, including those of associations and membership organizations, and other festivals and fairs. In fact, IEG predicts that this year, some $401 million will go to sponsoring events for associations and membership organizations alone. So meeting planners—of all stripes—are well advised to tap into the flow of sponsorship dollars.

Successful Meetings talked to experts in the field of sponsorship as well as meeting planners who've developed successful strategies to determine the keys to building and nurturing sponsorships.

KNOW YOUR NEEDS

Planners looking to secure sponsorships must define their needs. "First, determine your costs and what you're trying to accomplish," recommends LaVerne Mathews, who solicits and secures sponsors for small businesses from her office in Lansing, MI. "Are you looking to profit or simply to cover costs?"

Then, planners should start seeking sponsors immediately. "Sponsorship can't be treated as an afterthought," says Alyssa Rosinski, founder of Arlington, VA-based AMR Event Resources, who sells sponsorship packages for trade shows. "When it is, planners find themselves saying, 'We need $25,000 for this event, and we're two months out.' That's not going to work. You need to really start pushing when you send your meeting prospectus out." Planners of annual events say they start working on signing up sponsors for the next year's event as soon as the current year's event concludes. "We start [working on the next year] right away, within a month of the completion of the event," Mathews says. "If you are soliciting corporate sponsors, you have a window of opportunity that usually opens and closes within a matter of weeks. So, we send a thank-you and a save-next-year's-date right then."

SET YOUR STRATEGY

When looking for new sponsors, planners should first "step back, look at the industry, and identify the trends and marketing strategies for the meetings," suggests Brad Jersey, chief strategic officer of Opus Solutions, an integrated event management firm based in Portland, OR. "Then, identify the market valuations for the particular event you're looking to sponsor. Who's coming? What organization might want to be in front of that group?"

Deborah Gaffney, director of conference planning for the Washington D.C.-based association Tax Executives Institute (TEI), says she finds potential sponsors for her events both within and beyond the association's industry. Gaffney says that the best—and most lucrative—potential sponsors are those who have a specific reason to want to expose their brand to your audience. "If you're the National Auto Dealers Association, for example, you'd of course look at Ford or GM," she says. So when TEI began its program for sponsorship of its annual conferences five years ago, Gaffney first reached out to the heavyweights in the corporate tax community, many of whom she was already familiar with. "We had quite a bit of pent-up demand for interaction with our members," she says, noting that the association had been in existence for 45 years before it started offering a sponsorship program. "We also have a bimonthly magazine, with advertisers, so that was a sort of ready-made list we could immediately reach out to."

She found sponsorships to be a lucrative source of income. After five years, Gaffney's conference sponsorship program now accounts for a full 21 percent of her association's overall operating revenue.

An additional field of sponsors can be found through a deep familiarity with your attendees. "Another way of going about it is getting past the normal demographic information and into their interests and passions and lifestyles," says Dan Kowitz, vice president of IEG Sponsorship Services. "You know their professional interests, but outside of that, do research within your own constituency to understand whether your members are skiers or pet lovers, for example. This can give you an additional field of potential [lifestyle-driven] sponsors, and breaks beyond a lot of what marketers have traditionally thought are the most important demographics to consider."

Finally, Gaffney says, "Many associations go out to large corporations or other entities as what I call 'goodwill sponsors.' You might be the association for family social workers, for example, but you ask Verizon, let's say, to sponsor your tote bags. Verizon has nothing to do with what your members do specifically, but Verizon has a big department that makes conscious public service decisions about getting its name out."

BUILD A PROGRAM

Sponsorship programs take many forms. Some planners seek sponsors to underwrite specific items or segments of their meetings and events; one company provides the tote bags, another provides the lanyards, a third sponsors the luncheon, and so on. "The types of items and services that can be sponsored like this are really only limited by one's imagination," says Gaffney, adding that this kind of sponsorship can be taken all the way down to the rolls of toilet paper in the restrooms. She's exaggerating, but only slightly. "We made a conscious decision here at TEI not to go down the sponsored toilet paper route."

Instead, TEI devised a tiered sponsorship program that offers four levels of participation and exposure at each of the association's events. Gaffney, who has about 35 sponsors involved in the program at any given time, says TEI chose this strategy for two reasons. "First, the sponsorship money goes directly into our general revenue, not into our conference income, which enables us to keep registration fees and membership dues down, and that's important to our members," she says. And she doesn't do item-by-item sponsorship, she adds, because of the possibility that "some or all of that money should dry up. I don't want, one year, to have a considerable amount of money for an upgraded banquet, and then the next year, I have no sponsor for that and I'm ordering plain chicken. That would be noticeable."

Others prefer to approach sponsorship on more of a flexible, case-by-case basis. "I think an a la carte method serves everyone better," says Jeanne Eury, managing partner of Flying Flamingo Sales & Marketing Group, a Raleigh, NC-based firm that consults on and develops sponsorship programs. She adds that this approach broadens the pool of potential sponsors by offering more of something for everyone.

Some planners also endorse a more individualized strategy, because sponsorship programs custom-made for each sponsor inherently deliver more value. "If you sit down with the company's marketing people, you'll find they are very specific about what they want and how they want it," says Mathews. "It's a better strategy, because it helps you to determine what you will offer them." Of course, this approach is far more time-consuming. "The negotiation process will be more involved, with deeper discussions that will take longer, but they are built around a different set of expectations on everyone's behalf. There is a larger opportunity here from a partnering perspective," says Opus Solutions' Jersey.

When Jersey produced technology shows around the country, he learned to build custom-made sponsorship programs for his underwriters. "We reached out to a leading computer hardware provider, and we were talking about millions of dollars to be the lead sponsor of this series of events," Jersey says. Because the shows attracted hundreds of thousands of medium-sized, technology-buying businesses, Jersey tried in his sales pitch to emphasize the value of the brand exposure the hardware provider would achieve through the sponsorship. But, he says, the company, which already had a household-name brand, wasn't interested.

Through continued conversations, however, Jersey learned that the hardware company wanted access to certain qualified buyers, who happened to be involved in the event series. "Here's an organization that spent more than three million dollars on our series, and all they wanted was to sit down and have a conversation with maybe eight people at each event," Jersey says. "So I offered him an exclusive breakfast with just those individuals before each event kicked off, to talk about their [needs]." The deal was done, and the sponsor was "wildly pleased with two years of participation," according to Jersey.

FOLLOWING UP

Increasingly, sponsors are also demanding a full accounting of how and where their money was used and what it returned to them. "Maybe 15 years ago, a company might have said, 'We'll give $50,000 to support the industry, city, or do the right thing,' " says IEG's Kowitz. "That is definitely not the case anymore. Sponsors have less to spend and more places to spend it, so they have to know that what they purchased is really getting them where they need to go. They demand accountability."

The best way to demonstrate accountability is through fulfillment reports, which show exactly how the sponsor's dollars were spent and what that spending achieved. "After each event, I put together a binder with everything we have done—all their marketing pieces, the banners, mentions, table tops, table tents—so they have that readily accessible and can see exactly what they've accomplished through the sponsorship, rather than picking up little pieces of it here and there," says Mathews. "It's an actual blow-by-blow on how you spent the money and how you achieved the goal of getting them their benefits, after the fact."

Kowitz says it's difficult to overstate the importance of this sort of follow-up. "This is an absolute essential, and one of the biggest keys to re-signing and renewing sponsors." He recommends that planners and sponsors agree up front on specific metrics by which to evaluate success.

With so many balls already in the air, planners might find it hard to give sponsorship attainment, development, and retention its due attention. But those who do find it well worth the effort.

"If you take the time to offer a compelling value proposition for your partners, it can turn into substantial sponsorship dollars that allow you to do what you want for your event," Jersey says. "Whether you're doing industry meetings or corporate meetings, you can find and define partnering strategies that would really work at any level."


SIDEBARS

What Sponsors Want

"If not done properly, sponsorship is nothing but philanthropy," says Jeanne Eury, managing partner of Flying Flamingo Sales and Marketing Group. And indeed, sponsors aren't giving away their money for free. Dan Kowitz, vice president of Chicago's IEG Sponsorship Services, a company that tracks sponsorship objectives, identifies several key trends in what sponsors want. "Increasing brand loyalty has overtaken increasing brand awareness [as a sponsorship goal]," Kowitz says. "This means that while sponsors still want the traditional sponsorship perks—signage, table top, product samples, and so on—they also look for a more sophisticated communication of their presence."

Kowitz says two of the most important elements in a sponsorship program are built-in relevance and authenticity. Building in relevance, Kowitz says, means "working with sponsors to help support very relevant things within your organization." So instead of giving a sponsor an opportunity to hang a banner in support of your organization generally, and offering a public word of thanks here and there, Kowitz encourages planners to provide sponsors with a way of putting some of their funds toward specific grants or awards in the industry. "Maybe a portion of their sponsorship goes to help support students who are studying to join the field," he says. "That makes their contribution much more relevant to the audience than simply saying, 'We support your group this year.' "

To create a sense of authenticity, Kowitz recommends allowing sponsors to "be a part of a special industry survey or research that couldn't happen any other way. That makes it clear that the sponsor is working together with you to further the industry's interests in a very specific way," rather than simply another generic show of monetary support.


Case Study: Preferred Partners

In 2000, The American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) had been offering its sponsorship program for about 15 years. That year, ACHE, with the help of Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Services, examined the program and decided to restructure its format. Rather than providing individual event-sponsorship opportunities, ACHE began promoting year-long corporate partnerships at two levels. They didn't come cheap: In 2005, the corporate partner level cost $100,000; the premier corporate partner level cost $185,000.

"We've learned to make these partnerships truly effective for a corporate partner and to enable them to derive the relationship-building that they're looking to achieve," says Peggy Gordon, ACHE's vice president of corporate partnerships. To that end, ACHE's corporate partnerships offer sponsors not only involvement in the association's educational offerings, but also targeted networking opportunities with ACHE's 33,000 members, product and service discounts, and advertising and identity-building prospects on its website and in its magazine.

"Moving to the year-long package has had tremendous benefits," Gordon says. "We put together an activation list for each partner, so they know what benefits to expect and on what timetable, and they know what they need from us and what we need from them. It's much more direct, specific, and easier to manage." Gordon says that in 2001, the program's first year, sponsorships generated just over $750,000. In 2006, revenues were close to $2 million. In the intervening years, Gordon says, her sponsorship renewal rate was approximately 80 percent, and ACHE, which accepts only 12 corporate partnerships at one time, boasts a waiting list of major corporations hoping to participate.