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Prevent, Save, and Replace: How to Deal with Sponsor Volatility

Mandy Burnette

When planning high profile events, sponsorships are typically secured months or even years in advance. If the event has been operating for a while, you might enjoy the luxury of sponsors that commit year after year. It’s terrific to have this type of reliable support you can count on. But don’t get

too comfortable…

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Imagine a signature event designed to showcase your community to residents and visitors alike. Perhaps a golf tournament, organized by the chamber and the Convention & Visitors Bureau, taking place at several courses throughout the city. The multi-day event, with significant media coverage, high attendance, and big branding for your organization, brings in significant revenue through sponsorship, and is a major part of your events budget. Six months before the event, you lose your title sponsor — valued at $100,000 — due to a major corporate realignment that forces them to significantly reduce their marketing and sponsorship budget in your market.  It is not a reflection on the event, but simply an unfortunate situation. What would you do? Do you know which member(s) to call who can step in to help you out?

Relationship-building with members is key to understanding their needs from your organization. Some companies support your chamber for altruistic reasons. Others seek opportunities to grow their business. And a smaller segment of members understand the value of highly targeted sponsorship and marketing opportunities available through your organization’s events and programs.

Higher dollar, presenting-level sponsorship, often $25,000 or more annually for some chambers, is not feasible for all members. However, certain companies will agree to large sponsorships because they want to showcase their products and services in front of your members — their prospective customers. These members can make a significantly positive impact on non-dues revenue goals by providing critical sponsorship support.

Working with sponsors at a presenting-level capacity requires great attention to detail and flexibility. But sometimes, no matter what we do, a sponsor may decline the opportunity to partner with the chamber on an event in the future. It may be that the sponsorship did not fulfill their ROI expectations, they may have envisioned a short-term opportunity in conjunction with a marketing campaign or product launch, or perhaps, as in many cases, budget cuts force them to walk away.

Prevent a big loss

Maintaining positive ongoing relationships is the key to sponsor success. According to Amber Greenwood, vice president, resource development, at the Greater Waco (TX) Chamber, sponsor conversations are “a two-way street of communication.  We are in constant feedback with our title and presenting sponsors regarding our events.” Because of the high level of communication with sponsors, Greater Waco has been fortunate not to lose many presenting sponsors.  

High-level sponsors require a bit more attention and flexibility. After all, they are trying to maximize their sponsor experience to meet their goals and objectives. While you cannot cater to every whim, it is important to fully understand the sponsor’s needs early in the discussion and work with them as best you can. When talking with prospective presenting sponsors, I encourage an open dialogue to learn more about their expectations from the chamber, as we are often able to provide “soft benefits” that enhance their experience, exceed expectations, and hopefully make them eager to return again the following year.

Save the day

Top-level sponsorships can be difficult to replace, considering the price tag. Therefore, do everything you can to ensure a good fit for the sponsor rather than having to replace them. Sometimes this involves simply adjusting the sponsor benefits to add value to the existing package, but sometimes you may need to take a look at the event itself. Such was the case for the Richmond Folk Festival, an event attracting 190,000 people to downtown Richmond’s riverfront over three days in October. One of the event’s stage sponsors, a six-figure investment, indicated they might decrease or even discontinue their support of the event because they felt their stage did not get enough traffic.

Lisa Sims, director of events for the festival’s organizer, Venture Richmond, and her team quickly assessed the situation and saved the sponsor by increasing programming on the stage when other stages were not active, changing the stage’s angle, adding additional signage referencing the stage throughout the festival site, increasing the size of a food court near the stage, and placing a beer sales truck in the food court, essentially “spiffing up” the entire area. The sponsor stayed, and traffic increased. According to Sims, “All in all, the sponsor’s suggestions forced us to do what we probably should have been doing anyway, and, in retrospect, we, our sponsor and our patrons are happier with the result.”

There are times when you might need to adjust more than the benefits or event aesthetics to keep the sponsor. Adjusting the cost of a sponsorship is not ideal, and should be considered a last resort, but at times it may be warranted. In 2010, the economy forced some of the Greater Richmond (VA) Chamber’s longtime members to re-evaluate their sponsorship participation, including a high visibility, presenting sponsor for the Annual Dinner. The staff investigated to see if another member company might be interested, but did not receive any firm commitments. As the deadline to secure sponsorship commitments neared, the Chamber decided to lower the price of the sponsorship slightly to maintain the relationship with the existing sponsor. The member appreciated the gesture and is strongly considering coming back at the full sponsorship rate this year.

 

 

Understand the sponsor’s goals and motivations

Tips for Working With Big Sponsors:

Pay attention to detail and be flexible

Maintain positive ongoing relationships

➜ Adjust benefits or event aesthetics as necessary to keep a sponsor

Consider adjusting the cost as a last resort if preserving the relationship with the sponsor is important for future events

Have a strategy/recovery plan in place “just in case”

 

Replacing a Loss 

No matter what we do to save a relationship, we may be faced with a sponsor that declines the opportunity to renew its partnership with our

According to Greenwood, this was the case in Waco when they lost a high-level presenting sponsor for a Sport Series Luncheon widely attended by the community. The sponsorship was lost not due to the event, but because of the sponsoring company’s decision to cut back on marketing dollars. Within days, Waco was able to replace, and even increase, the level of sponsorship due to the success and market exposure of the event.

This was also the case for the Richmond Sports Backers, organizers of events such as the SunTrust Richmond Marathon and the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10K. A long-time presenting sponsor of a shorter distance race associated with the marathon determined they could no longer support the event as their marketing strategy had changed. According to Jeff Fitch, director of development and sponsorship for the Sports Backers, the staff “nurtured the relationship with a company that provided medical services for the event. We packaged a cash component to create a larger scale sponsorship opportunity that provided greater exposure for the sponsor throughout the event’s footprint.” An opportunity like this does not happen often, but when it does, it is a win-win for both the sponsor and the organization.

Plan Ahead

Replacing a high-dollar sponsor is not always easy, so having a strategy in place in advance is important. The Nashville (TN) Area Chamber has prepared a recovery plan just in case they should lose a top-level sponsor. According to Wendy Stoneberger, IOM, the chamber’s vice president, programs and events, “We begin prospecting by thinking about the event audience and who most needs to be in front of them. We might also factor in who is in the news or advertising lately, the time of year, and who is launching initiatives around the time of the event. If there are sponsors we are courting, we will save a table at the next event for our own entertainment purposes.” Taking care of prospective sponsors can be a deciding factor in securing the relationship.

Sponsors are often the best source of objective feedback about your event, as they have the greatest vested interest (next to the chamber, of course) in the event’s success. Fully understanding your sponsors’ needs and expectations, as well as communication preferences, allows you to provide a positive, valuable sponsorship experience that makes the decision to renew a relatively easy one. However, if you are faced with the possibility of losing a big sponsor, having a recovery plan in place will be critical to your success.

Mandy Burnette is manager of investor relations for the Greater Richmond (VA) Chamber. She can be reached at (804) 783-9379 or mandy.burnette@grcc.com.

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