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WHEN PETE WATSON, VICE PRESIDENT, Orange County sales manager with LandAmerica/Commonwealth, a real estate transaction company, brought his top producers from the state of California to the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, he saved a bundle — without cutting corners. How? He had sponsors picking up some of the tab. “We had two different banks vying to put up money to be there,” he says. “We came up with two events so they could each be there.” One sponsored the top producers' dinner and the other a motivational speech by Vince Lombardi Jr.

Watson's meeting is one example of a growing trend toward corporate event sponsorships. While the association market has long sold convention visibility to defray the costs of their events, corporations are getting in on the act, helping to secure meetings and conventions as a small niche of the enormous worldwide sponsorship market.

Targeted Marketing

Just how enormous that market is is a question tackled each year by IEG Sponsorship Report, the newsletter of the sponsorship industry. According to the results of its 19th annual industry forecast, published in December 2002, North American organizations alone spent $9.65 billion (yes, billion) in 2002 to sponsor sports, community events, causes, the arts, entertainment, and, to a far lesser degree, meetings and conventions. That's a lot of money looking for a targeted audience, and spending is expected to hit $10.52 billion this year.

What makes sponsorship marketing so popular? “The thinking in the marketing world is that consumers are bombarded with messages every day,” says Bill Chipps, senior editor with IEG Sponsorship Report. While consumers tend to block out most marketing, he says, “Sponsorships let companies make an emotional connection to consumers. Also, compared to traditional media, sponsorships provide a lot of arms and legs.” The “arms and legs” are the varied opportunities to touch your target market. At a meeting, that might mean signage in the venue, thank-yous from the podium, mentions on the schedule, permission to host a hospitality suite, or a spot for a sponsoring company executive in the golf tournament.

“It goes back to how people learn,” says Linda Higgison, CEO of The TCI Cos., Washington, D.C., who consults on event sponsorship development. Marketers, she says, realize that people are so blitzed by advertising that they need to deliver their message in a range of formats: “Auditory so they can hear it, visual so they can see it, and kinesthetic so they can experience it, or they may not get the message at all.” Meetings, she says, provide that experiential marketing component. “You've got to give them not only the exposures, but what sponsors are really looking at now is building a personal relationship with the target audience. That is the emotional impact,” she says.

Sponsors, says Chipps, are looking for visibility, and “the more sophisticated a company becomes with its marketing efforts, the more it wants to reach a targeted demographic. … I think increasingly companies are taking a closer look at sponsoring corporate meetings and events. I don't have any numbers to back that up, but I do think that this is a property type that is getting on more sponsors' radar screens.”

Catching On

Paul Queen also has his eye on this trend. Senior director of the Strategic Alliance and Partnership Marketing practice at Carlson Marketing Group, Minneapolis, Queen says that tech companies have led the meeting sponsorship field because of the unique relationship they have with their suppliers. Because hardware and software companies' products are dependent on each other, they realized early on that partnerships, including meeting partnerships, were essential. Queen observes, however, that others are catching on.

“There is a trend in the marketplace toward greater acceptability [of meeting sponsorships] away from the high-tech marketplace. I think this has to do with the resurgence in this country of the brand. Fifteen years ago, people wouldn't have been caught dead with a shirt with a brand on it. Now it's very acceptable. All of a sudden it is acceptable to think in terms of bringing in associated brands and thinking of opportunities for sponsorship.”

Queen's colleague at Carlson, Anne Pryor, senior manager, business development, cites a sponsorship program the company is working on for a national business retailer interested in tapping into a business-to-business niche. The retailer is hosting a business meeting and expo for women. The company is inviting leaders and CEOs of women-owned businesses. “They engaged us to come up with the sponsorship strategy to help offset costs and add value and increase attendance at the event. Some of the sponsors will be the retailer's existing vendors or manufacturers,” Pryor says. Others will be pitched based on the demographics and psychographics of the attendees. For example, she says, a nonprofit organization that wants to get in front of these business leaders might become a sponsor.

Getting Respect

Queen has seen the trend toward sponsorship of corporate meetings gain ground in the last two years, especially among financial, insurance, and automotive companies. Pharmaceutical companies, he says, are also a good candidate for sponsorship dollars.

“We did a major presentation for a pharmaceutical company recently. They have a huge amount of targeted internal meetings that they use for marketing and sales development, and for professional development. We started by looking at the array of meetings that were available and then began matching up brands and different sponsorship concepts. The thing that struck us was the very desirable demographic of the attendees. Our proposal and our thought process went to those [sponsors] that were really an arm's length from the pharmaceutical industry — for various reasons — and then we started getting into brand image.”

Queen's research found that real estate companies, high-end cars, spas, and high-end lifestyle products were good sponsor possibilities if a particular company also fit in the pharma company's partner guidelines: They had to be a brand leaders, appear tasteful in the marketplace, and be perceived as having high quality.

“People are getting more creative,” says Queen. “They're assessing their assets.” He cites the tech market in particular, where companies are branching out from the B-to-B sponsorships. “Sure they have the affiliate relationships, but now they are seeing the assets that are there with their developers. Now they're interested in bringing in lifestyle kinds of companies for entertainment value and to help offset costs during their evening events.

“We're finding that our clients are interested in sponsoring different kinds of events,” says Queen, “whether they be meetings, incentives, sales meetings, association events — as long as they can find the right target audience. Sponsorships have become quite respectable.”

Do you use sponsorships to offset the cost of your corporate event? Let us hear about your challenges and successes. Write to CMI at [email protected] [2].

Making It Happen

If you think your meeting is sponsorship-worthy, the next step is find the internal or external resources to make it happen. Anne Pryor, senior manager, business development for Carlson Marketing Group's Strategic Alliance and Partnership Marketing practice, suggests that a full-time sponsorship manager is needed to be the liaison between the sponsors and the company. The manager, she says, is responsible for

  • creating the solicitation materials
  • getting the commitment for the event
  • on-site support: making sure, for example, that signs are printed correctly
  • managing the approval process for the creative
  • troubleshooting
  • overseeing the billing and accounts receivable process
  • sending thank-you notes and doing followup
  • measuring results through surveys

The research to find the best sponsors is the longest phase of the project, says Linda Higgison, CEO of The TCI Cos., Washington, D.C. “The most effective sponsorship is when you identify who you want on your team as the sponsor. Study that corporation and find out specifically how you can help them. You need to give them a solution instead of a sponsorship offering.” She suggests a pitch that says something like, “‘I see this is a market you want to go after, and our meeting, golf tournament, dinner, or whatever is a solution for this’ and why and how.”

While it can be difficult in today's economic times to find the people and the dollars for a new project, the cost of acquiring a sponsorship versus the additional revenue brought into an event is a rewarding ratio, says Paul Queen, Carlson's senior director strategic alliance and partnership marketing. “In our experience, one of the lower ROIs is four to one. And for some, particularly the high-tech events, eight to one, 10 to one is certainly a return that we can accomplish.”

What Can Be Sponsored?

Education sessions
Hotel key cards
Badges and lanyards
Bottled water
Pens and note pads in the educational sessions
Business center
Hospitality suites
Tote bags
Meeting Web site
Ground transportation
Audiovisual services
Morning newspaper delivery
Golf tournament or individual golf holes
Golf course refreshment cart
Band or other entertainment
In-room gifts
Message boards