Selling an exhibition isn’t just about slotting in stands on a floorplan. Nadia Cameron looks at why organisers are getting increasingly savvy with sponsorship.
In a recent interview with AsiaOne, an Emirates airline executive was asked why the company threw so much money at sponsoring events. The brand has been involved in sponsoring sporting events since 1987, just two years after being established, and had just become title sponsor of the Australian Open golf tournament.
“We have seen our operations grow in many countries after the sponsorship of a big event,” airline manager Nick Rees said. “Sponsorships enable us to connect with passengers through supporting their interests.”
There’s no doubt events sponsorship is a dominant part of many brands’ marketing strategy, providing them with cut-through in a progressively more cluttered media landscape. In addition, it’s becoming an increasingly essential way for exhibition organisers in both the consumer and trade sectors to shore up their net revenues, as well as deliver sophisticated features and content for a more discerning and demanding audience.
Show Sponsorship Services director Louise Robertson identified a number of reasons why an exhibition organiser should be sprucing up its sponsorship offering. As well as adding another dimension to their sales arsenal, it provides an incremental revenue stream they wouldn’t otherwise get access to.
“It can ensure show spend is kept in the event, rather than on external advertising or marketing opportunities,” she pointed out. “If an exhibitor looks to promote themselves further around a show, it keeps the money in your event. It also helps build closer, stronger and more loyal relationships with exhibitors, which is critical to your success.
“Another plus is it advances the event in the eyes of the industry. Having key brands sponsoring makes your show a key brand too. A great example is BAE Systems’ platinum sponsorship of Clarion’s DSEI [Defence Security and Equipment International], because it’s a highly relevant brand and demonstrates the exhibition has the key support of the sector.”
Level of Sophistication
Just as the concept of branding has matured, so too has the sophistication of sponsorship packages. There’s still the odd instance of companies just wanting to pop a logo on a brochure, but invariably the focus is on a particular brand message, product or communication opportunity, rather than simply shouting louder.
To illustrate the point, Media 10 sales director Richard Morey said the organiser was increasingly working with brands to deliver the content of its shows. “A few years ago, you’d have features sponsored by a brand like Virgin Media and it was just a badging exercise,” he explained. “Now, with our Ideal Home Show house of the future, the sponsor’s logo is there but Virgin Media is also making that feature tick. It gives the brand more involvement in the event, and gives them the depth they need with customers.
“Consumers are getting so savvy, what they expect from us is more complex. To deliver that, we have to work with the big brands from concept to production. Without sponsorship, we couldn’t spend the amount of money we spend on the features for our shows. The key to sponsorship working is to make it an integrated part of the show.”
The flip side is also recognising that a sponsorship partnership isn’t going to last forever. As features change, so too can the brand backing them.
“That content has to change, so we find most sponsorship comes to an end naturally,” Morey said. “We’d normally vary the content for two or three years, then you have to change it wholesale or it becomes stale.”
BBC Haymarket head of sponsorship Al Buset said its consumer shows are being brought to life by an increasingly sophisticated relationship with sponsors and up to one-third of its revenue is derived from sponsorship. For example, it is working with telecoms brand Alcatel to spice up its Clothes Show Live with interactive content.
“The key challenge is not falling back on off-the-shelf solutions,” he said. “It’s easy to offer something you have already there but you’ve got to find the right solution for your client.” Coming up with the right package could take 11 months to find, Buset added.
A recent example of its integrated, tailored approach is with Tesco Real Food on the BBC Good Food Show, where the customer journey was based around an experience of the brand. Buset said the sponsorship included pre-show activity, and was linked to recipes in the show guide, which featured a QR code. Attendees who liked one of the recipes cooked by the show’s chefs on stage could scan the QR code and put all the ingredients instantly into their online Tesco shopping basket.
B2B exhibition organiser i2i Events Group also sees sponsorship as a more important part of the mix, particularly with vendors who want to build their activity around a physical presence on the show floor. BETT event director Debbie French said it has had to come up with increasingly imaginative sponsorship options.
“A more cynical person would say sponsorship packages offer a much higher profit margin than exhibition space sales, but that’s only true if you don’t invest time and money into making the packages brilliant and innovative,” she told EN. “The real importance of sponsorship is being able to design solutions around customers’ needs and around the customer intimacy this creates as we work with the sponsors to build offerings just right for them.
“Our customers vary greatly in all sorts of ways from their scale and their resources, to the amount of exposure they’ve had to the markets they want to address, the nature of their products, and the target customers for those. We ask everyone in the i2i business to listen to customers more carefully than ever, really getting to know their needs.
“Obviously that includes our sales team – figuring out what their customers need and working with colleagues to design sponsorship solutions around those.”
Of course, customising any sales solution presents challenges in terms of who controls what. “It’s the tightrope you walk because if you’re working with the likes of BT or M&S, like we do for our celebrity chef theatre, they have their own brand guidelines,” Morey said. “You have to make sure everyone is completely clear about where their content starts and finishes and we as organisers have to retain that control.”
Business Travel Show (BTS) event director David Chapple said up to 20 per cent of its total show revenues comes from sponsorship. He put this down to the brand consciousness of its core exhibitors including airlines, car companies, hotels and travel destinations. Among the types of activities being sponsored are its core hosted buyer programme, networking events, headline sponsorship and education streams.
“Some brands will be looking to supplement their exhibiting presence with other types of activities that could range from pure branding, to positioning themselves in a way that shows them as thought leaders, or getting in front of a target part of the audience,” Chapple said. “It comes down to understanding what the client’s needs are. It’s easy to see sponsorship as a shopping list, but it’s about how we tailor those different offering to match the individual objectives of the sponsor.”
BTS’s new headline sponsor Amadeus has chosen to sponsor the conference because it is keen to position itself as a thought leader, and will present on research especially commissioned to coincide with the trade show, Chapple said.
“We will listen to who it is they want to target – they may want to be a sponsor with a straight product-led speaking slot, but by us talking through their objectives, something entirely different may be more appropriate,” he continued.
“In other cases like our Technology Travel Europe show, the client might opt for a pure logo opportunity because they’re more localised brands or less globally oriented than those at BTS, who the general Joe on the street will be aware of.”
While the organisers and sales specialists EN spoke to agreed the recession was taking its toll on budgets, they differed in their opinion as to how it was impacting the way sponsorship was sold and received.
Robertson saw sponsorship in recessionary times as a way to keep exhibitors onside who are finding it harder to justify really big stands. “Sponsorship packages can retain your share of the customer’s wallet; exhibitors still get a high profile while containing spend, but you get the higher revenue,” she claimed. “It’s a good way of keeping those companies without budget in one year on-board and when that budget does come back, it’s easier to sell them the larger real estate again,” Chapple added. “For example, with our hosted buyers programme we had six sponsors each with a small meeting room, so there were no build costs but they were still able to ‘exhibit’.”
For Morey, sponsorship was one tool organisers had to attract clients with less money to the show. At the same time, challenging market conditions also mean today’s customers scrutinise marketing ROI, forcing organisers to improve how they fulfil sponsorship packages. “It pushes us to design sponsorship packages that build-in robust and transparent measures of ROI,” French said. “We end up with solutions which demonstrate value in really clear, obvious ways.”
Percentage of revenue
The percentage of revenue generated from sponsorship can stretch from five per cent of a show to 30 per cent, depending on its maturity, size and relationship to competitive events around it, Robertson claimed. As an example she said the eCommerce Expo formerly used to get five per cent of revenue from sponsorship, but this crept up to 15 per cent as the show established itself.
“Sponsorship revenue will flatten out, but the maturity of the show does make a difference as people get more confident in your longevity and relevance,” she said. “If you are the weaker show in your chosen market, sponsorship isn’t going to represent as much revenue because if people have to split their budget to cover two events, the percentage of revenue available to your show will be less.”
What is apparent is that selling sponsorship is a specialist sales skill, not an afterthought. Robertson, who was part of the first sponsorship sales team established by Blenheim in the early 1990s, recommended organisers appoint specific people to look after sponsorship, in-house or externally. She admitted sponsorship selling was still inconsistent across the industry and even individual companies to their detriment.
“It has to be part of an integrated marketing strategy for the client,” Roberston continued. “Often people have used sponsorship to close deals, but not looked at it in the context of the exhibitor’s true objectives. I’ve often seen sales people throw in sponsorship for free to keep an exhibitor happy or get a deal over the line. You have to dig deeper, match the client with the right sponsorship opportunity that integrates into their campaign. It’s always the ones that are thrown in that backfire.”
As with most well-established marketing terms, sponsorship has suffered from perception and its own reputation as an expensive and brash marketing tool. There are still plenty of companies out there that believe it is incompatible with their own brand objectives, but it doesn’t have to be.
“I often refer to it as additional marketing opportunities instead of sponsorship,” Robertson said. “Even if you’re a small exhibitor with only £1,500 to spend on a stand, you could still put your logo on the ‘you are here’ signs for £150 and get the benefit of more people knowing you’re there.”
Chapple agreed, pointing out smaller ticket items such as bags, lanyards or floor tiles can be inexpensive to produce and still give brands broader exposure. “Putting a logo on something may cost you the organiser nothing, but it has a perceived value for the exhibitor,” he said.
All for a good cause
With companies increasingly brand aware, sponsorship is a way to stand out from the crowd while also giving back to society. “Many brands today want to leave a lasting, positive message,” Buset said. “Creative sponsorship is an effective way to do that. And given how loud the media marketplace is today, it’s tougher to be heard. Sponsorship allows these brands to stand out. So long as we can meet their specific objectives, we can measure sponsorship and give these brands a tangible ROI.
Robertson agreed there had been a shift on the B2C side towards wanting to be associated with corporate social responsibility and good causes, not just generating sales leads. She saw the London 2012 Olympics as a great example of the influence and importance of sponsorship for brands as a way to give back to society.
“The Olympics was a highly positive sponsorship opportunity and the epitome of a great live event,” Buset added. “Brands now see live events as a climax to a fully integrated marketing campaign. All the threads therefore have to feed into your sponsorship solution.
“Just look at what Virgin Media did: It focused on a sporting icon, Usain Bolt, throughout all of its campaigns, which all fed into the live event sponsorship of the Olympics.”
Another communications breakthrough significantly changing perceptions and delivery of sponsorship is digital media. Traditionally difficult to measure, sponsorship can now be supplemented with an emailer, online registration presence, banners or other digital collateral, instantly becoming more quantifiable.
“You want to promote a sponsor before, during and after the show and with online tools, you can solve two of these things straight away,” Robertson said. “Mobile is opening up further opportunities, but until we prove how many people want to use them and in what way, I’m more likely to integrate that into a package. It’s a fantastic opportunity but not necessarily there yet.
“What is fantastic is to sponsor online registration – it broadens your reach and is measurable.”
So how do organisers ensure they deliver effective sponsorship packages?
First step: Don’t overegg it. It’s better to exceed expectations than disappoint them.
“Don’t overpromise the benefits of a package just to make a quick sale; this is a longer-term play,” French advised. “Don’t rely on sending out brochures and waiting for business; your sponsorship inventory will remain unsold because a much more consultative approach is needed.
“Again I’d stress you really need to build in ways of your clients measuring ROI very easily.”
Robertson saw communication across the team as the first key. “Not communicating leads to so many errors in the fulfilment of sponsorship,” she said.
A further potential pitfall is cost. Organisers need to be aware of what the associated costs are before they agree to a package. “For example, do they know how much it costs to rig a banner?” Robertson asked.
If you don’t align the opportunity with the objectives, also there’s no gain for the sponsor. “Ensure a sponsor’s expectations are always met by agreeing and defining all aspects of the package, including fulfilment, within the agreement,” Robertson continued. “In doing so the organiser can maintain overall control and the sponsor is happy with the end result.
“With sponsorship, there’s so much fulfilment to be followed up and communication continues after the show. Another way to ensure it’s delivered is with dedicated account management; that way you’re seeing how it all comes together from start to finish.”
Sponsorship is not always as quantifiable as other, more traditional media routes but it offers attributes that can not be achieved elsewhere including exclusivity, credibility and affinity. In addition, the increasing plethora of online and social media offerings can give a degree of measurability to most campaigns if that is important, Robertson said.
As well as understanding the costs associated with any sponsorship opportunities, organisers need to clarify their event objectives carefully.
“For example, are you looking to fund features you are not able to budget for? Be aware if this is the case,” Robertson advised. “The sponsorship is only worth what a sponsor in a particular market sector is prepared to pay for it. This could be less or greater than the feature you hope to create. Attributing a perceived value at the outset can be tricky, but closeness to the market, demand and experience will help determine the value.”
Robertson admitted in most scenarios sponsorship was a critical net revenue stream for an exhibition. In that case, she advised organisers to identify budgeted features in advance of any agreements while still keeping in mind the strategic importance of sponsorship opportunities.
“With due care and attention, organisers can generate revenues and fulfil sponsor objectives simultaneously,” she said.
Live events popularity
Morey claimed the desire for a live events presence was as strong as ever, making intelligent sponsorship packages that offered interactivity a continually lucrative avenue for an organiser. As more and more brands turn to third-party marketing agencies for help with increasingly sophisticated marketing campaigns, he also saw an opportunity for organisers that could offer brand experiences to shine further.
“Brands do have a real appetite to get involved and particularly with experiential events,” Morey said. “You can’t replace that nose-to-nose experience, but you’ve got to be clever and be able to do things differently.”
What is clear is that one organiser’s lack of sponsorship nous can be detrimental for all. And as with most sales stories, the way we do things represents more than the individual deal. By lifting their game collectively, organisers will open the door to a whole new level of interaction with exhibitors.
“We need the whole industry doing this as well because we all know if a brand like Waitrose has a bad experience at one event, it puts them off all shows,” Morey concluded.
This was first published in the December edition of EN. Any comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org