Sponsorship of conferences is a growing medium, with companies using events ever more creatively to expose and boost their profiles. But only relationships which add value to all parties are likely to succeed.

Conference sponsorship has come a long way since the days of slapping your logo on the delegates’ wallets or vying for the privilege of branding their badges and biros. These days anything – or almost anything – is possible.

Indeed, thumbing through conference brochures yields all manner of sponsorship opportunities from flower arrangements – in corporate colours – and coffee and muffins, to credits for the creation of presentation slides.

“Conference sponsorship has become increasingly popular over the past five years and increasingly sophisticated,” says The Event Organisation Company managing director Vanessa Cotton.

Gill Price, commercial director of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, agrees: “It is up to the conference organiser’s imagination as to what sponsorship opportunities they can offer. The market has developed dramatically over the past few years because it is being approached in a much more innovative and creative way.”

Price cites the QEII Conference Centre’s own sponsorship of a coffee break at the recent Meeting Planners International conference as an example. “There were only 95 delegates but they were some of the most important people to us and, having just finished a major building programme, we had new facilities to tell them about,” she says.

“Sponsoring the coffee break was a highly cost-effective way of promoting our new facilities. For a few hundred pounds we had the opportunity to badge the coffee break, give out our brochures and to talk to everyone – after all, we had paid for their muffins.”

George Farrow, senior executive retail banking at NatWest, says: “Conference sponsorship is a useful way of getting decision makers’ time, which is very valuable and expensive for them, at a low cost to us. It is a more cost-effective way of engaging them than advertising.”

The corporate side of NatWest, which only deals with companies with a turnover in excess of 1m, has sponsored a wide range of events from export excellence awards, which Farrow says cost a six-figure sum, to finance director seminars costing a mere 5,000.

The bank looks for opportunities to “expose our products and our capabilities” to appropriate audiences. “We always aim to get a brochure stand in a position where delegates have to walk past it to get to their seats and we try to get a speaker on the programme – not to give them a hard sell, but to demonstrate that we do understand their issues,” says Farrow.

Ashley Steel, Europe industry manager for Microsoft’s retail banking division, insists on fielding a speaker if they are involved in sponsorship.

“That way we know we are getting our message across,” he says. “We also want to be actively involved in the creation of the programme and its content.” The division has been involved in conference sponsorship for five years and Steel, like Farrow, highlights its ability to show commitment to customers and to reach the right ones.

“We are very choosy. Of the dozens of approaches we get every year, we take up one or two. We look for events that will attract the right level of delegate rather than large numbers,” he adds.

Sponsorship opportunities range from component sponsorship, which covers elements like delegate bags, badges, stationery, flowers, coffee breaks and meals, to what is called partnership sponsorship. Cotton at The Event Organisation Company says that organisers will always sell traditional components, but some look to “go way beyond that” to attract sponsors that can “ally themselves with the overall theme”.

“We develop a hierarchy of sponsorship. The companies at the highest levels are buying an association, not simply a branding opportunity, so they are far more involved than just handing over their money and approving the promotional T-shirt design,” Cotton says. That involvement manifests itself most obviously in promotional material for the event, including press conferences. Its aim is that delegates cannot fail to notice through accreditation, promotion, branding and visibility that the sponsor played an important role in making the event happen, Cotton adds. “That sort of partnership links the aims and objectives of the conference to the sponsor and is endorsed by the organiser.”

Between branding biros and being joined at the hip, there are a wide range of elements that can be sponsored. Examples include providing transport between hotels and the conference centre, offering free secretarial services for delegates, equipping and/or manning press facilities, sponsoring the provision of extra staff to welcome delegates or operate business centres, paying for the entire business centre facilities and even creating on-site Internet cafés.

Last year, BT created a cyber café at Globecom 96, an international conference and exhibition devoted to the future of telecoms. In addition to being popular with delegates, who could send and retrieve e-mail and access the Internet free of charge, it fitted with BT’s overall marketing objectives.

Conference sponsorship must clearly be mutually beneficial: the event must fit strategically into the sponsor’s marketing plans and the sponsor must be able to add value to the conference. “Sponsorship enriches an event,” says Price. “For instance, free phone cards which carry the sponsor’s brand and are inserted into delegate packs, are of great assistance at international conferences because everyone likes to phone home.”

If sponsorship opportunities are limited only by an organiser’s imagination, there must be a danger of all those sponsorships becoming so much wallpaper or, worse, intrusive. “Organisers must keep sponsorship to what is really relevant. Simply trying to generate as much money as possible could be dangerous,” says Price.

Cotton echoes Price’s sentiments: “We are rigorous in our approach and we would never prostitute an event so that commerce overtook its intellectual merit,” she asserts.

Crown Business Communications client services director Richard Gill agrees: “There must be synergy between the event and its sponsors, and we select sponsors on that basis. Our first priority is to look at how sponsorship will enhance the audience’s experience. Everything else must come second,” he says.

Particular care must be taken with sponsorship packages that include a presentation slot in the conference itself – as with NatWest and Microsoft.

“It is not common, but increasingly people are exploring having their lead sponsors actually speak to the audience,” says Gill. “It can be very useful for the sponsor if it is seen to give a considered view of the market; it demonstrates the confidence of market leadership. But it must be credible and useful – the audience must learn something from it. Otherwise it can have a negative effect.”

Price takes a dim view of the practice, which sounds suspiciously similar to buying editorial with advertising: “It has been tried and people are terribly uncomfortable with it. They treat that sort of thing with a huge amount of wariness and disdain. A speaker chosen by a sponsor is unlikely to be seen in a good light. I would go as far as to say that I think it is bad practice, because it could bring the integrity of an event into question,” she comments.

Sponsorship has become so prevalent that many conferences and awards dinners would not be able to go ahead without it, so it stands to reason that organisers should be looking for commercial support as early as possible.

“You are asking for quite substantial sums of money, so ideally the conference should be planned into someone’s marketing budget, rather than you approaching them with a great opportunity that fits strategically, but wasn’t known about in time, and wasn’t written into the budget,” says Price.

In an ideal world, Gill says, he would like a year to plan and sell sponsorship, but rarely enjoys the luxury. “Sometimes it is weeks rather than months,” he notes. “Lead times are getting shorter and shorter.”

Post-event evaluation – for both organisers and sponsors – frequently relies on delegate questionnaires. Sponsors that have bought access to delegate lists have the opportunity to both follow up and further their relationship with delegates. “However,” says Farrow, “evaluating the effectiveness of conference sponsorship is always very tricky. In a way it is like corporate hospitality – you almost rely on anecdotal evidence.”

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