Stage Props

Conferences are an ideal medium for sponsors to target a captive audience. But organisers must ensure corporate interests support rather than overshadow the needs of delegates.

Most people would be hard-pushed to recall a conference they have attended recently that did not feature some form of sponsorship. It’s a growing aspect of the business and one that organisers rely on increasingly to boost profits. Virtually anything capable of carrying a logo can be included in a sponsorship package. The result: a constant stream of messages targeted at delegates.

A few years ago, sponsorship opportunities were limited to bags and badges. Now sponsors insist their brand appear as often as possible throughout the programme.

Gill Price, commercial director of the Queen Elizabeth II Centre (QEC) in Westminster, says: “Sponsors want to become synonymous with the event and that means presenting their message across all possible media. The sort of items they’ll use include the initial announcement, registration booth, programme, lead slide, and even branded napkins and corporate-coloured flowers with the catering.”

Lighting on the outside of the QEC also allows sponsors to “wash” the building in the exact colour of their brand.

The Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) arranges photo shoots so sponsors can present their brands in a picture that combines the striking architecture of the EICC with Edinburgh castle in the background.

New technology and new media have transformed sponsorship opportunities. Videoconferencing and satellite links have been joined by branded screen-savers, Website hyperlinks, cyber cafés and, most recently, Web-streaming – which can publish a conference speech on the Internet simultaneously.

New media is also changing the face of the travel industry. Quintessential Ide@s, a small, integrated agency with high-profile travel clients including Cosmos and Mark Warner, decided sponsorship would be an excellent way to raise its profile among prospective clients, and show its experience in new media solutions.

At the end of November, the annual Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) convention in Cairns, Australia, provided the ideal opportunity to reach key decision-makers. Quintessential sponsored a nightclub evening in partnership with Cosmos.

Quintessential managing director Andy Melbourne says: “We are already a name in the industry but we are not known as being expert in new media. The benefit of shared sponsorship was that it enabled both of us to do it at lower cost and show the work we have done for Cosmos, and present different types of packages in terms of e-commerce and integrated marketing.”

The sponsorship deal included pre-event advertising in the trade press, acknowledgement in the opening speech, signage both in and outside the venue, regular mentions by the DJ and a photo promotion in the magazine a fortnight after the event. In addition, Cosmos was offered a VIP area within the night club that could be used to entertain special guests.

Melbourne is a firm believer in the benefit of this type of partnership and intends to repeat the exercise. “It gives our client the opportunity to achieve a profile over and above its competitors and to appear at the forefront of the industry. For us, it says we’re not just a supplier, but a partner as well, and that we have something to say about the industry.”

Sometimes a conference can have too many sponsors, which can detract from the event. Organisers usually offer a range of packages at different levels of investment, from a small section of the programme, such as a lunch, through to a solus deal for the entire conference. The danger for a sponsor is that if it doesn’t want or can’t afford exclusivity it may find it is one of a large number of sponsors which lack an individual profile.

But Paul Hussey, director of the Olive Partnership, says small, concentrated bursts of sponsorship can be particularly effective, even if there are other sponsors on the programme. He points out that conference organisers tend to work hard to ensure sponsors get their messages across. After all, they want repeat business.

Hussey particularly recommends conference sponsorship for pharmaceutical companies, which are restricted on how they spend their budget. Because conferences are seen as educational, pharmaceutical companies can sponsor conferences and entertain potential delegates simultaneously.

So conference sponsorship is ideal for companies required to show a balance in their marketing spend between educational and entertainment activities. While there might be ethical concerns about drug company sponsorship, Hussey believes people in the medical and healthcare professions are content to see sponsors involved.

He says: “They will always want to attend if it’s a well-known speaker at the cutting edge. Such events also count towards their continual education, so they are keen to earn points by attending. They know its being sponsored and they understand the restrictions companies face.”

Deborah Lidgett, spokeswoman for the EICC, says it’s down to the organiser and venue manager to manage events and sponsors carefully. “We have to ensure the sponsor does not control the programme and that it is not seen to be pushing its products,” she says.

QEC’s Price goes much further: “Delegates only see it as over-commercialisation if there isn’t a good fit, but sponsorship tends to be relevant nowadays.”

But how easy is it to achieve the right match? As Hussey points out, there is no such thing as a near miss with sponsorship. You either hit the right decision-makers or you don’t. A miss can be a costly mistake.

Most people in the industry agree that organisers give better information on the profile of attendees than they used to. Also, there is increasing interest in small, specialist conferences with a more defined audience.

Miller Freeman sponsorship sales manager Sally Catlin says sponsors should not be overly concerned about the number of delegates an event attracts. “It’s not always about targeting lots of people,” she says. “You have to consider the quality you are getting.”

Catlin also advises prospective sponsors to check an organiser’s credentials: “There are a lot more companies on the market now, and quite a few have fallen by the wayside. Often small companies can’t provide the same level of back-up, in terms of databases, related events or financial security, that a more established company can. Also, if they are new, they have no track record to give you guidance on the level and quality of delegates they attract.”

Catlin denies the criticism that organisers exaggerate the seniority of people attending. “Conferences can be quite expensive and that will usually be enough to deter an organisation from sending a junior person who has no decision-making responsibility,” she says.

In addition to their pre-event homework, sponsors should make the most of the event and any follow-up opportunities. Hussey believes too many sponsors undermine the value of their involvement because of poor attention to detail. He advises clients: “If you’re going to do it, do it well and don’t cut corners on small but important things such as the selection of wines you offer.”

The key issue for prospective sponsors is whether a conference is the best medium. Hussey believes that compared with business-to-business direct media, such as direct mail and telemarketing, conferences offer much less wastage. He also believes because the audience is already receptive a company can communicate its message in a more relaxed way.

Catlin believes clients are far more astute than in the past, and that sponsorship has ceased to be a hard sell. “I don’t have to educate people about sponsorship any more,” she says. “They are generally aware of what is on offer and are quite price aware because there are so many opportunities out there now.”

Organisers have to find new ways to satisfy both delegates and sponsors. Catlin believes one-day events are a solution, because delegates spend less time out of the office and sponsors achieve greater focus and targeting.

One thing is for certain: it’s sponsors who underwrite the industry’s profits and, irrespective of how the market develops, everyone agrees that protecting their interests will be at the top of the agenda.

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