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Optics Still Matter for Sponsorships!

Since the start of the pandemic when our industry essentially was “cancelled until further notice”, planners have contended with offering alternative solutions to accommodate their sponsors for fundraising events, association conferences, awards galas, corporate events, and trade shows. The financial ramifications of sponsor revenue being suspended for more than a year definitely brought an assortment of challenges for both companies and associations who counted on that revenue.

We’re always a resourceful industry so we adapted quickly by learning how to deliver virtually. We did our best to create innovative ways to engage audiences and keep sponsors involved with remote opportunities. (And, in my opinion, our industry needed a full year to actually learn how to USE the virtual platform successfully.)

For the past 12 years, I’ve worked with a national non-profit organization in the health space to plan a gala that raises more than a quarter of a million dollars annually. Most of the sponsor revenue is generated from sponsors in the medical and pharmaceutical community. In 2020, we took a huge hit by cancelling the fall 2020 event, and many conversations transpired with sponsors. Even without an event anchor, we still needed to raise funds to ensure the continuation of the association’s programs. Thankfully, response was positive, and here’s why: We never lost sight of the fact that our sponsor companies supported our purpose. Glamorous perks were the furthest thing from their minds.

Fast forward to spring and summer 2021. We are definitely (thankfully) coming out the other side of the pandemic! What our industry thought would be a slow recovery toward normalcy has, in fact, become a tsunami of rushed business activity with the events and conferences BOOMING back to life almost faster than we can keep up!  And, yet, with such fantastic industry news, there are remnants from the pandemic we need to remain cognizant about. At the top of the list is OPTICS, which matters as much now as it did during the darkest days of COVID.

Recently, a social media post popped up asking about sponsor perks caught my eye, and as I perused the ideas being suggested, my mouth gaped open in shock!

The suggestions, offered only to the VIPs, ranged from providing tableside wine/pour service, to cordoned-off private entertainment, private servers, a nicer thank you gift, and “glowing” tables! What struck me is that every suggestion SCREAMED “look at me, look at me”. The comments hit me deeply because the suggestions demonstrated levels of “exclusivity” versus inclusiveness.

In today’s business and social climate, exclusivity is no longer acceptable. Post-pandemic, standing out too brightly is not what sponsors are after. We have so many options available to thank sponsors that will not only meet their goals but also make them feel special without anyone ever feeling excluded! Never lose sight that sponsors have a purpose behind donating money to support events and causes. Sponsors don’t want to stick out with exclusive benefits. Rather, they are counting on the planner to offer options that demonstrate inclusiveness. (Cancel culture is real and it is fickle. It’s better to play it safe.)

Optics matter so make it part of your high-level conversations!
As you meet with stakeholders to define goals and objectives, develop sponsor packages, and collaborate with the production team to design the “feel” for in-person events, it’s imperative to guide the conversation about OPTICS and discuss them before making decisions.

I know the “fun stuff” is important for the sponsor experience. In the early years of my career, I was in the limousine business and became an expert at working alongside planners for high-end charity events, and later, as a conference planner for non-profits. We always had high-end sponsors whom we needed to accommodate. I learned creative ways to make those sponsors feel special without breaking the bank!

Working with wealthy donors and corporate sponsors has taught me this: While they want the VIP experience, they want it executed with good taste.  In other words, they do not want to stand out with exclusive offerings that might be misconstrued publicly.

Here are some thoughtful ideas to take care of sponsors that will be received well and acknowledged with thanks:

  • Find creative ways for sponsors to become a part of the show. Here’s an example from a gala event I planned where Mercedes Benz was a high-level sponsor: I arranged a double-wide red carpet down the center of the ballroom and coordinated having the MB contacts, the Executive Director and the incoming President, in a convertible that was driven down the red carpet with them inside the car waving to the audience. Once they reached the stage, we auctioned off the car for a scholarship fund. Talk about exposure and good will! Afterwards the feedback from the MB contact was, “I don’t know how we will ever top this.”
  • Elevate the Limousine Transfer Experience: You may arrange to have the chauffeur hand the donor a personal note as they get in the car (from the fundraising organization’s CEO or Executive Director), have chilled champagne ready, and coordinate personal greetings for those sponsors upon arrival at the entrance to the hotel/venue then walk them to the reception area. That’s VIP right there!
  • VIP Gifting: I’ve been to events where only the VIPs got a gift bag, or it was bigger, or brighter than the regular giftbags. First of all, your sponsors don’t want to carry around a gift bag or deal with finding a place to set it at their table. Whether you’ve put together a high-level swag bag or you want to send a personal (and purposeful) gift, put some thought and care into it. Make arrangements to ship the gift to their home before or after the event, and be sure to include a hand-written thank you note from the CEO or Executive Director. This goes a long way and it’s tasteful. (I can assure you that seeing the VIP gifts at the event will never be what sways regular attendees to increase their donations at next year’s fundraiser.)

Marketing benefits will always matter to sponsors. As we venture forward with in-person events, the hybrid model will continue to play an important role. Let’s use it to our advantage to offer sponsors opportunities to expand their reach, such as:

  • Incorporate the sponsor into the streaming portions of the event to spotlight them using videos or commercials for the “armchair attendees” to enjoy at home.
  • Invite sponsors to schedule standalone educational webinars throughout the year to keep sponsors connected to the audience and avoid complete stagnation.
  • Increase the social media presence of your sponsors beyond simply putting their logo on a graphic! Invite their CEO to share a 30-second video message about your event and their purpose for participating, or ask the sponsor to send along a 30-second commercial spot to share on your platforms.
  • Utilize their logos in programs and in power point presentations: This may sound nitpicky, but I cringe when I see sponsor logos in print or on screen that have a white background and look slapped onto the slide. Take the time to make them look good by either asking for a logo with a transparent background (such as an eps or transparent png format) or plan to use a white box or strip to place the logo inside of for a clean, sleek look.

Our industry has entered such an exciting time coming out of the pandemic. This is our chance to NOT continue doing what we’ve always done, in the way we always did it! We’ve had a year and a half to become more knowledgeable about cultural trends, be more flexible by providing multiple ways for attendees to access events, and embrace using virtual and hybrid experiences to broaden our audiences. We can capture more sponsors globally, and keep them enthused with creative sponsorship offerings that are inclusive, purposeful, and fun!