Conference Sponsorship: Expectation vs. Reality

A conference is a wonderful opportunity to meet like-minded people in your niche or industry. Your business has hosted a conference in the past, but that was small potatoes compared to what you plan to do this time. Now you want a gargantuan conference and you think sponsorship will get you there.

Can it? Sure, but you must have realistic goals and expectations. Lately, I’ve been on a tear writing posts on what not to do in sponsorship, such as this one, this one, and let’s not forget about this one.

Today’s post comes to you in a similar style. I want to showcase why it’s so, so important to do your research before you ever reach out to the sponsor. When your expectations are tapered around reality, you can come to the sponsor with actionable plans that are likely to work. You also avoid wasting anyone’s time, which is a must if you want to forge a good working relationship with the sponsor.

These 6 sets of expectation vs. reality are mistakes anyone can make when chasing conference sponsorship. While it’s good to have big dreams, remember to bring yourself back down to earth when you start getting carried away with all those crazy expectations.

This post will show you how to do just that, so let’s get started!

Expectation: You Can Get a Huge Venue Through Sponsorship

The first time you hosted a conference a year ago, all the funding came out of your own pocket. That’s why the conference ended up taking place in a small hotel lobby. You were disappointed with the lack of ambiance but you didn’t let it show because you still wanted to impress your attendees.

You know you can do so much better with your conference this second time around. That’s why you want the backing of a sponsor. Once you secure an arrangement with them, surely you’ll have all the funding you need to host your conference in a luxe hotel or maybe even an expo hall. It’s going to be awesome!

Reality: You Should Get a Venue Based on Projected Attendance, Not Lofty Ideals

Before you begin calling huge venues and trying to book a reservation for your conference, hold up a moment. Wouldn’t it be a little embarrassing if you rented a space that could hold 2,000 people but only had 500 people at your conference? All that extra space will just go to waste and make your event look like a ghost town.

In the meantime, if you had rented a venue that was more accommodative to your true number of attendees, the conference would feel bustling and busy.

May I remind you of what you’re hosting here? It’s a conference, which is just a giant business meeting at the end of the day. Unless your business is the supreme authority in your industry or niche, then you don’t need a ginormous venue for your conference.

Even more so, you shouldn’t want a lot of people at your event. Having too many cooks in the kitchen could hinder the purpose of the conference, which is supposed to be spitball ideas and make progressive change for your industry.

And yes, while some sponsors can provide the funding you need for a huge venue, remember, this is all about expectations versus reality today.

You have to calculate your projected attendance numbers and then choose an appropriate venue based off that data. Everyone from upcoming newlyweds to event planners can estimate their projected attendance, and now it’s your turn.

Okay, so how do you do it? Actually, you can gauge the number of possible attendees in a few ways. You could look at your last conference or similarly sized event and compare how many people attended the event versus those who you invited. That gives you a good number to aim for with this conference.

You might also send out an email questionnaire gauging interest in the conference, but this method isn’t surefire. Someone can act interested in your event, but there’s a big difference between being interested and actually showing up and being there.

For a bit more of a secure option, you can also dig into your competition and see what kinds of events they’ve been throwing lately. If they had a conference with 200 people, then there’s no reason to expect you can’t draw at least as many, especially with the backing of a solid sponsor.

After using one or more of these measures to determine who will show up, if it does indeed turn out that you need a huge venue, then great! More than likely though, you’ll realize you need a smaller space than what you expected.

Expectation: Your Sponsor Is Only Good for Money or Promotions, Otherwise They Can’t Help Your Conference

Your business is still rather small and your cashflow equally sized, so you’re counting on your sponsor for a lot. Without their star power and/or money, you can’t imagine how anyone besides the attendees from last year will show up to your next conference.

When you begin courting sponsors, you’re surprised when a few of them offer alternatives to cold, hard cash. Without cash, your conference is dead in the water, at least in your opinion. It’s money or nothing.

Reality: Sponsors Can Offer a Lot More Than Just Cash

I know the temptation of cash is a great one, but hear me out for a moment. If a sponsor is suggesting something besides money, I can assure you what they’re trying to give you is likely quite valuable.

I wrote a post about 15 things sponsors offer that’s not cash. One such offering is sending new customers your way. Sure, this isn’t the same as a wad of dollars for your conference, but having more customers will pay back dividends later.

If you convert the customers, they could become loyal repeat buyers. The money you earn from customers like these can far outshine what financial incentive a sponsor could have given you. Also, rather than a one-time payment that’s there and then gone in a flash, you have an influx of money coming in over the long-term. What business wouldn’t want that?

The sponsor could also promise web traffic or growth to your social media profiles. Since your business is indeed small, any chances for growth that are afforded to you are ones you should take.

If you really have your heart set on getting something physical out of a sponsorship arrangement, you could possibly receive in-kind goods or services. This isn’t the same as having your conference funded, but it would be nice to not have to worry about paying for food or vendors because the sponsor took care of it.

One of the best things a sponsor can offer besides money is access to other sponsors. Listen, I wouldn’t be writing this blog if sponsorship was easy to achieve. If you have someone who’s willing to put you in touch with a potential sponsor, that’s worth its weight in gold.

Expectation: Sponsors Will Buy Your Pricy Assets if You Put Them in the Gold Package

Speaking of gold, you’ve been eyeing up the gold, silver, and bronze sponsorship packages and you have to admit, you like what you see. You have a list of assets that you believe are of high value. You’ll put most of those in the gold package so you can get all the funding you need for your conference. It’s foolproof!

Reality: Sponsors Will Probably Pass on Working with You

These aren’t good expectations to have, so allow me to poke a few holes in your plan. For one, the gold, silver, and bronze sponsorship tiers are much detested among sponsor companies, and for the exact reason above.

Any smart sponsor can see right through you. They know you’ve taken your valuable assets and hidden them away where the sponsor has no choice but to pay more. What you’re doing is deceptive and a really great way to soil the beginnings of what could have been a beautiful working relationship.

Also, there’s a difference between assets you think are valuable versus those that actually are valuable. That’s why I always recommend that organizations and businesses like yours fairly valuate all your assets by asking the sponsor for their thoughts. You should also look at market research, current economic numbers, and your industry’s competition to get a feel for pricing your assets.

A customized sponsorship package is one that’s fair to both parties, making it the right thing to do. If your assets are interesting enough to the sponsor, trust me, they won’t mind paying, even the big bucks in some cases. When you get pushback from a target sponsor about your sponsorship package, it’s likely that you used the tired tiers and/or that you overpriced your assets.

Expectation: A Big-Name Sponsor Means Your Conference Will Promote Itself

You’ve paid for a bit of advertising around the Internet for your conference, but that’s getting expensive and still not yielding the ticket sales you’re looking for. If only you had a sponsor with a household name akin to Adidas or Amazon. Then your conference would promote itself with no further efforts from you.

Reality: Failing to Promote Your Conference Will Lead to Poor Attendance

Hopefully, you still have some time to go before your conference, because relying on your sponsor alone won’t promote your event like magic with no further work from you.

Will the announcement of a sponsorship agreement lead to a spike in ticket sales and traffic to your socials and website? Yes, but you know how the news is. What’s hot right now is old news in five minutes. That short spike in activity is nice but not sustainable enough to draw the attendance numbers you want.

You absolutely must keep promoting your conference even once you have a sponsor. I’d say that you should do that even if you have five sponsors. Now you do have double the promotion, as the sponsor company will share the news of the conference among their audience, but it looks irresponsible on your end if the sponsor is the only one doing the promoting.

Keep paying for those ads, keep posting on social media, keep sending out email reminders, and otherwise doing your part. It’ll all be worth it.

Expectation: Having a Sponsor for Your Conference Means All the Work is on Them

Okay, so you have to promote your event, but as for planning it? Doesn’t that take care of itself now that your sponsor is on board? Your attendees won’t be disappointed with your conference since you have the backing of a big sponsor, so you don’t need much else.

Reality: You Still Have to Plan Your Conference with Input from the Sponsor

Conferences aren’t really like other big events in that they’re more about business meetings and synergy, but you should never put on an event of any kind with no plans on what to do.

Like your sponsor will help promote your conference, they can work with you to cement plans for the event. The sponsor will expect you to have already come up with a handful of ideas for the conference though. They’ll offer suggestions and meet you halfway on things, but they’re not planning your event for you.

If you’re stumped on where to start, I have a post chock full of activation ideas for conferences. Giveaways make the conference seem less stuffy and boring. A VR booth or two, especially if they’re branded by your sponsor, will also add some memorability to your conference.

Don’t be afraid to inject some fun into the event when appropriate. Tell stories, play some games, but tie everything back to the purpose of the conference. If you do this, your attendees won’t be able to wait until next year’s conference because you made this one fun, educational, and productive.

Expectation: Your Conference Will Be an In-Person Event

Do you remember when you used to have a life that allowed you to go out when you wanted, see who you liked, and generally do as you wished? Then 2020 happened. Life is still completely upside down, and that’s likely not going to change as one year ends and the next begins.

If you had an in-person conference calendared for 2020 or even the first part of 2021, I won’t sugar-coat it: your event is not going on as intended. That just is what it is.

Reality: Not for the Foreseeable Future, It Won’t Be

Now, don’t get me wrong, events aren’t stopping altogether. They’ve just become virtual instead. I suspect that even once we’re all allowed back out into the world again as we once were that virtual events are still going to stick around in some capacity.

Virtual events are easier on the event planner, not to mention less expensive too. You don’t have to pay for a venue or vendors like lights, music, and food. You can also increase your capacity for attendees when hosting a virtual event.

In many ways though, virtual events are very similar to those we hold in physical spaces. You still need to attract attendees to the event through promotions, in which case a sponsor could come in handy. You still need booths and other interactive experiences for your attendees so the event is worth their while.

I just wrote a great post about selling digital sponsorship to a skeptic. If you missed it and you soon plan on hosting a virtual conference, then I strongly recommend you go back and give that post a read.

I also have an online-based course for nailing your next digital sponsored event that you might want to check out. You’ll be glad you did!

Conclusion

If you’ve never worked with a sponsor before, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself with all your expectations for your conference. You must not put the cart before the horse. If you come at your sponsor with fantastical expectations, the sponsor could take your expectations as promises. Then, when you fail to deliver, you sour that relationship, possibly even permanently.

A conference is a chance for individuals in your industry to meet and discuss the future of that industry and how to make it better. Don’t try to conflate a conference with other large events. Let it be what it is and you’ll be off to a good start.

My last takeaway is this: sponsorship can do a lot of things for your conference, but not everything. You still have to plan the event and promote it, so don’t leave those crucial duties just to your sponsor! Take care of your end to ensure the success of your conference.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Baylis is the President and CEO of The Sponsorship Collective and a self-confessed sponsorship geek.

After several years as a sponsor (that’s right, the one investing the money!) Chris decided to cross over to the sponsorship sales side where he has personally closed tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship deals. Chris has been on the front lines of multi-million dollar sponsorship agreements and has built and coached teams to do the same.

Chris now spends his time working with clients to value their assets and build strategies that drive sales. An accomplished speaker and international consultant, Chris has helped his clients raise millions in sponsorship dollars.

Connect with Chris via: The Sponsorship Collective | Twitter | LinkedIn