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How to Upgrade Your Exhibitors into Sponsors 

Before you dive in, if you are interested in conference sponsorship, check out these titles in our “sponsorship for conferences” series:
How to Plan a Conference: A Step-by-Step Guide
How to Market a Conference: Everything You Need to Fill Your Event
How to Plan a Virtual Conference
Conference Sponsorship Proposal Template
Conference Sponsorship: Expectation vs. Reality
Sponsorship for Virtual Events, Conferences and Meetings
How to Get Conference Sponsorship the Right Way
Seven Sponsorship Activation Ideas for Your Next Conference that Audiences will LOVE
How to Increase Traffic to Your Exhibit Hall

Every time you host an event or convention, you always have lots of exhibitors who are eager to display their services or products. You typically let them because you’ve always had a hard time securing sponsors, and the presence of the exhibitors makes your event look less empty. You’d love it if your exhibitors could become your sponsors, but how?

Here’s how to upgrade your exhibitors into sponsors:

  • Learn more about your audience 
  • Have a discovery session with your exhibitors 
  • Craft a list of tailored assets and activations 
  • Negotiate terms 
  • Create a contract
  • Produce a fulfillment report to keep them around for next year

Unsurprisingly, the key to converting an exhibitor into a sponsor is to follow basic sponsorship protocols. In this guide, I’ll take you through the above steps in great detail so you can make your exhibitors more than people who take up space at your event but are valued sponsors!

The Difference Between an Exhibitor and a Sponsor

Before I dive into the steps from the intro, I want to make it clear. Although you sometimes hear of people using the terms exhibitor and sponsor interchangeably, that couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Allow me to explain. 

This Is What an Exhibitor Does

An exhibitor is a person or company that showcases its wares at an event. These wares are usually products or services. 

You, as the event host, would provide exhibition space on the event floor for your exhibitor. The exhibitor usually buys this space. 

The exhibitor arrives the day of the show, sets up their goods, and waits for people to come by. They can sell their products or services on the event floor or at least generate interest. Exhibiting is also useful for lead gen.

Besides the fee the exhibitor paid for their exhibition space or booth space, there’s no money changing hands between you and the exhibitor. 

If they sell products or services during your event, then they make the lion’s share of the earnings. (You might get a cut per event terms or you might not).

After the event ends, if the exhibitor felt like the event generated a good enough turnout, then the exhibitor might discuss exhibiting at your next event. If they feel like your event was a dud, then you might never hear from them again.

An exhibitor is largely in it for their own goals. They’re using your event as the launching pad to achieve those goals. In exchange, you get an exhibitor who will hopefully drum up interest in your event.

The exhibitor isn’t trying to actively help your event succeed. They’re not invested in your company or organization, nor your event or conference. 

They paid to get their booth space like everyone else, and that’s about it. 

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This Is What a Sponsor Does

A sponsor does share some similarities with exhibitors regarding their presence at an event or conference.

Sponsors usually have booth space as well, especially for experiential marketing opportunities known as activations. 

However, that’s about where the similarities end.

While an exhibitor might come to you first or the other way around, sponsors do not come to you. Well, unless you’ve generated a big enough following, then maybe. For the most part, you have to pursue a sponsor. 

Sponsors want to do more than just be there at your event and showcase products or services. They have goals they’re trying to achieve, and they’re looking for a specific type of audience to achieve those goals. 

If that’s your audience, then a sponsor is typically a lot more interested in working together.

A sponsor doesn’t pay a fee for exhibition space at your event or conference. Rather, in exchange for you helping the sponsor achieve their goals, they’ll give you something in return.

This is usually money in the case of cash sponsors, but it doesn’t exclusively have to be cash. You can also have a media sponsor that gets you more mentions in the press.

In-kind or contra sponsors provide free food or free merch for your event. 

The investment of a sponsor is a lot greater than the investment of an exhibitor. A sponsor is not solely there for themselves. If your event succeeds and gets a huge turnout, that’s more of their target audience (i.e., your audience) that they can reach. 

6 Steps to Upgrade Exhibitors into Sponsors

Now that you have a clearer understanding of what sets exhibitors and sponsors apart, you’re probably more eager than ever to convert your exhibitors into sponsors.

Per the steps in the intro, here’s how it’s done.

Learn More About Your Audience and the Kinds of Exhibitors They’re Interested In

I hope I proved in the last section that your audience is integral to the sponsorship process. 

It doesn’t matter whether a company is an SMB or a Fortune-500 brand. Every company wants to expand its audience base. 

Usually, to do that, a company has to invest a lot of time and money into researching its current audience to determine which segments comprise its ideal target audience.

Now imagine if that information was served up on a silver platter to a sponsor. Of course, they’re going to be interested.

That’s why audience data is such a major part of the sponsorship process. 

The best way to learn about your audience is to issue them a survey. 

As I discussed in this post on the blog, the survey should be all-encompassing. 

You want to ask about your audience members’ demographics (age, gender, marital status, number of kids, job industry, job title), their geographics (location), and their psychographics.

Psychographics are behavioral motivators and the most telling part of the audience survey. 

Your psychographic questions should pertain to audience usage and interests outside of your company or organization. 

This is your chance to glean what kinds of products, services, and brands your audience consumes the most.

This data can directly influence your future choice of sponsors, or, in the more immediate future, your exhibitors. 

Now that you’re looking at your exhibitors in a new light (that of potential sponsors), it’s about so much more than bodies filling spaces.

You want exhibitors that gel with the interests of your audience. 

I’ll use the classic example here. If most of your audience is vegetarian or vegan, you wouldn’t want a beef company exhibiting at your event. 

They’re going to give out free samples, which your attendees are going to avoid like the plague.

Now, if the company makes plant-based beef substitutes, that’s up your audience’s alley. They’ll visit the exhibitor’s booth in droves.

That said, not every exhibitor you have on your event list might necessarily gel with your audience the right way. That’s a lot likelier if the only criteria you used for selecting exhibitors was if they had the availability on the day of your event.

If you don’t have a long-term relationship with an exhibitor, then it’s okay to quietly part ways with them. 

You wouldn’t reach out to them about working together again. If they contacted you about the same, then you can explain that you’ve reprioritized your event and are looking for different kinds of partners at this time. 

You don’t have to go into every detail with your explanation, but don’t be overly vague, either.

Have a Discovery Session with Your Exhibitors

After doing your audience research, you have a pool of exhibitors who could become sponsors. The pool is smaller than it was to start with, but that’s okay. 

You know through audience research that your audience will be receptive to these companies as sponsors, and that’s what matters most.

Next, it’s time to learn more about the needs of your exhibitors through the discovery session. 

More than likely, you know at least a little bit about your exhibitors, especially if you’ve worked together for several years. For instance, you know the gist of what they sell and what they do.

Do you know what kinds of problems the company has? What shortcomings? What goals?

The answer is probably not. The discovery session can answer all those questions and more. 

As the name implies, the discovery session is purely exploratory. You’re not trying to close a deal here, not yet. 

Your goal is to learn more about your exhibitor so you can determine if the two of you could work together in a sponsorship capacity. 

Now, your request for a discovery session is going to seem odd if you’ve partnered with this exhibitor for years and have never shown so much interest in them before. 

You have to be upfront with your exhibitor. Discuss with them how you value their participation in your event and explain that you want to progress the working relationship. 

Explain how you define sponsorship without using the word. I’ve found that many companies have preconceived notions of sponsorship, and none of those notions are good. 

Tell the exhibitor that you want to help them meet more of their goals and connect them with their target audience. 

Then explain what you expect in return, whether that’s cash, promotions, or in-kind gifts. 

If the exhibitor can’t provide you with what you’re looking for, then it’s a done deal. You’ll have to move on to the next exhibitor on your list.

If this exhibitor is interested, then you’d ask them a series of discovery questions to better understand what their challenges are and what goals they’re trying to achieve. 

I have a list of discovery questions here to help you get started. That list includes 37 discovery questions in all.

I recommend asking maybe 10 questions tops.

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Craft a List of Tailored Assets and Activations That Could Help Your Exhibitors

You’ll walk away from the discovery session understanding so much better the struggles that your exhibitors are facing. 

Now that you’ve wrapped up the meeting, it’s time to think of how you can solve those problems and propel your new sponsor towards achieving their goals.

You can do that in two ways, through assets and activations.

I touched on activations earlier, so let me explain them more in-depth now. An activation, as I said then, is an experimental marketing opportunity. 

What kind of opportunity depends on the needs of your sponsor. Activations can include free samples, branded photo walls, mini museums, exclusive VIP experiences, branded phone charging or refreshment stations, games, and more.

I’ll link you to several posts on the blog that are chock full of activation ideas here, here, and here.

When determining what your activations will be, I implore you to keep your priorities in order. 

An activation doesn’t have to be cool, flashy, or expensive. You don’t want it to be dull, of course, but what matters most is what the activation does.

An activation should fulfill a need of your audience and a need of your sponsor simultaneously. 

This handy-dandy post will help you come up with winning activation ideas that a sponsor will be excited to hear.

Now let’s switch gears and talk about assets.

An asset is a tangible or intangible thing. I hate using that word, thing, but I do so only because an asset can be so much.

Assets can include naming rights, social media posts, speaking engagements, marketing material distribution, and yes, logos. 

Not all assets are valued the same. Logos, for instance, are very low-value assets. 

Whether your exhibitor-turned-sponsor is trying to improve their lead generation, grow their audience, strengthen their brand, or increase sales, logos can barely do any of that.

How do you know how valuable an asset is? You value it, of course. 

Valuing entails researching the market value of an asset and then fairly comparing that against your own perceived value of the asset based on the caliber of services you can provide.

I know that was a lot, so allow me to simplify it. 

Let’s say that you research the cost of a drip email campaign. If your company has produced awesome results with your drip email campaigns, and consistently at that, then maybe you can charge slightly more than the market value.

However, you won’t be able to do that with every single asset, nor should you. 

It’s okay if a few of your assets are above market value and even if a few are under market value. Most though will be at about market value.

If you blow up the price of every asset like you’re overinflating a bike tire, your exhibitor is going to be upset with you. All the goodwill you’ve conjured will have been undone because you’ll be perceived as money-grubby (which, let’s be real, you kind of are).

Keep your asset prices fair. I’m not saying to undercut your earnings but use market value as your guide and you’ll be fine.

Negotiate the Terms of the Deal

You’ll put everything–your audience data, your assets, your activations, the whole shebang–into your sponsorship proposal.

I have a guide here that will take you page by page and paragraph by paragraph so you can write a stellar sponsorship proposal.

Once your exhibitor-turned-sponsor has had the chance to go over all the content of your proposal, they’re going to have their own thoughts and opinions. 

In other words, get ready to change some of your activations and assets, and possibly the pricing as well. As long as you’re not being low-balled, then go with the sponsor’s suggestions. 

Negotiating will mean some back and forth and compromising. If the terms of the deal are mostly agreeable, then it’s time to move on to the next stage of the sponsorship process.

Create a Contract

That is, you want to put everything into writing and make it official. The contract, which is also referred to as the sponsorship agreement, will include this information:

  • The names (and physical addresses) of both parties involved in the sponsorship deal
  • When the contract starts and when it’s no longer in effect
  • The precise amount of money the sponsor will pay and their rights
  • The assets, activations, and other services you’re offering the sponsor, including where placement of assets/activations will occur, the quantity of services, and any related materials
  • The delivery dates for assets and activations as well as approvals
  • How a dispute will be resolved as well as any refund requests 
  • A noncompete clause 
  • Any details on state or national laws 

This post goes into full detail on what should be included in your sponsorship agreement and offers pointers on how to write such an agreement. 

I highly, highly recommend you read that article, but more so than that, I highly recommend that you hire a lawyer to go over the contract.

The contract will pass hands between you and the sponsor as well as your lawyers, usually several times over. Terms will be changed. 

You need a lawyer to keep all the terms straight, help you understand the legalese, and ensure you’re not signing something that you cannot reasonably deliver on later.

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Produce a Fulfillment Report to Keep Your New Sponsors Around for Next Year

The last stage of converting an exhibitor into a sponsor is to produce a fulfillment report at the successful cessation of your event.

A fulfillment report, aka a post-event report, details all the services you provided to the sponsor and whether you delivered them as expected. You can state in the report whether you under delivered, over delivered, or simply delivered.

As with everything, overdelivering is best, but even simply delivering is better than not delivering. You want to try to do that as little as possible.

Also in the fulfillment report is information about your event such as attendance, booth numbers, exhibitors, sponsors, and the like. You should include photos of your event, especially your sponsor’s activations. 

The fulfillment report has a twofold benefit. For one, it proves that you lived up to everything you promised in the contract. 

You’re also setting the stage to work together with your exhibitor-turned-sponsor again next year if they’re interested. 

Conclusion 

Exhibitors are usually good contenders to become sponsors. You have a working relationship already, they’ve been to your event and know what to expect, and you’re familiar with their products and services.

I hope this guide helps you convert more of your exhibitors into sponsors. Good luck! 

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.