Sponsorship collective logo

Sponsorship Case Study: Memphis in May International Festival 

by | July 5, 2023

Why you can trust Sponsorship Collective

  • The Sponsorship Collective has worked with over 1000 clients from every property type all over North America and Europe, working with properties at the $50,000 level to multi-million dollar campaigns, events and multi-year naming rights deals
  • We have published over 300 YouTube videos, written over 500,000 words on the topic and published dozens of research reports covering every topic in the world of sponsorship
  • All of our coaches and consultants have real world experience in sponsorship sales

Before you dive in, if you are interested in festival sponsorship, check out these titles in our “sponsorship for festivals” series:

Kevin Grothe’s Road to Success

Kevin Grothe is the VP of sponsorship for the Memphis in May International Festival, a celebration of Memphis culture that seeks to spread international awareness. The organization has spearheaded economic, international, and education programs throughout Memphis.

Further, the Memphis in May International Festival hosts big events that foster community togetherness, from the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest to the Beale Street Music Festival. 

At current, the nonprofit organization has generated over $149 million for the Memphis economy. 

When Kevin and I sat down and had a chat, he told me that his nonprofit brings in a little over $2 million in sponsorship dollars per year, which is nothing to sneeze at! 

Those are just cash sponsors, as Memphis in May also does in-kind deals. 

Applying the Principles Kevin Grothe Learned to Your Own Sponsorship Program

Don’t Just Take Free Stuff

Charities and nonprofits are often involved with in-kind sponsorship, which refers to sponsors giving organizations free items or gifts instead of cash or promotions. 

In-kind sponsorship is not my favorite type because the value can get lost in translation. Some sponsorship seekers think having some stuff is better than not, but that depends on the context. 

For example, Kevin spoke about how his sponsors would give him items like grills that he could hand out at as prizes during Memphis in May’s event. 

A contest with a gas grill as a prize is a lot more valuable than one with a smaller prize like a T-shirt, which increases the value of the activation. 

New call-to-action

In-kind sponsorship works beautifully in that situation, as the free items allowed Kevin’s organization to maximize its value.

You must be discerning if you’re also involved in the nonprofit or charitable sectors and work with in-kind sponsors. A gift of 1,000 pens or 500 shirts isn’t going to wow anybody. It’s not worth handing out, and it won’t drive value to your sponsorship.

It’s just free stuff, and more than that, it’s clutter.

Listen to Your Audience

I told Kevin during our interview that he’s lucky because an organization like his gets to come up with fun activations all the time. However, I’m sure you’ve gone to a festival or event and found that not every activation was a home run, so audience feedback is still important.

Sponsorship seekers often look high and low for that dream activation, thinking the idea will just come to them, when really, it was right in front of their noses the entire time. Your audience is more than happy to provide feedback on your event so you can make it better.

Your attendees want a better event that caters to their needs. They want to go and be entertained and enjoy themselves even more than last year, so have that conversation and be willing to implement the feedback you receive.

You Must Be an Expert on Your Audience

The most fruitful activations are a collaboration between you and the sponsor. You know your audience best, so you can bring that element to the table, and the sponsor knows their objectives best, so they can recommend suggestions there. 

It sounds so simple when I say it like that, doesn’t it? Yet you would be surprised how often sponsorship seekers can struggle.

Sometimes, they try to act like they know best and can suggest sponsor solutions better than the sponsor can themselves. It’s great you’ve taken a vested interest in the sponsor and become passionate about their challenges, but you can’t posit to know better than them.

They’re living through their challenges. They’re the experts.

Much more often, sponsorship seekers aren’t experts on their audience. They don’t have 25 data points for each audience segment, and they haven’t bothered to niche down their audience. They have extremely broad audience groups.

This hurts you and the sponsor. You can’t come up with tailored activations that appeal to your audience when you don’t know who they are. Your activations will tank, your sponsor will end up unhappy, and you’ll lose out on a chance to work together again.

Become an expert on your audience before pursuing sponsors, not the other way around. 

Treat Your Sponsors Like VIPs

Kevin is a sponsorship guru, so it was fun to pick his brain about some sponsorship topics. For instance, one thread of conversation we had was about fulfillment reports. I mentioned how a lot of my clients ask if it’s worthwhile to send fulfillment reports to small and medium-sized sponsors.

I always tell them to send the reports to the sponsors they think could become $100,000 sponsors, which could be all of them!

You should always strive to retain your sponsors, and one of the ways you can do that is by treating them like gold right out of the gate. After all, it’s much easier to maintain a sponsor than to go out and find a new one.

Here’s another best practice that came up during the interview that ties in well. Give all your sponsors the VIP treatments. Yes, I said all of them.

Is it as major to retain a small sponsor as it is a bigger one? Maybe not, but if you don’t prioritize them, they won’t stick around. All your sponsors have their roles, as they make your event worth attending to your audience. 

Give everyone the same level of attention and care, and you’ll reduce time spent on your sponsorship search for each new event because you’ll have a roster of reliable sponsors.

Get Good at the Basics

Did you decide to get into event sponsorship after attending a five-star event with amazing sponsors? Your company or organization will want those kinds of results for yourself, which is only natural.

However, that’s putting the cart before the horse.

New call-to-action

The best bakers on the planet didn’t start making five-tiered wedding cakes. They made basic birthday cakes. The most masterful mixologists didn’t create fancy concoctions on their first day on the job. They started with rum and Coke. 

Kevin made a great point during our interview that I want to underscore now. Start with the sponsorship basics. Get good at those, and the fancy things you want will follow.

You can’t create a mesmerizing, innovative activation without doing a few simpler ones first. That’s just like how you traditionally won’t work with large sponsors until you have a few smaller deals under your belt.

It’s all about building on experience. 

Talk to Your Sponsors Like They’re People

There’s often a power imbalance between sponsorship seekers and sponsors, especially first-time sponsorship seekers. They come across as groveling as they ask this big company to give them a pittance of their income. 

Sponsors don’t want to work with amateurs, and begging comes across as very substandard. 

Talk to your sponsor like a person. This will put you on even footing and help them value you as a partner. It’s also a lot easier to foster a relationship. 

Be Pleasantly Persistent

You have to know when to fold ‘em in sponsorship, just as Kenny Rogers once sang. However, sponsorship seekers sometimes give up too fast.

Kevin likes to be what he said is pleasantly persistent. He’s not hounding prospects and ringing their phones off the hook, but he’s pursuing a prospect until the deal progresses or stalls out.

After all, he has an event to run, usually several events under the Memphis in May International Festival banner. He can’t wait around for sponsors forever, and neither can you, even if you don’t have a time-sensitive event or program.

I recommend a follow-up cadence over a week or two. Reach out via email and phone several times. However, if all you hear is silence along the way, that counts as an answer. 

Go Big or Go Home

A lot of the clients I talk to who enter the sponsorship sphere for the first time tell me they only want a few hundred dollars out of a sponsor, or maybe a few thousand dollars tops. 

I can understand wanting to aim low for your first sponsorship endeavor, but that’s way too low. Sponsorship is not easier to obtain whether you’re only chasing after a few hundred dollars or several thousand. 

You must still go through all the prospecting and procurement steps, such as discovery, audience research, and valuations. You still have to sit through just as many meetings and contract negotiations. 

To do all that and only have a few hundred bucks at the end of the day? It’s not worth your time. You could have introduced a new product or service–or, for those in the nonprofit sphere, received donations–to make up the difference in the time you spent. 

Here’s another way to look at it. A sponsorship should elevate your brand. Is a $1,000 deal really that exciting at the end of the day? What does it do for your brand? 

It doesn’t spark enthusiasm in people the way a sponsorship would with a lot more zeroes. 

One more point – what can you do with that money? A few thousand dollars disappear in an instant when planning a major event, so what is the money even contributing toward? Not much at all. 

I’m not suggesting you ask for a million dollars when you need less than half that. However, start at a bigger number than a few thousand dollars.   

You Need a Champion in Your Corner

Kevin told me a great story about one of his sponsorship partners, Home Depot, and how they became major partners for the Memphis in May International Festival, and all because he took a unique approach to sponsorship. 

It seems almost too simple, but Kevin walked into a local Home Depot and spoke to the store manager. Yes, that’s it!

Many sponsorship seekers try to go right to the CEO or the COO or the major parties just below them. However, even the people within the company have a hard time reaching those important people. 

You can’t expect to get them on the phone. It’s highly unlikely. So how do you break through when you don’t know anyone in the company?

Kevin recommends a local champion, and I agree. 

Let me tell you what happened when he reached out to that Home Depot store manager in his neighborhood. The store manager agreed to the activation. Home Depot appeared at the event, which drew a lot of attention. 

When Kevin next needed sponsors, he didn’t have to look nearly as hard. He told me that people who usually ignored his calls were now willing to talk to him because of his association with Home Depot.

Imagine if he had gone straight to the top and asked to speak to Home Depot’s CEO. He would still be sitting around waiting for a callback. 

A local champion is much more accessible. You can pick up the phone or send an email and they’ll respond. You can even do like Kevin did and visit in person. 

New call-to-action

Having a champion on your side is hugely valuable. For starters, they’re the foot in the door you need.

The champion can relay your sponsorship ideas to the appropriate parties. Once they hear about your activations and assets and get excited, the deal can get underway.

You don’t always have to talk to the CEO or the COO for a sponsorship to happen. They’ll need to sign off on the financials, so they’ll be involved in some capacity, but you and they probably won’t speak. 

That’s okay! You’ve found a champion, and that’s really all you need.  


Kevin Grothe of the Memphis in May International Festival was one of my favorite sponsors to speak with. He has so much experience, a lot that he collected through my program, the Sponsorship Accelerator. 

Today, he’s a verified sponsorship pro who continues to do amazing things for his music-loving community in Memphis. His insights are valuable for new sponsorship seekers who find themselves in the same position he once did.