Small Event, Big Sponsors Vol 9: Five Things to Expect When Approaching Sponsors During the Pandemic

A year ago, I was at my computer writing this column as a sort of “state of the sponsorship industry.” As a sponsorship agency, we were fielding an abundance of questions about what to do when it came to sponsors, events, and COVID-19 shutdowns.
Now here we are a year later. As venues begin reopening across the country and events start reworking their structures to accommodate mass gathering mandates, the questions about sponsorships and what to expect are surfacing yet again. I thought this would be a good time to give an overview of what our agency, Green Cactus, is seeing in the sponsorship world and how to approach sponsors in this complicated landscape.
Here are five key things to know and expect when reapproaching past sponsors or reaching out to new prospects during the pandemic:
1. Many brands and companies are still hesitant to get involved with events, even as many states are reopening. Your event may be housed in an “open” state, but their company may not be. Plus, their priority will most likely be their own employees. We are seeing lots of brands willing to talk sponsorship and look at proposals, but when it comes to onsite activations, they aren’t willing to send their teams out yet. Our suggestion is to try and create a sponsorship proposal that meets their needs. This may require your team helping with any onsite activations, or you may have to get creative and come up with ways to involve brands without the requirement of onsite activations.
2. Budgets have been severely altered this year. With the uncertainty of the pandemic’s impact on 2021 and the economic hit that many brands saw last year, sponsorship and marketing budgets have been cut this year. We have talked to brands who had to let go of their entire field marketing teams and have cut events completely out of their 2021 budgets. Although this can be discouraging, don’t let it define your sponsorship program. These budgets will come back and so will the field teams; it is just going to take some time. Use this year to keep in contact with those brands you want to sponsor your event. This could also be a way to incorporate a brand in a smaller way that could grow into something bigger later. For example, maybe the brand sponsors a live stream for your hybrid event for this year, but you can cultivate them into a full blown onsite activation for next year. Finally, you do not want to wait when it comes to prospecting. Because these budgets are smaller, there will be a lot more competition vying for those sponsorships.
3. The beverage category is actively seeking event sponsorships. I regularly get asked who wants to sponsor events, and right now the beverage category has been our number one sponsorship buyer for 2021 events. I believe that it’s because although they were financially impacted on the event and restaurant/bar side of things during the pandemic, what they lost on that side they made up for in retail. Beer, hard seltzer, spirits, and energy drinks have all been looking for events to sponsor that also give them pouring rights. Make sure you are developing this category because they are currently spending in 2021 and are ready to get back to events.

4. You need to know what your event is going to look like before you reach out to new sponsors. This is another topic that comes up a lot with my clients. Right now, some of the events we work with don’t know from week to week if their event is going to happen or not in 2021. Some of our events know they are going to have an event, but they will have to structure it differently or they are required to reduce their capacity. So if you fall into one of these situations, you may be wondering how to approach sponsors.
First, if you are in the category of not knowing whether you will be able to have an event yet, I suggest you continue to approach sponsors as if you were. The sponsorship process takes time. If you have the event, you will be in a much better position than if you are trying to approach them last minute. If you must cancel the event, then you address that situation with each sponsor at the time it happens.
Now, if you are one of the lucky events that knows it is happening but must make adjustments, be clear with your sponsors on how the event will look, then and adjust the price accordingly. Sponsors are very aware that reduced capacity means reduced engagement and sales. It is not responsible to ask for the same sponsorship fee that you normally would when this is a non-normal year.
5. Some of your faithful sponsors may not come back this year. I know this is not good news, but it’s the nature of the economic hardships that many businesses faced over the past year. Don’t just assume your recurring sponsors will be back this year. Several of our clients saw sponsors who have been with them for years have to step away due to budget cuts. Knowing this now will give you more time to find other sponsors. Because we are a capitalist society, when one business steps away there is usually a competitor ready to step in. This can be great for open sponsorship vacancies but remember to respect those long- standing partnerships and have an open dialog with them.
The sponsorship landscape is a little rocky right now, but it isn’t a drought. Sponsorships are out there, and they are ready to jump in as events begin to happen again! My biggest piece of advice is to start early. Decisions are taking a lot longer than usual, so last-minute or quick answers are harder to come by. Don’t get discouraged. Instead, use this time to open conversations with brands now. Even if they don’t come to fruition this year, they may be ready in 2022!

This article was written by Teresa Stas and was originally published in the International Festivals & Events Association “i.e.: the business of international events” quarterly magazine May 2021.
The premiere association supporting and enabling festivals and events worldwide. For more information on the IFEA, go to www.ifea.com.

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