How One Association Maintained Virtual Event Sponsors and Exhibitors

By Scott Oser

It was April 2020 and like many associations the Society for Vascular Ultrasound had made the difficult decision to turn their face-to-face annual conference and marketplace into a virtual event. The event was originally scheduled to be held in New Orleans in August, but with all of the risks involved with COVID-19 the right decision to make was to change the event to virtual.

This decision had impact across all areas of the event, but the one particular item I needed to address was how to generate value for the sponsors and exhibitors.

Start with What You Know

As part of the team organizing the event, I had a lot of information. I knew what software platform we were going to use for the virtual event. I knew what sponsors and exhibitors had already committed to and what money we had already received. I knew why the large majority of the sponsors and the exhibitors participate in the face-to-face event and what their goals are. All of this is very important information to dive into as it will impact the types of opportunities you consider offering as part of your virtual event.

Key learnings:

  • It is important to identify your major sponsors as you will want to spend the most time making sure their needs are met.
  • Understanding what has already been committed to and what dollars you already have in the bank will help you determine if this is a new sales effort or more of a retention/ rollover to the virtual event effort. Your tone and communication style will change based on your current state of affairs.
  • Have detailed conversations with your software technology partners to understand what they offer that will provide value to sponsors and exhibitors. You can only offer that which is available to your sponsors and exhibitors so knowing this up front is critical.

Create Your List of Opportunities

In the case of SVU, we were fortunate to have around 80% of what was budgeted already contracted. That meant that my main job was to convince those contracted companies that the new virtual event would provide the same, if not greater, value than they would have received at the face-to-face event – that required a fantastic list of new virtual opportunities. In order to develop this list, I did a lot of research and a lot of listening. I participated in so many webinars my computer got tired and so did my eyes. It was worth the time I invested as between the ideas I discovered and my own creativity I was able to come up with a great list of options. At this time they were simply options as I needed to see what we could implement and then most importantly what the companies would find valuable. I did use the benefits that companies would receive when purchasing face-to-face offerings as a guide of sorts as those offerings were originally purchased for a reason so it made sense to try and replicate and enhance those benefits for the virtual event.

Key learnings:

  • Don’t be afraid to borrow other people’s ideas and tweak them to make them right for your situation.
  • Don’t limit your offerings at the start. Develop a list with as many opportunities as you can at the beginning so you don’t miss out on anything that might prove valuable. You don’t have to offer all of the ideas, but it is better to think creatively as you never know what might be a good fit.
  • Use the benefits of the offerings that were already purchased to develop some substitutes when going virtual.

Confirm the Opportunities

Once the expansive list of potential opportunities was created we needed to make sure we had the tools to implement them. For the most part, the things we came up with were possible through our current vendor. There were a few items, like sponsored retargeting, that were not so we had to do a cost-benefit analysis before deciding to outsource this.

The rationale for figuring out what we could actually offer to sponsors before talking to the committed sponsors was that I did not want to offer them something that we couldn’t provide. I felt that would undermine my credibility and diminish the value of the conversation and communication. During all sponsorship conversations, I did ask them if they had seen anything else they would like me to consider. I truly wanted it to be a “we are in this together” conversation and the sponsors did appreciate that.

Key learnings:

  • It is critical to understand when your platform will be ready to use and the true functionality it will have. Technology is our friend until it isn’t, and you are making commitments to people with timelines attached to them that don’t want to hear about technological delays.
  • Sponsors are going to have a lot of questions so be as prepared as you can to answer them. This is just as new ground for them as it is for you, and they will look for you to be the expert on what you are delivering.
  • If you provide the right value, you can get the same price for a virtual event as you can for a face-to-face event.

Communicate and Sell

Based on the conversations with our tech vendor and our primary sponsors, I was able to finalize our list of offerings and it was finally time to reach out to sponsors and exhibitors to get them to recommit for the virtual conference. Even though I had talked to many of them while we were coming up with our offerings, there were still a ton of questions. Many wanted to know what their presence would look like, and I realized that I hadn’t given them anything that showed what they would receive. Once some examples of their presence were developed in conjunction with our partners, the conversations went a lot smoother.

Key learnings:

  • Make it easy for sponsors and exhibitors to submit deliverables to you. They may be delivering things to you that they never have before so a simple way for them to know what is due, in what format, and when it is due is going to be helpful to you and them.
  • Be prepared to show prospects what they are going to receive. Even though it is a virtual event, there are still ways to show them their presence.
  • Develop a plan on how you will provide more value to higher level exhibitors and sponsors than to lower level ones. In the virtual world, this can be a bit more challenging but is equally as important.

At the time of the writing of this article, I am still in the middle of selling sponsorships and exhibits for the SVU Virtual Conference & Marketplace. Portions of the sales effort, primarily virtual exhibit sales, have started off kind of slowly. I am confident that we are offering a lot of value and we took the right steps to be successful. The good news is that the conversations continue to occur, and we have plenty of time to sell so I predict we will meet or exceed the revised budget.

Scott Oser has more than 20 years of marketing experience in the association and publishing industries. Before starting the firm, he worked for market leaders like the National Geographic Society, AARP, and Science. Throughout his career, Scott has excelled in developing, implementing, and analyzing multichannel direct marketing programs. Learn more at www.scottoserassociates.com.

Photo credit: iStock.com/MarchMeena29

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