When everything went virtual last year due to the pandemic, it also shifted sponsorship opportunities at meetings. Although associations have grappled with sometimes lackluster results for sponsors, one expert says there are ways to provide more value in virtual offerings.

For the past year, associations have been working to make sponsors feel they are getting value from virtual events, but it’s been a struggle as virtual exhibit halls and some other features haven’t lived up to the exposure provided by their in-person counterparts.

As many events are still virtual or hybrid, associations are getting creative in trying to help sponsors and exhibitors get value, said Lewis Flax, president of Flax Associates, a firm that specializes in sponsorship and partnerships.

“When it comes to the sponsorship arena in the last year, it’s been eye-opening,” Flax said. “Associations have learned that just running a virtual event and treating sponsorship the same way they did in the past is not going to be successful. On the [sponsor] side, they’ve learned that showing up at an event the same way that they did in the past doesn’t work. So, there has been a shift in terms of how both the association and the sponsors need to adjust.”

The adjustments that are being made depend on the type of sponsor. For example, partners, who typically make large contributions to an organization, fall in a different realm than those who might be exhibitors or smaller sponsors interested in certain items. Both bring in revenue, but have different expectations, Flax said.

The larger partners are looking beyond just the annual meeting. “They are looking at associations as a channel and not just a few days a year,” Flax said. “They usually need six or seven touchpoints.”

The good news is that these sponsors are more likely to buy into creative solutions that put them in front of your meeting audience. “The ones who are ahead of the game are the associations who try new things, who test new things, who look at how we’re going to go about it differently,” Flax said.

Associations doing it well are talking to sponsors about what they need and helping sponsors address challenges their members are facing. “Sponsors who recognize and understand what the key challenges of the attendees are and engage them related to the challenges fare better,” Flax said.

Spending time with key partners will help address their needs, even in this virtual environment. However, Flax admits it’s been tougher to ensure value for sponsors who want that standard menu of conference sponsor offerings or exhibit hall booths, because those haven’t translated well to virtual. “The exhibit hall experience in the virtual environment has not been successful,” Flax said. “Virtual exhibit halls with 1,000 exhibitors just don’t work. Exhibitors have pulled away.”

Because of this, some associations have eliminated virtual exhibit halls in favor of offering smaller virtual event sponsorship on specific interest segments.

“They’re offering tracks for different segments of their audience,” Flax said. “Instead of it being a full two days, it’s every Tuesday for two hours. It’s smaller, it’s more targeted, and then it’s easier to bring sponsors in.”

Flax noted that since associations were forced into this virtual environment by the pandemic, they weren’t afforded the normal planning and practice time before launching this new path. As technology improves and associations get better at understanding what works and what doesn’t, virtual offerings will start to better match sponsor needs—at all levels.

“We’re going to get much better at this,” Flax said. “In the next six months, we are probably going to see significant improvements.”

RASHEEDA CHILDRESS

Rasheeda Childress is a senior editor at Associations Now. She covers money and business. Email her with story ideas or news tips. MORE »