Reimagining Sponsorship to Create a Win-Win-Win
Will Engle - Assistant Director of Education and Events
The Nursing Organizations Alliance (NOA) has included an exhibit hall with its annual conference, the Fall Summit, every year since 2002. In November of 2012, NOA reached its highest number of exhibitors for a Fall Summit; a short five years later in November of 2017, the number of exhibitors had dropped by 38%, matching this low point again in 2019.
NOA was not alone in this struggle. EventMB (now Skift Meetings) conducted a 2018 survey on the state of the event industry in which nearly half of respondents indicated “Finding Sponsors” was one of its biggest challenges for the year (Skift Meetings. (2018). State of the Event Industry Research 2018. meetings.skift.com). That same survey showed 53% of respondents “struggling to secure sponsors” for their event, and 90% whose “sponsor retention rate” was either decreasing or remaining the same.
On top of all that, annually 85% or more of Fall Summit exhibitors are directly tied to the hospitality and meetings industry, which was disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. So, when the pandemic eventually postponed the 2020 in-person Fall Summit, NOA leadership saw an opportunity to re-evaluate the exhibitor and sponsor model for the association and its flagship event.
Finding a solution to this challenge started with research, and the need to create a win-win-win scenario: where the sponsors (provide ROI), organization (provide a source of income) AND attendees (provide value) would benefit. NOA developed an integrated, five-step approach:
- Three-pronged, ongoing stakeholder research | A continuous process of understanding the needs of all event stakeholders
- Putting the needs of its member attendees first, NOA surveyed its member organizations to better understand how sponsors and exhibitors at its Fall Summit could provide value to the attendee experience.
- NOA conducted focus groups and individual “interviews” with its existing sponsors and exhibitors to customize and tie sponsorship opportunities directly to pain points and needs.
- By understanding its unique selling propositions, NOA focused on marketing that demonstrated how they could bring ROI to potential sponsors.
- Develop year-long, customizable & personalized options | Now that we better understand all the stakeholders, offer a range of ideas that can be shaped to better suit everyone’s needs
- NOA created a menu of 10 sponsor opportunities from which to choose, focusing on attendee experience and sponsor ROI, rather than static logos and printed program ads.
- Even with the menu of options, NOA collaborated with potential sponsors to create custom ideas for sponsorships that would integrate the win-win-win approach.
- Tying in some of the menu options to year-long opportunities allowed sponsors to be engaged with member organizations longer, as well as provide opportunities for “trickle-down” sponsorship dollars to other NOA programs and events.
- Create Engagement Opportunities for NOA Members’ Meetings Professionals | Expand the reach of NOA’s service to its member organizations while connecting destination sponsors to their target audience
- Research indicated potential sponsors wanted to target a specific sub-set of the association membership.
- Finding ways to offer exclusive opportunities to those individuals would encourage their participation in the event and boost the ROI of the sponsors.
- Intentional Fall Summit Exhibit Hall Design | Having flexible sponsorship opportunities translates to a flexible exhibit hall design
- By building the foundation of its program on sponsorships, rather than the exhibit hall, NOA was able to offer different types of booths, spaces, and experiences inside of the exhibit hall and include these options in its menu of sponsorship opportunities.
- This flexible approach also allowed sponsors to produce their own ideas for their space inside the exhibit hall, rather than being tied to the standard 8x10 booth design.
- Track results, conduct post-event retrospectives and report out | Transparency, Accountability and Feedback
- Getting targeted feedback from each sponsor helps with the ongoing stakeholder research to continue developing and refining the sponsor opportunities.
- A sponsorship performance report can help the decision maker for each sponsor or potential sponsor understand their ROI from the event.
Though the 2021 Fall Summit was NOA’s first in-person event since the pandemic began, the inaugural year of the new sponsorship model was deemed to be a success.
As an example, Minnesota’s Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic, chose the Wellness Sponsorship. To activate that sponsorship, they brought in a nutrition and wellness expert from Mayo to lead the group during a 15-minute movement activity; once the activity was over, he teased a takeaway that could only be picked up by visiting their booth at the next exhibit hall break. Win (attendees participated in a movement activity and received a valuable takeaway), Win (Rochester had a line of attendees at their booth at the next break, boosting their ROI), Win (NOA sold the sponsorship for 4x the price of a booth in 2019).
There were less exhibitors than past years, but it’s hard to know if that was a result of the new, higher-priced model, the ongoing pandemic, or some of both (or neither!). However, with the additional investment, and the ability to customize sponsorships, the sponsors and exhibitors were more engaged and invested in the outcome than in years past. In addition, the overall sponsorship revenue was in line with NOA’s previous exhibit hall revenue, and the attendees received additional benefits as part of the activation. Win-Win-Win.