COVID-19 has spurred organizations to work remotely, schools to close, and conferences to cancel. Amid the uncertainty, it’s time to talk to your sponsors about what you’re doing and offer them ways to still bring value to your members.
While COVID-19 is causing associations to deal with a bevy of problems, including lost revenue due to canceled events, wrecking relationship with sponsors doesn’t have to be one of them, say leaders of the Partnership Professionals Network (PPN). They say communicating well with sponsors will help associations maintain good relationships that will weather this storm.
“The first thing we see is a great need for every association—and I don’t care if your event is in April or in August—to communicate with your partners,” said Dan Kowitz, co-convener of PPN. “You don’t need the entire plan. It can be an email that says, ‘Hey, we are all dealing with this. We’re going to come back to you with strategies and options.’”
Bruce Rosenthal, co-convener of PPN, said that part of that communication should be asking questions to get a feel of where the sponsor stands. “The sponsorship person on the association’s staff should reach out individually to top-level sponsors,” Rosenthal said. “Ask how COVID-19 is impacting the company, whether the company has a travel ban, etc.; agree to touch base periodically as plans change.”
If an event has been canceled, some associations may reflexively offer a refund. While that is an option, that shouldn’t be the first suggestion. Instead, ask sponsors what they’d hoped to gain from sponsoring the now-canceled event.
“Was there a goal around visibility or thought leadership or products and services?” Rosenthal said. “Did they want to reach CEOs? If there was a subset of members they wanted to reach, that sets up a whole range of opportunities. Once an association understands why an organization wanted to sponsor a convention, they can propose something else. Companies are very willing to look at alternatives. They have already budgeted the money and already spent it. They aren’t looking for the money back; they are looking for the value.”
Kowitz added this as an example: “If they are a company that values the direct one-on-one at meetings, how can we give them the chance to meet one-on-one, virtually, in today’s environment?”
Associations that can still provide value to their sponsors are in the best position to keep the relationship beneficial for both parties. Kowitz offered another approach he’s seen an association use recently: reminding sponsors that members appreciate those who stand by them.
“They said, ‘What we’d like to do is start to look at ways we can work with you to recognize that you are sticking with us in tough times and being a supporter,’” Kowitz said. “Let’s get a proactive communication program out that says our value partners aren’t leaving us. We are going to figure out ways [our members] can interact with you.”
Looking to the Future
Kowitz and Rosenthal said it’s also important to look at sponsors by industry to see where it makes sense to try different approaches. Destination and airline sponsors are hard hit by the coronavirus, but companies that assist in telework and virtual learning are in demand. Associations may want to key in on relationships with new sponsors or current sponsors in fields that have dollars to spend.
“Whether its finance, or crisis management for meeting management, or tech, I do believe there are sectors that will spend more in the next year, because suddenly, you need virtual services you didn’t need before,” Kowitz said. “When we’re going to lose overall, we have to look for strategies where we can win.”
PPN also recommends looking at how what happened can change your partnership plans in the future. “One key lesson learned—for strategic planning, emergency planning—is for many years, most have put our sponsorship eggs in the conference basket,” Rosenthal said. “While this is an extreme instance, it’s really risky because of the presence of disease, weather, and other calamities. We have to ask what can we do differently in the future.”
So, what avenues might you want consider? Rosenthal said it will look different for different groups. It could be thought leadership, webinars, virtual meet and greets, or other things that will work for the specific association and sponsor. “You have to identify member needs and company goals and match those up, and do that on a year-round basis,” he said.
How have you been talking to your sponsors about the impact of COVID-19? Share in the comments.