When a crisis like the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic happens, it’s important that associations and their event sponsors and exhibitors work together through the impact of preventive and reactionary measures on planned in-person events. Event cancellations or postponements that disrupt sponsorship- or in-person sales-based business initiatives aren’t ideal. But there are ways to work together to map out a mutually satisfying course of action that respects the science of social distancing, while acknowledging that businesses and associations can’t afford to cease operating completely.
Here are a few ways associations and event sponsors should work together to balance revenue and health concerns.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Just as with any relationship, communication between affected parties when an event is canceled is key. The association should inform event sponsors and exhibitors about changes to an event’s schedule as soon as they make a decision. Messaging about any modifications to an event that would affect the ability of sponsors to interact with attendees should include the reasoning that went into the decision, such as a desire to promote everyone’s health, limitations placed on holding the event thanks to the venue or local authorities, or an inability of the association to move forward with the event due to staff impediments.
In return, associations should listen to sponsor concerns. Will the sponsor miss out on a significant portion of yearly sales because of the cancellation? If the association is still holding the event but the sponsor has decided to bow out over health concerns, can the association offer an alternative advertising package?
Many companies are brushing the dust off crisis plans that might not have been reviewed and updated since 9/11 or the last major health crisis in North America, the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. As they re-familiarize themselves with their company’s agreed-upon guidelines, they may face self-imposed restrictions on travel or in-person interaction, but still want to receive some value from their investment in your event. With the many options we now have for digital promotion and interaction, the association should try to find a solution that works for both parties.
Understand each other’s goals surrounding the association event
What were the sponsor’s goals for the association event? The Partnership Professionals Network implores associations to consider advertiser goals related to advertiser visibility, thought leadership positioning, member access, product/service announcements, or introducing new company executives when trying to understand sponsor needs. Knowing what a sponsor was hoping to get out of an association conference or trade show will help guide the association toward the best event alternatives.
Conversely, sponsors should keep the association’s goals for their event in mind. Associations hold events to help members network, hold business meetings, connect members with useful resources (such as sponsoring businesses!) and foster friendships. They don’t cancel events lightly, and they will be eager to continue working with all involved parties in the future. Event cancellations are most often a last resort and happen only when the association feels the costs of pushing forward with the event will outweigh the benefits.
Talk through acceptable alternative sponsorships
Emphasize that although the association event is being canceled or postponed, there is still value in investing in the association and in reaching its members in other ways. This means the association should inventory its advertising and sponsorship options while being open to new advertising packages that sponsors suggest based on their goals and objectives. Alternative places for advertising and sponsorships include:
- Print: Newsletters, magazines, member directories/rosters, mailed pieces, palm cards/postcards and brochures. There are many ways of fulfilling a sponsorship with print pieces, everything from including a logo to a sponsored content section to letting a business have marquee billing for an entire issue.
- Online: e-newsletters, social media posts, sponsored emails or website content, premier listings on an online buyers’ guide or career center, display advertising, and video messaging on an online learning platform.
- Virtual events: Webinars and livestream. (Check out Jay Baer’s insanely practical tips for a successful virtual event.)
Among the many marketing experts who advocate maintaining an active marketing presence during difficult times is Avi Dan, contributing author at Forbes and CEO of Avidan Strategies. Dan recommends using this moment to keep advertising creative and consistent, with spends that meet or exceed your market share. Companies that follow this advice during a downward economic cycle are the most likely to see long-term improvements in market share, revenue and profitability.
Understand that refund policies can be cold, but are in place to protect
Advertisers should understand that sometimes an association cannot afford to forgo sponsorship money. Many venues and service providers don’t offer full or even partial refunds in the event of uncontrollable circumstances like a viral outbreak. Even if the association has event insurance, viral outbreaks or other “acts of God” are not always covered. Thus, if the association were to refund all sponsors, they might have to lay off staff and/or severely reduce mission-centric programming and severely weaken their reason for being in the process.
At the same time, associations should understand that advertisers are affected in many of the same ways when having to eat an expense. Small businesses that rely upon one or two major conferences or trade shows to generate new business might not be able to recover from deposits lost to a canceled event or the reduced cash flow that results from not securing new business.
The two parties should work together toward a compromise that satisfies both. Partial refunds, credit toward future sponsorships or acceptable alternatives, or a value-add tacked on to future sponsorship purchases can be some ways associations and advertisers reconcile their transactions.
Canceling major association events and the sponsorship opportunities that accompany them is an inconvenient but necessary situation in the face of a severe health crisis. There are ways to work through this type of disruption, however, and it’s in the best interest of associations and sponsors to work through these challenges together. One day, the crisis will end and business life will be back to normal. With plenty of communication, understanding, and a willingness to consider new ways of supporting each other, associations and advertisers will be stronger than ever when that happens.