How to Turn the COVID-19 Conference Sponsorship Nightmare Into a Growth Opportunity

April 14, 2020 By: Bruce Rosenthal and Dan Kowitz

When the coronavirus forced many associations to cancel major conferences, they lost a significant amount of sponsorship revenue. While there is no downplaying the bad, a few simple strategies can help your association find a silver lining.

The impact of COVID-19 on association conference sponsorships can be deemed a nightmare: Revenue goals are shattered, and opportunities for sponsors to engage with members are scotched. Even conferences scheduled for later this year are under a cloud of uncertainty.

As bad as that reality is, the pandemic also presents an opportunity to modify the traditional conference sponsorship model in a way that increases revenue and member value. Here are some ways to leverage the circumstances of COVID-19 to enhance your association’s relationship with conference sponsors, while still keeping their goals—as well as your organization’s members and mission—in mind.

Expand Your COVID-19 Member Resource Center

Many members have a new and growing set of needs based on the impact of the coronavirus on their profession, industry, or organization. These needs range from products to services to new short- and long-term strategies for getting back to business as usual or adapting to the new normal.

For example, we are working with an association representing nurses to transition one of their conference sponsors into a year-long partner. The first collaboration is a set of materials that will help nurses on the frontlines in hospitals cope with the challenges of the coronavirus. The association will expand to a series of other resources in the coming year.

Position Companies As Helping Members in a Time of Need 

This is a terrific time for brands to step up to the plate, to develop their authenticity, and to deepen that loyalty,” said Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers, in March. “Not by trying to push product out the door, but by being authentic and in their desire to be able to help their consumers directly.”

Instead of refunding conference sponsorship fees or transferring this year’s sponsorship to next year’s conference, associations can benefit by finding new ways to position companies as supporting your association and its members. For example, sponsors could provide information to help members with challenges identified in recent member surveys, issues related to changes in the marketplace, or new pain points as a result of the coronavirus.

Help Sponsors Achieve Their Business Goals

As conferences and advertising opportunities diminished in recent weeks, some companies identified an urgent need to build their pipeline of leads among your association’s members. Companies need to reach out to members soon to meet their sales goals in the coming three to 12 months.

Understandably, some companies are seriously compromised due to the impact of the coronavirus. However, many companies recognize the need to be front-and-center with your association’s members. Some sponsors might even increase their sponsorship investment to achieve their business goals. Fulfilling a sponsor’s goals related to thought leadership, accessing a particular segment of the association’s membership, or differentiating itself from its competition could be of significant value to the sponsor.

Move Beyond Conference Sponsorship

Your association’s members and sponsors have needs year-round. A conference sponsorship is an episode; a year-round sponsorship is a strategy that can add significant value for your members, your sponsors, and your association.

If your association’s conference (or conferences) has been cancelled, rescheduled, down-sized, or converted to virtual, identify the many ways to provide your conference sponsors with “replacement value” throughout this year. The advantage to your association is retaining sponsor fees, while the benefit to your sponsors is the opportunity to achieve their business goals.

For each of your association’s top-tier conference sponsors, consider “replacement value” in terms of dissemination of thought leadership content, webinars, social media campaigns, outreach to a specific demographic of your members, promotion of each company’s webinars or seminars, and so forth.

Continue to focus on your association’s mission, your members’ needs, and your sponsors’ goals to maintain sponsorship relationships and revenue this year and to position sponsorship relationships for the coming years.

Bruce Rosenthal

Bruce Rosenthal is the founder of Bruce Rosenthal Associates, LLC, a company helping associations develop successful partnership programs.

Dan Kowitz

Dan Kowitz is co-convener of the Partnership Professionals Network and founder and CEO of JSB Partnership Consultants in Arlington Heights, Illinois.