Taking Sponsorship To The Next Level

The city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is known for great weather, pristine beaches, and something called “spring break”!

Tourism is key to the area’s survival, and as in most places around the country, the economy has taken a toll.

The city’s parks and recreation department--while faring better than most--has also had to do more with less and look for creative ways to reduce spending. Since heavily subsidized activities are usually the first to go, that meant special events in the agency.

There was a noticeable void around the city for major activities, especially after McDonald’s--the primary sponsor of the annual Fort Lauderdale Air and Sea show--pulled its sponsorship in 2007, ending a traditional and popular signature event.

In 2008, during preparations for the annual July Fourth beachfront fireworks event, the city commission debated if the cost of a fireworks show in this economy was worth it. Finally, the show went on … but no other activities took place.

As I sat on the beach that night, my family and I marveled at the dynamic fireworks, yet I still felt the day could have been better with more daytime activities and excitement. I knew then that the paradigm to produce events had to shift if the city was going to be a relevant player in the area.

This article hopes to share our approach and the lessons learned to help other agencies jump-start their event-sponsorship program.

An Honest Assessment

Fifteen years ago, the city’s parks department was the king of special events, hosting 10 to 12 major community shows annually. As money became scarce and budgets were reduced, many of the events were eliminated.

Although the city often partnered with outside groups, it still underwrote a large share of the costs.

In taking an honest assessment, department members realized we had four major events that were still viable--three sponsored by major companies, and the last--the July Fourth events--totally funded by the city.

We quickly realized that in order to grow our event portfolio, we needed to substantially raise sponsorship dollars to underwrite the costs.

In 2009, annual event-sponsorship revenue was $55,000. In 2010, it grew to more than $200,000, and city officials expect to gross more than $300,000 in 2011.

How did it happen?

Make Sponsorship Fundraising A Priority

If your experience in parks and recreation is like mine, you haven’t run across too many agencies that can afford to fund a person--let alone an office--dedicated to event sponsorship. Most agencies have someone who “works” on sponsorships in addition to many other projects.

Our agency was no different. Instead, we decided to hire an outside consultant who was completely dedicated to soliciting funds on our behalf. We wanted to focus not so much on the small community events, but rather on the large events that attract people from around the region.

There were two major reasons we opted to go with a consultant instead of an agency employee.

First, we could negotiate a percentage arrangement for paying the consultant’s fee. If no revenue was generated, there would be no expenses out of the department’s pocket. This eliminated salary and benefit expenses for a staff person.

Second, we needed someone who knew the major corporate players in the area, and who could speak their language.

Understand What An Agency Can Offer

The consultant really taught our agency a great deal in understanding what we can offer a particular sponsor. Having sponsor presence and signs at an event is really helpful, but to obtain big dollars, we have to be able to articulate the marketing bang to a major sponsor.

With the help of our Public Information office (PIO), we were able to articulate these “marketing touches.” It’s amazing how often we interact with the public:

• Web-page placement (Facebook page)

• Neighborhood association newsletter and civic packets

• Marketing stuffers in utility payments

• Department program guides

• On-hold messages on city telephone lines

• Event hotlines with mention of sponsors

• Public-access cable stations.

The agency was already engaged in these approaches but was not thinking of them in terms of marketing for major sponsors.

Designating an area as a “Sponsor Oasis,” also referred to as a VIP sponsor, also offers a great perk.

Another great idea is to offer an opportunity for free product sampling and/or a major display area. Ford Motor Company has been one of our best recurring sponsors, and we created a “Ford Country” display for the company. We have also closed off streets in order to create marketing areas for vehicles and other equipment.

Giving naming opportunities to major events is quite attractive for major sponsors. In 2010, the July Fourth celebration was marketed as “The Ford of July,” and the automaker used it to introduce the new Ford Focus line.

Finally, promise to position the sponsor as a community hero, a company that cares about the people and one interested in contributing to the quality of life there. In all media, always refer to the sponsor as a community hero, partner, champion, or the like.

Media Are Key To Big Sponsorships

If your agency can afford it, budget a line item for media purchases. This is a huge advantage in obtaining sponsors. Buying airtime--radio or television--is a huge enticement to sponsors.

If you can’t afford a line item for a media buy, I recommend building a media buy into a sponsorship proposal. For instance, if you can negotiate a small radio buy for $3,500 for an event, include the amount in the sponsorship request. Radio stations can help articulate the audience reach and the number of plays for the package.

Many radio stations offer community accounts or new client-generation accounts, where a good buy can be obtained at a reasonable rate. You can then offer a sponsor presence at the event, which is an added benefit.

Obtaining a good media buy is another area where a professional consultant can be beneficial. In addition to the contacts that our own agency PIO uses, our consultant was able to leverage her contacts with several media outlets to provide affordable air buys.

A New Paradigm

As mentioned earlier, we started this process with three viable special events. We now have eight major annual events. We could not have done this without the sponsorship program.

For six of the events, sponsorships cover almost 90 percent of the direct costs, not including department staff time.

When we discuss events now, we do so with sponsorship opportunities in mind. Our stable of sponsors includes major banks, automakers, local auto dealers, national beer companies, and many others.

We now understand that besides putting on a great event, delivering sponsorship fulfillment is the key. Happy sponsors come back … unhappy sponsors take their money elsewhere. The goal is to create a relationship in which the company wants to return.

Our agency has been fortunate that several major sponsors have stayed with us for more than three years. Promise what you can truly deliver, and deliver it.

The city has entered into an agreement with the Orange Bowl Committee to be a sponsorship partner for our New Year’s Eve Downtown Countdown. Also, the city recently signed a deal to bring back the Air and Sea show to the beach in 2012. Fort Lauderdale’s special-event life is recovering nicely.

David A. Miller, CPRP, is Recreation Superintendent of the Fort Lauderdale Parks and Recreation. He can be reached via email at DavidMi@fortlauderdale.gov.