LAST UPDATED: 2 December 2022
Ben Pickel of Life Time Events on finding and approaching sponsors, writing effective sponsorship proposals, and negotiating and closing sponsorships deals.
Selling sponsorships is arguably the biggest chronic challenge race directors face. Many race directors simply don’t like doing it, others don’t know where to start, and perhaps some have even given up after multiple frustrations and disappointments.
My guest today, Ben Pickel, is the Director of Sales and Strategy for Life Time Events. Ben has been working for years in the front lines of sponsorship sales, and knows a thing or two about the ups and downs of event sponsorship. His advice? Know your event. Understand what a sponsor needs. Accept that not everyone will say ‘yes’. And just go for it with integrity, perseverance and confidence in what you’ve built and what you have to offer.
Today’s episode is a long one - the longest we’ve done so far, in fact. But there was just so much ground to cover with Ben, from finding and approaching sponsors, to negotiating and closing sponsorship deals, so I hope you’ll bear with us till the end.
In this episode:
- Re-establishing the value of sponsorship when talking with sponsors post-COVID
- What sponsors are trying to achieve through sponsorship
- The difference between engagement-focused sponsors and sales-focused sponsors
- How to manage sales-focused sponsors
- The importance of having sponsors that align with your event's brand and identity
- What event assets sponsors are interested in
- How to approach your first sponsor meeting
- How to figure out which person to contact in the sponsor organization
- The importance of reaching out to sponsors in the first few weeks after the end of your event
- What you offer to sponsors is an intimate connection with and guaranteed interest from your qualified audience
- How to present demographics for your audience in sponsorship proposals
- The pros and cons of using sponsorship packages (e.g. Gold, Silver, Bronze)
- Setting a price for sponsorship: how you would know whether you're over- or under-pricing sponsorship
- Why most race directors tend to under-price sponsorship
- The pitfalls of offering sponsorship discounts
- Why you should focus on activating lower-paying sponsorships
- One-year vs multi-year sponsorships
- Title sponsorships: are the right for your event?
- How to deal with rejections from sponsors and how to make the most of a negative outcome
Thanks to GiveSignup|RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 22,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use GiveSignup|RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about GiveSignup|RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.
Ben, welcome to the podcast.
Panos, thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to chat with you today.
So am I. Thanks a lot for coming on and taking the time to talk to us. I think it's going to be a very, very interesting discussion today. You are based in Colorado currently. Is that right?
Yeah, that's correct. I live in Denver, Colorado. And Life Time has their main events and media office in Boulder, Colorado.
About Life Time Events
Right. So, many people would be quite familiar with Life Time from the fitness side of the business. Some people would also be aware of the event side of the business. So you're the Director of Sales and Strategy at Life Time Events. And you spend a lot of time managing sponsorships for the very prestigious portfolio of Life Time events. Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about the portfolio of events that you guys manage and your role within the company. And what'd you do for events and sponsorship there?
Yeah. Like what you said, a lot of people may be very familiar with Life Time Fitness as a gym or a fitness center. Some people may be very familiar with Life Time as an events production company. Very few people are probably familiar with both, collectively. It's safe to say that we have a lot of name recognition with some of our events, others, we don't. Collectively, we put on 33 endurance events a year. That can vary from a Turkey Trot in Minneapolis to the New York City and Chicago triathlon. We put on a couple of half marathons in Chicago. We produced the Miami marathon and half marathon. And, then, some that are a little bit more of a household name - to maybe some of your listeners, it would be - like the Leadville Trail 100 Run and mountain bike, collectively, the Leadville Race Series. Recently, we've really made a big push into gravel cycling events. This year, we'll put on three gravel cycling events - most notably, the Unbound Gravel event in Emporia, Kansas.
And tell us also a little bit about how those events came to be part of Life Time. Because I think they used to be under different ownership - it was, sort of, like a process - at some point, those events were acquired by Life Time. When did that happen exactly?
Yeah. So, historically, that has been the model for Life Time which is to acquire existing and typically successful events. And a successful event could have varying measures of success - usually, something that's well established, has a very loyal following, has a strong tie to the local community. And, typically, it was an owner that had maybe taken an event as far as they could, maybe, do on their own. And they had some goals and visions for where they would like to see the event go. And what they really needed was was a partner that could come in with a little bit more operational efficiency or some other resources to, kind of, help them achieve their bigger picture goals. And that's one of the reasons why when we do acquire events, the ownership and most of the staff usually stay in place and come on as either full-time employees or contractors. Because we're not just looking to acquire these events. We're looking to really partner with the people who maybe started, develop and grew these events and, then, just work to help them achieve their goals. And, then, as a result, we end up achieving our own goals, which is using these events as a way, as an extension of the mission of the Life Time Fitness Clubs, which is just promoting a healthy way of life and engaging people in an active lifestyle.
And I guess that having the portfolio of events has some significant portfolio or network effects on what you guys can achieve when you approach sponsors and other sort of commercial parties. What exactly is your role within that? What do you and your team do, in terms of monetizing some of the assets through sponsorship - which is what we'll be talking about today?
Yeah. And I'll try and keep this brief because it's-- as you know or may know, Life Time owns a couple different properties with athletes and with kroehner track. And it's 150 to 155 fitness centers around the country. They also own a magazine called "Experience Life." And, then, we have the portfolio of events. So, collectively, I work in a department known as partnership marketing. And we have a variety of people that are focused on a lot of different things. So at the highest level, when we start looking at like large non-endemic partners - like Verizon, or Invisalign, or some of these bigger companies - they may have a much more sophisticated and integrated relationship with Life Time that includes marketing assets through the clubs - assets like athletes, email campaigns, and sponsorship of the events. So there are people on our team that are much better suited and much more focused on some of these larger, more sophisticated companies. My area of focus is really on the, like, national, like endurance endemic partners - so, your running brands or your bike brands, those that are really, kind of, core to that space. And I focus exclusively on event sponsorships. So I'm not really doing anything on their club side or any of our other assets. Then, I have a team that reports to me that's more focused on developing partnerships with, like, local and regional small businesses. So they're the ones that are going to go out and have the conversations with, like, the local bank, or the dentist office, or the chiropractor, and make sure that we're not only, like, focused on building really exciting partnerships at, kind of, the national level but, like, the big players in the industry. But they are also integrating our events in the community. And those that have businesses within that community get to feel like they're part of the event. They have a voice in the event. And it, kind of, serves as the nice, like, checks and balance of-- the one thing I don't ever want to have us viewed as is like this Carnival operation that - kind of, comes in from Boulder, Colorado - puts on an event in your community, have tremendous success, all this buzz and, then, we leave and, then, we come back a year later. So I view the importance of the local partnerships. It's having that tie, having that kind of anchor, or that kind of commitment to that community, and the relationships that you have with people who are there day in and day out. We're passionate about - whether it's running or triathlon or cycling, to have conversations with them about - how we can do better, how we can be a bigger part of the community, how we can use some of the resources that we have to have a positive impact, not just that event weekend, but year round.
State of the sponsorship market
And that's going to be perfect for today's discussion. So today, I wanted to discuss a little bit the process of selling sponsorship. And we're gonna focus a lot on what happens once you engage with a sponsor, and how you should go about it, and how you negotiate and, like, where you should be coming from, what the sponsor might be looking for, all those kinds of things - but, obviously, to build up to that. I'd also like us to look a little bit at how you would start looking at what you've got - your assets, valuing them, even doing some prospecting. So we're going to, sort of, like rush through that a little bit to focus more on selling sponsorship. So how is the sponsorship market right now? I mean, you've been through it before the pandemic, through the pandemic. We're, sort of, I guess, coming out of it. It's what all the signs are telling us. What has been the response of sponsors? How have they managed existing sponsorships through a very difficult time? I mean, it's been a difficult time for everyone, including the sponsors, I guess. So how has that whole, kind of, like, roller coaster been in the sponsorship side of things?
Very appropriate to refer to it as a roller coaster. Coming out of 2019, we were probably in our strongest position ever. We had added some new events. We had plans to start some new events that were more evergreen, which was a little bit new to us. And from a sponsorship standpoint, we were coming off the heels of our most successful year ever. And, then, the pandemic hit. And we had to make a lot of decisions about what to do in terms of those sponsorship agreements. I'm pretty proud of the fact that what we did was, we talked to our partners, and we did whatever was required to have a good relationship, going forward. So if that meant canceling contracts, giving refunds, rolling contracts over to the following year, looking for make-good opportunities through some of our other assets, we really, kind of, viewed this as an opportunity to win in the arena of customer service with our partners. And I don't want to, kind of, frame this as, that has benefited us in the future. But like any relationship, if you come at it with honesty and integrity, and in the spirit of a good partnership, you're going to have a successful relationship where you really should. And, so, as we weathered a year of no events, we are now beginning to see events come back, and mostly full capacity with limited restrictions. The interesting challenge that I'm finding with a lot of sponsors is, one, the endurance industry boomed in 2020 with no events. So it's very easy for sponsors right now to, kind of, look at that and say, "We've had our best year ever and we didn't go to a single event." So now they're starting to rethink like, "Well, how do we want to spend those resources? Like do we want to invest in sponsoring events, having people on site, and things like that?" And, then, there are other brands that - because of the situation they were in during the pandemic, they - lost a lot of staff. So they don't have the field marketing reps. They don't have the event staff on site. So they may have a high interest in sponsoring events and want to support those events, but they just don't have the human resources to actually do anything meaningful on site. And, then, you've got brands who-- they're ready. They're excited. They're financially in a really good space. They have really missed engaging with that community. They want to be onsite at events. I mean, most of us who are in this space, we do it because we have a passion. It's probably many of our hobbies, if not participating in the sport at a higher level. And, so, same with our brand partners. Like, it's endemic to them. They love it. They want to be a part of it. And, so, I would say, in general, the response has been very positive. Brands are eager to get back to event, eager to find creative ways to connect with that community. But there's a lot of variability. And it really just requires a lot of patience, a lot of sensitivity, and just spending the time to kind of understand where the brand is coming from. A couple years ago, I would say most brands were bought into the idea of sponsoring events. And the only thing that I had to do was convince them to sponsor my events. And, now, I'm having to have a conversation about the value of sponsoring events and reselling them on the concept of sponsoring event. Then, I have to go back and try and convince them to sponsor my event.
What do sponsors want from a sponsorship?
That is very, very interesting, actually, I mean, like so many interesting points there. I mean, generally, we're seeing - coming out of the pandemic, I think - across the industry, and not only our industry, this whole, kind of, like, two speed, two tier dynamic where some people - they've been hit hard and they're, sort of, retracting and reevaluating, and, sort of - almost, like, stepping inwards. And other people who are responding to that by just pushing out words and, like, seeing, sort of, the opportunities that emerge through all this. The one overarching, sort of, theme in what you were saying there - that I think is really important and takes us into the next section of this discussion - is the fact that there's a very substantial relationship management component to doing sponsorships. Right? I mean, it's people. It's very, very kind of like, sensitive, like you need to be talking to people, engaging them, understanding the needs of the sponsors, which are what, by the way, you were saying earlier, sponsors are, sort of, like, coming into it from a different angle. And, maybe, what they're trying to achieve through sponsorship may be changing. What are sponsors trying to achieve through sponsorship these days?
That's a really good question. And when I am engaged in a conversation with a potential sponsor, usually, the first question I ask, like, "What are your goals through sponsorship? What are you hoping to achieve?" And for a lot of partners, it could be as simple as brand awareness. They're an emerging brand. They want to get connected to an endurance community. Event sponsorship is one of the ways that they're seeking to do that. For others, it could simply be a goal of creating interesting content and medium impressions. Being onsite in an event is a great opportunity to do that. Having some of the branding and the other elements that come along with sponsorship help set a stage for them to create a lot of interesting and engaging content. And others, it's pretty black or white. Like, they want to sell products. They want to get in front of an audience. They want to see immediate return on their investment. And they want to convert sponsorship dollars into immediate sales - either onsite at an event by being able to offer special promotions - or at least just educate the athlete audience about their products and, then, have something that they can tangibly measure that this was an investment that they made in sponsorship. And, then, these were the immediate sales results they saw.
So, actually, that's a very good point between the direct sales crowd. Let's say, the people with a very hard ROI way of going about sponsorship, and - for lack of a better word, the more, like, soft benefit people that go into sponsors more for, like - brand awareness, and some of the things that you can't necessarily measure down to the last engagement. Do you find one of the two being a trickier crowds to engage with?
Yeah. Honestly, I find like, when a partner says that their immediate goal is selling product and having that almost immediate proof of concept or direct sales. The challenge for us as an event production company is, we can share a message, whether it's through email, social media, or other ways to, kind of, promote the brand, promote the product, kind of, like you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink. And we're not in a retail environment. We're not working a sales floor and trying to convince customers to buy a certain product. We're just sharing a message. And, so, there are a lot of factors that go into whether or not that's going to be successful. One of the things that we have really tried to encourage our brand partners from getting away is being very heavy on, like, features and benefits, technology. Because through our social media and email content, one of the things that we've learned, we try to pay attention to engagement and unsubscribes, who's commenting and things like that. If the content is more storytelling, in nature, and is, kind of, aligned with the identity, spirit of the event, and the event audience, it tends to be more successful. Now, the hard part with that is, like, how do you, then, qualify if that translated into sales. We can show that it translated into engagement, and may have translated into sales. But the tricky part there is really definitively being able to say, "Because you sponsored this event, because we spoke to our audience, it absolutely drove the sales." It may have. It may not. And what I tried to do is just be very upfront and honest about that conversation, like, "Yes. This is your goal. I can give you a pathway to do that. However, I have no way to actually measure and give you that information back so you can say that this was successful."
Yeah. I mean, I guess, I often think of sponsorship as something that definitely intimidates a lot of race directors and people on, sort of, like, our side of the industry. But, sometimes, I sort of, forget that even for some of the biggest, highest profile brands, I guess, sometimes, they fall also into the mistake of not making the most and understanding 100%, sort of, the strong points of what sponsorship can do. Right? Because if you focus on sales, and you say, "I want to look at the sponsorship channel as something where I'm going to count. I'm going to send people to a page. And I'm going to count pairs of shoes they bought with a coupon or something. You probably could do a better job on Facebook, right? And it's difficult to try and position yourself to compete with that. Whereas, as you say, if you make it more around the story, the experience, and the connection - that participants have with the brand through the properties - then that's probably more of the winning, kind of, attitude.
Yeah. And I mean, it's interesting to think about, like - whether you're an event production company, or a footwear brand - how you're engaging and how you are working to drive back that value. So on the event production side if, like, really what you're offering to sponsor is logo placement on the back of a T shirt and a logo on a website, what kind of value is that, actually, really, driving anymore? I think there was a time and a place, for like, it had some value. I think technology has allowed us to really move beyond that. And, then, on the brand side, if your engagement is, "We're going to have a 10 by 10, and we're going to have somebody standing underneath a 10 by 10 tent. And, maybe, they're outgoing and engaging. And, maybe, they're going to have a conversation with somebody." But is that really achieving anything for both parties? Like, how is that achieving their goals? So we at Life Time have a pretty strong stance on like, "We don't sell logo placement." Like yes, logos are part of the entitlements. And that's part of it. But if a brand comes to us, and they just want to be affiliated with the event, they want to have a logo on a T-shirt or on the website, quite frankly, we'd just tell them, "There are plenty of events who will take your money and put a logo on their T-shirt and not give you any value." Like that is not what we're interested in. We are interested in meaningful partnerships that drive value to our brand partners. And, thusly, like, we are seeking brand partners that are going to engage and elevate the athlete experience so that our events either continue to be iconic, or we take some of the events that we have in our portfolio that could use some assistance, kind of, lifting them up to get to that next level. And we want you to work with our brand partners to do that - to accomplish those goals of creating an amazing experience for our athletes.
How can sponsors add to the event experience?
And, actually, on that point, do you think - having been in this industry for a while, having been doing this for a while - that things are shifting more and more away from the mindset of, "I need to find sponsors, so they give me something like cash, or something." Right? It's more like a one way thing, away from that, and more towards, "I need to find a sponsor that complements what I'm trying to do with my event. And at the end of the day, also, meaningfully adds to the experience that my participants are getting out of my event."
Yeah. And that's always tricky. Right? Because, like, cash is extremely important to an event being able to deliver on some of those experience goals, or even just pay for the event to happen.
There are other times where, maybe, like, receiving product in kind from a sponsor can help offset some cost. Or you can work with, like, a guru or a scratch labs. And they provide the product for your aid station. And that has certainly some value there. I think it's important to, kind of, take a step back from that, though, and just, kind of, ask the question, like, "As an event producer, or a race director, or whatever, like, what is your goal? Like, why are you putting this event up? Are you putting this event on because, at some point, it seemed like it'd be a fun thing to put on five km and you could make a living out of it? You wouldn't have to get a real job - which to be honest, it's, kind of, why I got into the industry that I'm in as well. I don't know what I would do if I wasn't working in the endurance space. Or is your goal to create something amazing and unique that when people leave your event, they're telling their friends and family about it. And they're sharing stories of an amazing experience they had engaging in an activity that they're very passionate about. And, so, if your goal is the latter, and you want to pursue sponsorship, to support those goals, then working with brands that are going to invest - whether that's cash or resources to elevate your experience, I think - becomes infinitely more important. I think anybody can start a race, charge a registration fee, maybe try to sell some sponsorships, and make some cash. But where it gets really challenging, especially, in today's world, is creating something unique and memorable for people. And the experience has to expand beyond just on course. So a lot of events can have an amazing experience within the race, from start to finish. But I wholeheartedly believe that what athletes are really after now is a full experience that expands beyond just what happens in between the start, going off, and crossing the finish tape.
What do I have to offer to sponsors?
Very interesting. So, let's look at something quite technical, I guess, about sponsorship, which is, starting out, I have my event. I don't have any sponsors yet. How do I take stock of what it is that I have that sponsors might be interested in? So what assets would I be looking-- like, this day and age, you said, it's not about logos and stuff. Right? So I can't just go out, or I shouldn't maybe go out and tell people, "I'm gonna send out an email blast and put your logo on it or something." So what is it, this day and age, that I have value to offer to potential sponsors?
Yeah. That can be a complicated question with a lot of different answers. But the way that I like to approach this is, I like to use the analogy - it's a lot like dating. Like, you need to know yourself first. You need to know what is unique, special and interesting about your event, have that identity, relatively, baked, and something that is aligning with the goals and the vision that you have for your event. And once you, kind of, have that figured out, like-- I'll use the example of, like, the Leadville Trail 100 run - the race across the sky, two miles above sea level, incredibly difficult, challenging event, like - that event has an identity. And, so, as the first step, you have this idea of what your event identity is. Then, you start to, kind of, look around the industry and start thinking about like, "Well. What brands align best with that identity?" And not to pick on any brands, but we're starting to evaluate, say, a footwear sponsor for the Leadville 100 run. There's anything from Nike, Hoka, Puma, Adidas, and a whole variety of brands that have different identities. Currently, our presenting sponsor that is La Sportiva - they are almost solely focused on trail running. Shred is core to their identity. It is incredibly important to us that we are aligned with a sponsor that, really and authentically, engages in what's going to be relevant to that audience. Now, we also put on the Miami Marathon - probably, not the best fit for a brand like La Sportiva. Like, yeah, there's crossover. And you can make a business case for this audience who would definitely be interested in your product. And road runners can be trail runners too, and all snap. But when we really look at the athlete dynamic and, then, the brand dynamic, well, for the Miami Marathon, Hoka was a much stronger fit than, say, La Sportiva. Both are amazing brands. Both bring a ton of value. But there's a different space. Different spaces are gonna be relevant to different brands. So as a first step, I just like to think about that - think about the goals of the event, think about what's going to be the best fit for the event - then, try to identify the brand partners that can best support those goals. I think that's a little, like, counter to a traditional sales mentality where if you're engaging with a client in a sales space, you may start to think about, like, "Well, what are the goals of the client? What are they hoping to achieve? And do I have assets that can help them achieve those goals?" With event sponsorship, I think you'd do the opposite. You just think about, like, "What is the event looking to do? What is the event looking to accomplish? And what are the best brand partners to help achieve those goals?" And, transversely, you'll still drive all of that value. But, you have to just think about it a little bit differently, instead of being excited and happy to take on any sponsor because of all of the tangible benefits. And it gets important to pause, be patient, be committed to a process, and try to find the partners that just best align with your vision and your strategy.
That's really good advice. So let's just work on the on the hypothetical of something, like, I think it's a good pair to work on. So you have Leadville on one end - really fantastic event, by the way - and, then, you have La Sportiva, the other really, really, super strong sponsor, shoe brand. Let's say you've identified La Sportiva that - it's, sort of, as you say - it's aligned with how you feel the identity of your event is, and your strong points. And, of course, you have your audience. What would you think of going to, like-- what kind of bits of your event, your audience, platforms, social media, whatever, or onsite would La Sportiva be interested in seeing in a sponsorship proposal? So what do you go to them with?
Yeah. Initially, after we've had, kind of, the conversations about what their goals are, we've kind of identified that. And, maybe, this is a little bit different, because we do put on 33 events. We have a process that, maybe, kind of, is a benefit. And sometimes it's a detriment to us. So we have very established sponsorship levels with very basic sponsor entitlement such as space at a pre event Expo, space at a post event finish festival party, logo placement - which earlier, I was saying, shouldn't be the focus, but, like, it's still part of it - email and social content. Outside of, like, kind of, those basic-- I think, like, entitlements at every event, if they're not, they should be offering. Where we go beyond that is, then, having a conversation with our brand partners about, like, on site activation, or like, "How are you going to look to engage with this audience?" And again, one of the things I didn't really touch on is we have an amazing event activation team. So once a sponsor comes onboard, like, we then turn them over to an account manager who's there to, actually, like, do the nuts and bolts of delivering on the sponsorship and working with the partners. So, in the example of La Sportiva, well, just this past weekend, we put on the silver rush 50-mile trail run and 50-mile mountain bike event. La Sportiva is the presenting sponsor. One of the things that was really important to them was being onsite - being able to do demo product, engage with our athletes, just get them into their footwear, and have the conversation about their product. But they're also there really to, kind of, like, build stoke and drive some enthusiasm. So they're pro athletes. They're engaging with people, which somebody - like an anti poker pitch guy and some of the others who are highly visible, people seek them out - definitely want to have a conversation with them. And they've done a great job of working with athletes who are very open and want to be a part of the community, want to engage with a regular runner like myself or somebody else. And, additionally, we have a local running shop that is the sponsor of the event. And that local running shop also sells La Sportiva product. So they work collaboratively to, kind of, support the event as well, to help the local running shop, and get connected with our athlete audience. That shop was onsite selling all kinds of products - extremely successful weekend for them. And a big part of that was La Sportiva was there to, kind of, help support their goals. So it's one of those things that doesn't really come up in a pitch deck or a PowerPoint presentation - collaborating with the other sponsors. But that's another way that I'm seeing more and more partners looking to engage. So an example I have of that is with a gravel cycling event that we're putting out in Bentonville, Arkansas this fall. We have Allied Cycle Works that are bike sponsor. HED cycling wheels is our wheel sponsor. And Pirelli as our tire sponsor. Shimano is our component sponsor. And all of those brands want to work together to, basically, build a show bike that has all of the best of their components, have that on display and, then, do some, kind of, like, raffle that's going to benefit a local charity or something like that. So it's pretty interesting to see, like, collectively, how they want to work together to engage the audience and get them excited about all the high end product that they offer, but also turning that into an opportunity to, kind of, support the local community as well.
Thinking outside the box about sponsorship
And you told us-- you were saying earlier - starts with really understanding - and taking your time to talk to your potential sponsor partner in understanding, really - what they're after. I guess you shouldn't be going into that discussion with too many preconceptions of the kind of thing that they would be looking from a sponsorship with you.
Yeah. And kind of expand on that. Like, it's easy, I think, maybe as a race director to think about, like, "I'm going to bring on this footwear brand or this bike brand, as a sponsor." And the way they're going to activate is very aligned with running shoes or bikes. But, I had a sponsor recently that what they'd like to do is they want to put on-- they want to have a crepe station on course, and made the ordered crepes that as people come through this checkpoint, they can get an amazing crepe. It has nothing to do with cycling wheels. But people are going to be excited about it. It's going to elevate the experience. And it's going to help them stand out. Probably one of the most successful activations I've ever seen was from Salsa Cycles at Unbound Gravel. They had the chase concept. And, basically, they set a couch out on a gravel road and they took photos of people sitting in it. And I don't know how, like, internally, they ever sold that to themselves - that this was going to be a good idea. But it was. And it was the most engaging, most exciting. Other brands are like, "How do we do something like that?" And it can be something really simple. It doesn't even have to be an apples to apples comparison to what that brand is manufacturing. It's just what can they do to engage with people. And the athletes leave feeling really positive about the brand. Brand had a lot of fun doing it. I mean, at the end of the day, like, isn't that why we're all in the event space? It's because we want to have a good time. We want to put on a fun event. And we want people leaving happy. So being open to different ideas and, maybe, off the wall concepts for your partners to engage with the audience just, kind of, helps build that and foster that.
Yeah. I mean, to be honest, to me, both of those examples make perfect sense - in the sense that you see, sometime, for instance, you go to an industry conference, and there's a sponsor sponsoring the drinks or something. Right?
How do I find good candidate sponsors?
Or you go to, like, an airport lounge. And there's a sponsor sponsoring something in that airport lounge. And from your point of view, you're just enjoying a really nice perk or a real nice moment. And you're, sort of, mentally putting that down on your mental ledger to an experience that was provided to you by that sponsor. Right? The couch at the middle of a course or the tasty crepe at, like, station five or something. So that makes perfect sense. One thing I wanted to touch on prospecting, before we move on to other things, is let's say that you have a shortlist of sponsors that - you've taken the first step that we discussed, which is you're pretty confident that they - would be a good fit for your event, your identity, or where you're going to take things, everything else being equal, is there any, kind of, research you could be doing? Or any signs you could pick on? Or any data that some of those sponsors might be more receptive to discussing a sponsorship than others? Like, is there something you can pick up that would tell you that, like La Sportiva would be a better candidate to talk to than, let's say, Solomon, or something like that?
Yeah. And I definitely don't like to get into the absolutes of, like, one brand is better than another brand, because they're all gonna just have a different and unique way that they want to engage with that audience. But while I'm doing some of that research to identify new potential sponsors, let's just say, like, I just have, like, no idea where to start struggling to come up with a shortlist. So I'll just go back to the example of the Leadville 100 Trail run. Well, there's another pretty amazing ultra distance trail run in the United States called the Western States 100. Maybe, as a first step, I'll go to their website, see who their sponsors are, and presume that if they were interested in sponsoring the Western States 100, they're probably interested in, maybe, sponsoring the Leadville 100. And they may already have a pretty well defined idea of what a successful partnership might look like. And I always, kind of, like to lean on covey with the seven habits of highly successful people. Like, first seek to understand then seek to be understood. So, in my research phase one, look at, like, what other events are doing. Even if you're putting on a local 5 km, well, look at the other 5 km in your area. Like, who are their sponsors? How are they engaging? Like, start to see what other people are doing and try to find some best practices from others. Or look to see what other people are doing and start to think about, like, "Well. How could you be doing it better?" And I think it can be difficult, sometimes, for those of us that are busy putting on events. It's sometimes all consuming but go participate in other events. See what other events are doing. Step outside of your own small world and be open to what other things are doing. I think one thing that I'm starting to see in the gravel cycling space, from sponsor engagement, is something that has been happening in the run space for a while, which is a lot of guerilla marketing efforts. So if you've ever been to like the Boston Marathon or the New York City Marathon, you'll see the brands that are, kind of, left out in the cold that aren't official sponsors of the event that are finding creative and unique ways to activate and to do things around their event. We started to see some of that happening in the gravel cycling space. So we, then, like, kind of, created a strategy of how to support that, so not to rally against it but to, like, "Okay. If brand partners are gonna, like, look to take over storefronts and do these other things in our communities, like, well, how do we engage with that so that we can make it part of our process, rather than letting the tail wag the dog?" We're lucky that we put on mountain biking, triathlon, running events. So we can, kind of, see what other industries are doing. But if your main focus is running event, like, look and see what the bike space is doing. Like, see how those brands are maybe engaging. And that'll help, maybe, create some thought starters and, maybe, help you find some interesting brand partners to pursue that. That may not be so obvious. The other part on, like, the research side is go to trade events. In the United States, we have the running event where you have a lot of the brands. They're all all in one place. You can have conversations with them. You can make those connections. On the bike side, we have the sciatic classic, which is a monster Expo like 400 brands, or something like that. You're at a place where they're at an event. They're actually showing you what they're capable of. And, then, it's a great way to start a conversation.
How do I know who to contact for sponsorship?
That's a great point. And within those organizations, another big question mark - I guess that people have, when they when they try to take the next step from there - is whom should I be looking to contact? Like, because, sponsorship sometimes - I mean, you know that better - is a little bit of a diffuse thing, as a function. Right? I mean, sometimes, there'll be dedicated sponsorship people in the sponsor organization. Sometimes, there'll be like brand people. Sometimes, there'll be marketing people. Sometimes, it's the owner, if it's like a small business. So, like, how do you know who to reach out to?
Yeah. And the short answer to that is, I never know. I never know until I engage in the process. So, like you said, for a lot of brands, they may even have somebody that has strategic partnership, or some kind of partnership in their title. If I was going to give a general answer, I would say, usually, it's somebody in the marketing department that's going to control that budget. But yeah, you're right. Like, for some companies, it's the sales department - those that are really trying to drive that consumer engagement. And for smaller companies, it's the owner. And that's where, like, LinkedIn has been a really good resource for that -just reading through people's profiles, kind of, learning about what they're responsible for. If a company has an "About Us" page on the website, like, they may have some of their staff and what their responsibilities are. And one thing that may or may not be very comfortable for a lot of people, but if you're engaged in social media, and you're following brands on Facebook, Instagram, or whatever, like, just send a direct message and introduce yourself. And just, kind of, like, "Hi. I'm Ben. I represent these events. I really enjoyed the content piece that you just put out there and I would like to have a conversation about working together on supporting our event." A lot of times they respond and they're just, like, "This is who you should talk to. Here's their email address." Or they ignore you. And that's okay, too. That's just part of the process.
When is the best time to seek sponsorship?
It is part of the process. Yes. And people need to get used to that. Like, again, earlier, you were talking about dating. Right? I mean, you get lots of rejections in dating. But you don't stop being out there and trying to take the next step. So one other thing that, I guess, comes into it - beyond trying to identify the right person within the organization - is, sometimes, things get caught up. I've seen that with some proposal we've sent in the past for some of our events. Things get caught up in the, kind of, like, seasonal cadence of the business' internal, kind of, like, budgeting, etc. So, you might reach out to an event and they will tell you, "Oh. All our budget is allocated for next year. Like, come talk to us next year or something." Is there a general rule of thumb, in terms of a good time or like a good season within the year, to be looking to reach out to sponsors?
Yeah. I would say there's probably not a good rule of thumb right after putting on an event. It's a ton of work. It's exhausting and deservedly so. For the next couple weeks after an event, race directors probably just want to, like, decompress, take some time, and not start thinking about next year until a few months down the road. As a rule, within two weeks of an event occurring, we are engaging in conversations for the following year. We are looking at, first, renew existing sponsors. And, then, start going through the process of evaluating, like, "What are the other sponsorship needs that we have? What are some of the best brand partners?" Within a month of race day, I want to have, like, that plan in place and start to be activating on it. And, oftentimes, the response will be, "We're not ready to look at 2022 yet. Like, let's talk in October." And that's great because now you have an invitation to follow back up with them. You have a better understanding of when they're making decisions. And you just have to, kind of, start keeping track of that information. Fiscal years and budget timelines just vary greatly from organization to organization. And, so, putting yourself in the best position is having those conversations as early as possible.
But is it true, though, I guess, that when someone tells you, "We've allocated all our budget for this year," they actually mean it? Right? I mean, if they're not trying to just let you down gently, I mean, sometimes, marketing, budgets, timelines, and stuff really get into it.
Yeah. I mean, I've had enough rejection to know that. I don't think the sponsors are always interested and necessarily letting you down easy. They will quite plainly tell you that they're just not interested. They have no reason to spare your feelings because you're coming to them with an ask. And they get asked by a lot of people. That's something to, kind of, I think, take into consideration when you're having those initial conversations. You may be one of hundred events that are asking for the exact same thing. And I think anybody who, maybe has been a teacher or had that kind of role, you'd get to a point where, like, you're saying the same thing so many times that it starts to lose its like enthusiasm. And with sponsors or potential sponsors, this may be the 50th time that they've heard a pitch in the last two weeks. And, likewise, it just starts to, kind of, lose its enthusiasm. And, so, kind of, being mindful of that, when you go into that process, that's also why you don't need to take the rejection so personally - because they're being asked by a lot of people. If you want to go back to the analogy of dating, if you're the 30th guy to ask a girl to prom, or ask a girl out on a date, at a certain point, they're just like, "No. Not interested. Thanks so much." They're not gonna waste their time by trying to spare your feelings.
Right. And in terms of what you were saying earlier - I just want to wrap this up, in terms of starting to go after sponsor, sort of, at the immediate period, following the end of your previous event, what you were saying earlier that - within a couple of weeks or a month of putting on an event, you'd look to reach out to sponsors. Is there a reason behind that? Is it more like a momentum thing that you're trying to, sort of, like, strike when the iron is hot and, like, you're still in that, kind of, event buzz? Or is it really necessary to give yourself a very long lead time to your next event to line everything up?
Yeah. I mean, it's a little bit of both. But if you think about, like, you have all of this - I want to say like - free or earned media that comes along with your event through social media. So you have participants from your event that, maybe, happened last week, who are really excited about-- and they're sharing photos. And they're telling stories. And they're writing blog posts. Then, depending on the size and scope of your event, maybe there's media attention. And there's things that you can then share to a potential sponsor and be like, "We just had an incredibly successful event. Here is a lot of the interest and buzz around our event. We would love to have a conversation with you about partnership." The other side of it is if you are going to, kind of, go down the path like Life Time does - with much more complicated partnerships that have a lot engagement, a lot of oncourse activation, where your brand partner needs time to, like figure those resources out as well - if you're going to have social media, email marketing, maybe social takeovers, and things like that, you don't want all of your sponsors trying to squeeze in all of their content, like, a month before the event. You want to spread that out throughout the year. And it's also just part of how you keep your event top of mind to your athlete audience by being able to, like, sprinkle in, kind of, this sponsored content or engagement throughout the year. So it really comes down to getting those partners secured early, helps them get more benefit out of the partnership as well. It's not just, "Well, it gives me more time to get more sponsors." It actually gives you more time to drive more value.
How do I approach my first sponsor meeting?
Right. And let's say I get a positive response. So I reached out, as you say, either through social media, or I get through to the right person, and they're interested right in my initial approach. They're interested in talking to me and understanding what I have to offer in a little bit more length. And they offer a meeting or a follow up call, or something. So they say, "Yeah. Let's, like, catch up on that. And you tell me what you guys have to offer?" What should I go into that meeting with? And I'm thinking more mindset rather than materials necessarily. Like, what am I hoping to get out of that first meeting? What should be my objective? Like, how would I judge that, coming out of that meeting, it's been a success?
Yeah. And it can be really easy to fall into the trap of, "My goal is to secure a sponsor by any means necessary." Meaning that you're going to give up the power and the conversation to the sponsor. And you're going to just take whatever they are willing to give you because - I don't want to say, maybe, like, you're desperate, but like - you've decided it's really important that you have sponsors for the event. You maybe don't really like engaging in a sales process. And you're just trying to get through it as quickly as possible. Like, that's a reality. Right? Like, I think that's why in your survey, like, that was a challenge for people. Right? Like, one, they just don't like it. They don't like going through this process. But, really, what the mindset should be is, "I have something of value. I have an amazing event. I have an engaged athlete audience. What I have to offer a sponsor is an intimate connection to people who are interested in their brand and their products." That has tremendous value because that's qualified audience that they can really count on as being interested in their brand. Like, you see it all the time on pop-up ads, Google Ad display, and things like that. Like, brands are spending money. And they're casting a wide net. What you're offering as a race director is guaranteed interest. And going into that meeting with, kind of, that mindset of, like, "I have something that you want. Now, all we need to do is figure out, 'are you, Mr. or Mrs. brand, the best fit for my event?' What are your goals?" And that's the important next step. What are your goals? And can I, through my event, help you achieve those goals? Like, that should always be the first conversation. Because if you're not aligned on goals, and if your event can't deliver the goals that brands are looking for, it's just not a good fit. And it's better just be upfront and honest with that, and just say, "I understand what you're looking to accomplish. I don't think that we're the best fit for you." And that's an integrity move. And if you can approach everything with a high level of integrity, you're going to be successful. You may not secure every sponsor that you have a conversation with. I couldn't even begin to tell you what an acceptable close rate would be, because it doesn't matter. What matters is finding good partners that align with your event and your goals, and you align with their goals as well.
What do sponsors want to see in our first meeting?
And in terms of, I suppose, qualifying that audience to the sponsor in that meeting - like giving them a more concrete idea of what that audience looks like both in terms of the demographics, but also, I guess, like, the numbers and stuff - what would a sponsor expect to see - in terms of hard numbers or hard data from my event - to get, like, a good idea of what my audience looks like and whether they'd be interested in discussing further with me on how to engage that?
Yeah. And I will say, almost every sponsor that I work with will ask these questions. And it doesn't mean - depending on what your events answers are - that it's good or bad. At a basic level, what they want to know is if your athlete participants, either from the previous year or over the course of several years, like, what's the gender breakdown? What's the percentage of women? What's the percentage of male participants? What's the age demographic? And that could just be as simple as the average age of our event participation is 42 years, and we have 60% women and 40% men - doesn't have to be terribly complicated. You don't need to go into all your age groups and say, "We have this many people in the 15-19 age group - just some general information." One of the things that we offer in our pitch decks is how many states are represented in our athlete audience and how many countries are represented. If somebody really wanted to know more detail, we could certainly do all of our event registration through RunSignup. They have an amazing reporting tool. We can get that information. But at the basic level, 27 states were represented in our event in four countries. So it serves to, kind of, give some, tangible on paper, like, idea of what this event is offering. If your potential sponsor is really focused on just your immediate region - let's say, you're in New York, Chicago, or another large market area - it may be more interesting to them that 80% of your participants are in-state participants. Because, if you're talking to like a local car dealership, they're way more interested in talking to the local crowd than, say, an international crowd. And so those are all-- like, some of the things that you just want to, kind of, be mindful - as you're starting to prospect potential sponsors, as well - is like, "Does your event offer an audience that is going to be attractive to a sponsor, based on what their goals are?"
You heard Ben back there mentioned GiveSignup|RunSignup reporting tools. Life Time Events are a GiveSignup|RunSignup customer and they use these tools to not only analyze registration data, but as Ben mentioned, also as a quick and easy way to compile participant stats and neat graphs for their sponsorship proposals. And this is all really straightforward to do on GiveSignup|RunSignup, as I recently found out when I had to present a participation report to the sponsors of our Race Directors Run. You can get data on gender splits, participant age groups, even neat-looking heatmaps of where your participants register from that you can share with local businesses interested in sponsoring your race. You can export the data into all the major formats - csv, Excel etc - send them to your Dropbox account or, which is my favorite, just grab the beautiful graph straight from your GiveSignup|RunSignup dashboard and just paste them into your sponsorship proposal. And if you have, say, a local hotel interested in sponsoring your race, you can ask your participants a custom question during signup, like "Will you be staying at a hotel?", and quickly turn those answers into a graph you could then include in your sponsorship proposal. That's something a sponsor will really appreciate - going that extra mile and showing that you understand the kinds of things that they would be interested in seeing in your proposal. In fact, we're just about get into that point with my guest, Ben Pickel, so let's get back to this really interesting discussion on sponsorship sales...
More things to engage sponsors with in the first meeting
Speaking of stats that a sponsor might be interested in seeing in a sponsorship proposal, would it be valuable to the sponsor to see stuff that, sort of, go beyond just like the plain demographics? So would it be valuable, for instance, to a running brand sponsor if I showed them data on how often my participants run, for example, or what brand of shoe they might wear and that kind of thing?
One of the things that we do - I don't think we do this with every event, but we do this with with a majority of our events - is post event surveys. And we actually work with our brand partners to develop the questions that we're asking our athlete audience post-event. There tends to be a little bit more engagement on the bike side, because the brand partners are very interested in, like, "What tires did the majority of people ride? Or what bike frame? Or like, what running shoe?" Things like that. And that information I, kind of, think is much more interesting in maintaining and developing a relationship with an existing sponsor rather than it being part of the sales process. It's something that we may mention that, "As a sponsor, you'll have the opportunity to work with us on our post event survey and start to get more of that information from our athlete audience." And one that I've failed to mention - that's become more and more important over the past couple years - is the size of our of our social media channels. One thing I thought was pretty interesting is, earlier this June, we put on the Unbound Gravel event in Emporia, Kansas. And our Instagram audience grew by 10,000 followers during that weekend. That is absolutely a piece of information I'm going to be sharing as I'm prospecting new sponsors because it highlights the fact that this is an established event. But there are still new people looking to engage. And the proof of that is, in one weekend, our audience grew by almost 30%.
Should I sell Gold, Silver, Bronze sponsorship packages?
Wow. And I know you mentioned earlier that because of the size of your organization and the way you do things - which may or may not be the way that other people might be doing this - you tend to, at least, stick to some basic groupings and packaging of benefits. People are very familiar - a little bit too familiar probably, like, historically - with the whole gold silver bronze type thing with sponsorship. I know lots of sponsorship experts - outside of endurance events - tend to look down on that these days, quite a lot, particularly, because they feel that it's not the right approach to try and, like, push people into, like, gold silver bronze thing. What's your view on that? What's your view on like, going to sponsors or even advertising packages, sort of, like, passively to get some inbound interest, perhaps, advertising some benefits, putting up the whole, like, gold silver bronze thing?
Because we put on 33 events a year, there is tremendous value to me in having something that - at least, at a starting point - is somewhat formulaic and easy to communicate. Going back to, you get to kiss a lot of frogs to get your prince, if you're not going to have 100% close rate with everybody you talk to, you're going to spend a lot of time sharing this information, getting this out to prospective sponsors. And for some, it just might not be a good fit for your event. And that's okay. But, like, having something that you can just very easily share with somebody as a starting point, I think, is important. And whether you call it gold, silver, or bronze-- within our organization, we have title, sponsor, presenting sponsor, official, and corporate. And it's something that we discuss and debate often, in terms of sponsorship levels, and what we want to do. And the value that I see in having these different tiers of sponsorship is there are companies that want to engage at a very high level. It's important to them that they are recognized as, "It's the Life Time Leadville 100 Run presented by La Sportiva." Within some of our levels, we offer category exclusivity. That's again, something that we debate and discuss quite a bit, how we feel about that category exclusivity conversation. But for a lot of your endemic partners, it's important to them that they're protected so that the money that they're spending, the resources that they're investing in your event isn't being diluted because you have four of their biggest competitors also involved in the event. Now, the lower tiers, the corporate level, and things like that, is a much more modest price point. It's designed really more to offer something for a small business that is affordable to them, that has an entitlements package that's relevant. So if you are a local bank, or a local car dealership, or whatever, and you're looking to sponsor-- we'll just keep using the Leadville 100. It's a national and international event. If you're a local car dealership, you may not care if you're getting social media posts to our athlete audience of 30,000 people. What you care about is being associated in your community as a supporter of that event. And, so, why would I offer them a sponsorship package that is an inflated price that has all these sponsor entitlements - that they're not interested in, anyhow. So, as starting points, we have these different tiers. For the most part, simply from an efficiency sake, and being able to keep my head around, like, all of the different sponsorships and partnership agreements that we have, it's great if we could stay within the confines of something like that. But we're always willing to be flexible. And I think, like, any event should always be willing to be flexible to craft a sponsorship program that suits the needs and goals of their sponsor while, at the same time, supporting the needs and goals of the event.
And I think that's actually a really honest answer, to be honest. Because whenever I read these things about, like, "Approach every sponsor, as if they are the sponsor" and, like, "Treat every sponsorship proposal-- like, rewrite it from scratch to suit everyone", sometimes reminds me about those things that they tell you when applying for a job, which is, like, "Oh, yes. Have like, a really specific cover letter for every single employer you applied to." But, as you were saying, partly because there's so many rejections and so much competition, it's also a numbers game. Right? And you can't just be spending. You're convinced that there's a good slot for a car dealership in your event. You can't complicate things so much that you actually end up writing - specific bespoke stuff completely from scratch - for every single car dealership you approach. You're going to have a boiler plate. You're going to have some stuff that you rotate around because it's also a volume game. It's also reaching people, and I think more so to, like, more junior and mid-level events than you guys. Because like Leadville, it's different story. But you're reaching out to your first sponsors. You're gonna have a lot of rejections. You can't just be spending, I guess, like four and five hours in every single proposal when you're doing things like that.
Yeah. I think what ultimately happens is-- I think it's a noble goal to, like, "Everything is going to be custom. Everything is going to be tailored to my sponsors." It's a very noble goal. What ultimately happens is, after years of doing this, you get so burnt out on spending all this time and effort into things that don't end up panning out, that you just abandoned sponsorship altogether. And you just start to say, like, "It's not worth my time." Understand that I'm in a unique situation. Working on sponsorships for 33 events, I write over 200 contracts a year. I just don't have the time to start from scratch every single time. So, a good starting point-- And by having that process in place, I actually have the time to focus more on listening and learning from our partners on what their needs are. And, then, how can we make minor tweaks to an established system to better suit their needs?
How do I value the sponsorship I'm selling?
I guess one of the most blackbox things about sponsorship is putting a price on the thing. I go to a sponsor. I think I know what I've got to offer. So we've covered quite a lot of ground here - all of the different stages. I'm at a good place. Someone's interested. I'm listening in. I, sort of, follow what they need to get out of this. Fine. And they asked me, "Okay. Yeah. Sounds good. What's your ask? Like, what do you want?" How do I put a price on that? How do you, like, even approach? Like, do I throw them a price? How do I know that's the right price? How do I know I'm not overselling, underselling, overpricing, or underpricing? What's the benchmark?
There can be a lot of factors that go into this. I wish there was a formula that I could say, "If your event is this size, if your social media presence this size, then you should charge X." And maybe there is. Maybe, I'm just not smart enough to figure this out yet. But as you engage in the process, you'll very quickly get an understanding of, "Are you priced too high? Are you priced too low?" You'll know if you're priced too low if your potential sponsors don't ask you any questions and just say yes, if they don't ever push back on it. It's a sales process. It's a negotiation. It's a conversation about the value offer and the amount that they're willing to spend to achieve that. This may be uncomfortable for a lot of people to ask, but I will always ask potential sponsors, like, "Well, what is your budget for sponsorship?" Most of the time, they'll tell me. And they'll just say, like, "For events of this size, we typically will spend $5,000 or $10,000. Or we'd like to have a mix of cash and product. And we usually like to spend 60% cash and 40% product." They'll start to, kind of, give you some of that information. If you've been really good about networking with your peers, ask them. Also, look for similar events. Ask them, "What are you charging for a sponsorship?" And be willing to share that information with others. Yes, you're competing with other events for sponsorship dollars. And you're trying to attract these brands. But if you are underselling sponsorships, you're hurting your industry as a whole. And you're devaluing the product. Think of it like almost like a housing market. Right? Like, if you're trying to sell your house for $100,000 and your neighbor is selling an identical house for half that, they just destroyed your chances of getting true value out of your property. And the same goes for sponsorship. And, again, they're talking to possibly hundreds of other events. So the brand has a lot of good insight into what fair market value is. And they've been able to get that information by having those conversations. There's no reason that, like, as an event director, you can't get that same information by also having those conversations. I've also had, on occasion, not very often, but I've asked sponsors who sponsor other events, like, what do they charge? Right? And that's not a question you're going to get an answer to in your first meeting. You need to develop a relationship and really build a rapport with somebody to be able to, actually, have a true friendship with them, and a mutual respect where they'll provide that information. But I'm always interested in what other events are doing, what they're offering, because I want to make sure that, like, I'm doing the best I can for my sponsors, and that-- yes, we have revenue, goals and things that we're trying to achieve. But at the end of the day, I just want to be a good partner and offer a good value to my sponsors. And if I have something of value, it's okay for me to try and price it appropriately. I probably didn't answer, exactly, how you come up with pricing. But it's something where if you're starting from scratch at this, I don't know, maybe it's okay to guess. And you'll learn throughout the process. But one of the challenges and things to be conscious of is, if you start coming in too low, you're never gonna dig an existing sponsor out of that. So it's important. The first time you sign a sponsor is to maximize what they're willing to contribute to your event, initially. Because if you start to go into this, like, mindset of, "Well, as a first year sponsor, we'll give you a 50% discount." Well, what happens when that person that you were talking to leaves the company and the person that replaces them just sees the contract for one price? And, then, you say, "Well, that was actually just the first year discount. Our actual price is this." They're going to come back to you and just be, like, "Well, we'll be happy to renew at the existing price." And you've lost your leverage.
Overpricing vs underpricing sponsorship
Right. Yeah. So I know you were telling me, kind of, like, offline conversation that you get the feeling that most people probably err on the side of underpricing rather than overpricing. I think most race directors would feel that - which is probably why they end up underpricing. They would feel, like - "I'm charging that. And it's probably quite a lot as well." But you're saying that, in terms of your experience, lots of people in the market tend to underprice.
Yeah. I definitely think that they do. And I think it has a lot to do with the sense that, maybe, they're not negotiating from a position of power. Maybe, they use the analogy of, in the United States, we have a very aggressive car dealership, auto sales. And people, kind of, have this belief, "If you wait till the end of the month, the salesmen are under a lot of pressure to meet their quota. And do this until, like, you can negotiate a really good deal. If you wait until this time and you shift the balance of power-- it's kind of the mindset." Right? And that may very well may be true. And as soon as you start trying to sell from a position of fear, the only thing that you think that you can do to entice a sponsor is discounting. And I'm here to tell you, like, nobody wins the race to the bottom. If you have something of value, somebody will be willing to pay what you think it is worth. And you have to be willing to have somebody say, "No, thank you. I'm not interested in sponsoring your event at this price and have the confidence that you can go find a partner who does see the value." And that's an important part of it. Like, you want to have a sponsor that sees the value in your event, and is willing to pay a fair price to engage with that audience. Because if they don't see the value that you have determined is appropriate to engage with your athlete audience, they're probably not going to be a good partner. And it's probably not going to be a successful relationship.
Right. Yeah. And I think that's really important. And it's the same with sales partners and stuff. Everyone would tell you, "It's really important for any customer, in the general sense of the word, that they actually end up using the product." So, more so, even with sponsorship, it's really, really important for the sponsor to be able to see that they're getting value out of it. Right? I mean, it is your priority to make sure that they would know what to do with the thing, and they'll be able to get the value out of it. So they keep coming back for years to come.
Yeah. Another way to, maybe, think about this also is - I'm just going to use made up numbers - let's say, you sell a brand of sponsorship for $1,000. And you sell a brand of sponsorship for $50,000. The brand that spends $50,000 is very well going to make sure that they are getting every ounce they can out of that spend. They're going to show up to your event. They're going to make sure that that money spent is coming back to them in some kind of tangible value. The brand that spent $1,000 - that's the brand that their local rep decided that it wasn't worth their time to drive three hours to set up a 10 by 10 at your event. And there's no sense of accountability. Like they don't have as much skin in the game in helping your event be successful and helping the relationship be successful.
Should I go for a multi-year sponsorship agreement?
Right. Yeah. So you want people to have skin in the game. Exactly. Speaking of skin in the game, I know you said discounts are generally not a good idea. Generally, discounts have a bit of, like, hazard to them. What about the term of the agreement that you'll be seeking in, like, your first engagement with the sponsor? Does it make sense for you to aim at getting a sponsor locked in for multiple years? Or should you start off, let's say, with just a one year sponsorship, like a one event sponsorship? And, then, maybe, hoping that even if you demonstrate value, you'd then be able to negotiate, like, a higher price and stuff. Does it pay to go for longer term? Or just keep the flexibility and optionality on your side open and just go for, like, a single year - and, then, renew and have another discussion with a sponsor in a year's time?
I think in a perfect world, like, anytime you can be flexible, that's ideal. So to touch on like, kind of, maybe, the discounting side of things just really quick, another thing I tried to take into consideration is, "Well, what are maybe the financial resources of the brand partners? And if you're thinking about having brand sponsors that span different categories, they're going to have different financial means themselves." So we'll use the bike space as an example. So you could be pursuing bicycle manufacturer that's selling an average-- their average selling price could be $2,000 to $3,000 per item. And, then, you're dealing with an anti-chafe sponsor that their average selling price is $2 or $3 an item. So both are successful companies. Both can bring a lot to your event in terms of partnership. But financially, you have maybe a billion dollar company and, then, you have a company that could be the biggest player in their space, but the average retail selling price is significantly lower. Therefore, they have less budget to spend on events. So that's something I always tried to take into consideration, come up with creative solutions to make sure that we don't become an organization that is solely focused on, "Who can write the biggest cheque?" That's never gonna make your event better. And that's maybe, somewhat, counter to what I was saying about making sure you value things appropriately. But that's the important thing, though - value it appropriately. So to answer your question about, like, multi-year vs single-year, in general, I will always pursue a multi-year agreement. I think having the consistency, year over year, builds credibility. It develops a strong relationship. The conversation around your event isn't just event weekend. It's a year round conversation. So having those partners that are invested and signed to a contract that spans multiple years allows you to have that conversation about those sponsors the week after your race, instead of having contracts expire on race day. That's not always a very comfortable thing for sponsors who've maybe never worked with your event before. I have always offered the opportunity for sponsors to opt out of subsequent years of their contract. But I believe so much in what Life Time does, from an event production standpoint, that if I can get somebody interested as a sponsor for one year, I am more than happy to offer them a two or three year agreement with an opt-out clause, because, well, no one's ever taken advantage of it. So I have no risk there. And I'm not looking for a hostage situation. Like, if a sponsor comes on, they sign a three year agreement with an opt out clause, after the first year, they come and say, "We really didn't get what we were looking for out of this sponsorship." Well, that's an opportunity to have a conversation of like, "Well, how do we do better?" You also may find that there's a lot of consolidation going on in our industry. And as brands get acquired by other brands, having existing contracts on their books can cause an issue for them. So having that flexibility, that opt out clause, to be like, "Hey. This is fine. I understand you're going through an acquisition. We're going to exercise your opt out clause. We'll create a new contract under the new parent company or whatever." Like, that also gives them just some freedom, some flexibility, the opportunity to be nimble. And it's demonstrating that you're willing to be as good of a partner to them as you want them to be to you.
Are title sponsorships suitable for my event?
And what about things like title sponsorships? Is a title sponsorship something that sort of came about because a race director really, really wanted to close a deal with a sponsor? And they just, like, threw everything at it? Or is it something that a sponsor would ask for? And what's really like-- is it like a prestige thing? Like what's so special about putting the sponsors name on your event name?
So title sponsorship, I think, is incredibly valuable, if you have an event that is well established, well known, and iconic. Most of the companies that I find that are interested in title sponsorship, tend to be non-endemic - not always, but many. And if you have an event, like a Leadville 100, or a Boston Marathon, or a New York City Marathon, having your company's name first - the John Hancock Boston Marathon, or P&G, or some of the others that title these events - it's a marketing asset. It's a highly visible marketing asset. Your brand name is now the name of the event. And if it's a holy cow, really big deal event, like, that is tremendous value. If it's your first year putting on an event, maybe there's just not the interest in a title sponsorship. And, maybe, in those years while you're working to get your event established, you want to protect the identity in the name of it and not allow another company to come in and put their name overtop of it. An example that we have in our portfolio is the Schwann again, mountain bike festival in northern Wisconsin. This is the oldest, continually produced, mountain bike event in the United States. This event has never had a title sponsor. It is the Schwann again mountain bike festival presented by Trek. And we have made a decision to not sell title sponsorship to this event because the name Schwann again mountain bike festival is so iconic. It's so historic that we've made a conscious decision to not put another name overtop of it. But, then, we have other events where we absolutely do that. And, sometimes, through those partnerships, it is also elevating the identity or the crowd around the event. So for example, with the gravel event that we have in Kansas, it's the Garmin Unbound Gravel presented by Craft Sportswear. As we set the standard for those sponsors around there, well, Garmin is based out of Kansas City. They're an hour and a half from where this event is produced. It was important that - if we were going to align with the title sponsor of that event, that - they really understood and wanted to support the event. They were somewhat local-ish to that event as well. And by having Garmin have this enhanced presence of the event as a title sponsor, many of their people from their corporate headquarters are coming down to the event. It's a point of pride for them. They're very excited and happy to be a part of the event in this high level. And it's something that permeates throughout their company.
Is there value in in-kind sponsorship?
For people, on the other end, I guess-- for a title sponsorship, for people who approach the sponsor - and the most they can get out of it, everyone's obviously - like, their ideal is cash. I mean, strictly, in terms of, like, what you get back for your event for people who approached a sponsor and the sponsor is willing to work with them really enthusiastically. But all they're willing to contribute is, like, product and in-kind stuff. How would you think of that?
Yeah. I mean, cash is always king. Right? Like, it's a cliche phrase to throw out there. I will always, kind of, go back to, like, something I said earlier, like, "What are the goals of your sponsor? What are the goals that you personally have as a race director and event production company? What are the goals that you have for your event? And how through partnership and sponsorship, can you achieve those goals?" Product in-kind can be an amazing asset to an event. And if you have a sponsor that aligns so perfectly with everything that you're trying to accomplish, they do not have the budget to cut you a cheque for a certain cash, but they can give you all the product that you want. I don't see any problem in saying, "Yeah. You're going to be an important part of our event. We want to work with you on our event. I understand that, "You can only give us product, or you can only give us a little bit of cash and a little bit of product. Like, this works for us. And we're actually going to use this product in a meaningful way." That's the challenge that we often run into when we have these conversations. And a lot of brands want to have a conversation about product in-kind is, "Well, now this is something we have shipping and receiving involved. We have to warehouse it. We have to figure out what to do with it. This gets treated as an expense. It's taxable because we're taking on merchandise." There's a lot of things that, kind of, maybe, at face value, people aren't thinking about that create complications around taking cash. Depending on the sponsor, though, like it may be an essential. If you want to have a beer garden at your post-race, well yeah, go find a beer sponsor who's going to give you all the beer that they're willing to provide you and call that a successful sponsorship agreement. One of the things we always try to focus on is something in-kind can offset a cost. Like usually that's the first thing that we're focusing on. Like is it budget relieving? And if it's budget relieving, we're happy to do it. If it's not budget relieving, but it can support important initiatives for our event-- So, one of the initiatives that Life Time has taken on across all our event properties is driving more inclusion and more diversity at our start lines. So we can work with our brand partners to, maybe, do some incentives, some registration drivers that maybe help us have a conversation with more diverse audiences to encourage them to register. So, if our goal is that we want to have our start line be 50% women and, historically, it's been 30% women, like, maybe, there's an opportunity to-- the first 100 or 200 women who register also get this additional prize or something like that. Like the prize itself may be a value. But it also just might be a value that gives us something to have a meaningful conversation to help try to drive more diversity to our events.
How do I deal with rejection from a sponsor?
Right. So I think we have a new record here, in terms of podcast interviews. I think we're coming up to like 1 hour 40 minutes. And I'm so appreciative of your time and all the amazing tips we've shared here. So I don't want to keep you much longer. But I have to ask one last question, which is rejections. Right? People are gonna have those. I mean, I guess, even people like you have those from time to time - being rejected by sponsors. They send you a letter, I mean, I guess, at best. Or it's just total silence. Is there a way to make the most of a rejection, in terms of keeping in touch with a sponsor, or even learning something that you can take forward as you continue, hopefully, on your journey to seeking sponsorship?
Yeah. Rejection is a huge part of sponsorship, even among our existing sponsors. They're not sponsoring every single event that we offer. So I have sponsors who have agreed and have committed substantially to some of our events, who will say to me, "No, thank you. This event that's also in your portfolio is not of interest to us." And so I think I'm kind of blessed to have that perspective, because it helps soften some of the harsh edges among rejection. Because I have people who have said "Yes" to some of our events, who are saying "No" to others. So it helps me not feel so personal. And that, like, they truly are making an educated-- they're evaluating things. And they are making a decision based on some sound logic, and again, like, what their goals are and what they're looking to achieve. It's also okay to act when somebody says, "No, thank you" to sponsoring your event, to ask them why and better understand like-- and that may benefit you in future conversation. Or it just might give you the understanding that this type of sponsor isn't interested in sponsoring your event for these reasons. And they're totally rational and reasonable. And that's okay. Because again, you don't want to have sponsors that are sponsoring your event, that just doesn't align with their goals. Maintaining really good relationships with the people that you're talking to is really important as well. It's something that I do quite often. If I get a "No", I'll just say, "We're continuing to evolve. We're continuing to add events to our portfolio. I would certainly like to stay in touch with you and bring you new opportunities as they arrive." They're always receptive to that. You may also discover that within the run, bike and triathlon industry, like, people move from company to company. And that individual that you had a conversation with at one brand who said, "No, thank you", all of a sudden ends up at another brand that's a much stronger fit for your event. And you've maintained a really good relationship through rejection. And, now, you have a great opportunity to have a conversation with the same person about partnering with your event. They already know you. They already, kind of, know your event. And, now, they're with a brand partner that might just align better with the goals and what your event has to offer.
Final words to aspiring sponsorship seekers
Perfect. So last word from you. I mean, it doesn't have to be, like, literally, last word. But one thing that I need from you is, assume you're talking to, like, a really junior race director. They have a decent event. They understand their event. They know where they want to go with it. They're just starting out in their quest to find sponsors. They're really intimidated. They don't know where to start from. Hopefully, having listened into our discussion today would have given them some pointers. They're really fearful of having to do the sales, having to do all of that stuff - the rejection. So what's your message to them?
I think my message to them is, if you want your event to be successful, if this is something you truly believe in, I would just encourage people to, maybe, fake it till you make it. It's not going to be easy at first. You're gonna stumble. It's gonna be awkward. It's gonna be really uncomfortable. But as you go through the process, you'll get better. You'll improve. It's really important to just evaluate and refine your process. Always try to come at things with the mindset of, "What can your event offer to a potential sponsor?" It's really easy to get caught up in the mindset of, like, "I want..." or "I'm looking for..." And just shift that narrative and say, "I have this amazing event. I think that I can offer this to you, as a benefit of partnership. Is this something that would be interesting to you?" And I would also encourage people that may be new at it to seek out others who have had success with it. Have a conversation with them. Practice. Roleplay. And never ever lose sight of the fact that, like, we're in a pretty unique industry. Most of the people that you're going to encounter on a daily basis, like, brand sponsors or other sports - they're wonderful people. They're incredibly nice. They're very excited about endurance events and, kind, of just keeping that in mind. You're having a conversation with a wonderful person, a really nice person. Yeah, you might be a little bit nervous and feel a little bit uncomfortable. You're having a conversation with a great person. And you're just talking about your event and their brand and slowly trying to decide like, "Does it make sense for us to work together?"
So, last thing, how can people get in touch with you - if they need some kind of pointer or they've been inspired by this discussion and they want to reach out to you with a question around sponsorship or something - if you're willing to give out your contact details. Can people get in touch with you?
Absolutely willing to have people reach out to me for whatever reason they think that I can offer them any kind of value and assistance. And I'm happy to do that. You can find me on on LinkedIn - BenPickel. Or you can email me directly. My work email address for Life Time is email@example.com.
Well, then. I have to say this has been amazing. I think there's tons of stuff there for people to dig into and roll their sleeves up, just go out and try and get those sponsorships. I want to thank you very, very much. We're coming up to almost like two hours here. And I know it's quite early in the morning in Colorado. Thank you very much for this discussion, which is going to lift hopefully the entire industry and help some people - who are not very comfortable with this - take their first steps into this world.
Thanks so much. It's been an absolute pleasure.
Thanks to everyone also listening in. I hope you found it helpful. And we will see everyone on our next episode.
Thanks a lot for making it to the end of this episode! I hope you enjoyed our discussion on selling sponsorships with Life Time Events Director of Sales and Strategy, Ben Pickel.
You can find more resources on anything and everything to do with putting on races on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com. You can also share your questions about sponsorship or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.
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