Sleazy Conference Sponsorships

As marketing guy for a leading market research company, I allocate a lot of staff time and resources in matching our executives and leading thinkers with relevant speaking engagements at important industry conferences. It’s usually a fair trade: my company contributes talent, coordination resources and original content to enable the conference to happen; in return, my company receives exposure and conversation with relevant stakeholders. If our contribution is significant or crucial to a conference, we sometimes will receive speaker fees, comp passes or other tradeoffs.

But there’s a flip side: I also receive at least five disruptive phone calls a day from conference organizers trying to sell me sponsorships – usually in the form of booth space, or the opportunity to display my company’s signage at the venue. I’m open to hearing pitches and I often cross the line into sales duty myself, so I appreciate the hard work and rejection that goes along with the role. The problem is that these sponsorships – especially in the overly cluttered conference world we live in – are usually horrible investments. The bottom line is we don’t want to throw away our valuable budget to ancillary add-ons of questionable value. I concur with Jeff Jarvis’ similar rant, Exploding the conference business.

So if we’re not speaking, the only reasons I’d want anything to do with a conference are to : 1) network and 2) soak up and share knowledge. That’s all I want – really! If a conference is extremely worthwhile – according to audience or just cause – I will simply dig into our own coffers and pay for colleagues to attend. Conferences should be happy making money off my company that way! Period. 

But what really irks me is when someone sends me a speaker invitation and then ties it to a sponsorship. And believe me – this happens far too often. If I’m 1) investing thousands of dollars worth of valuable administrative and executive hours to prepare and show up and 2) delivering the original content which enables a conference to exist in the first place (so the event can then make money off all the attendees), then where the heck do people get off hitting me up for sponsorships on top of that? Get real! This practice is not only sleazy, but it erodes the editorial integrity of conference programming. I can’t speak for others, but I’d feel ripped off if I attended a gathering knowing that the panelists and speakers paid their way to the podium. I guess it’s tolerable if such monetary ties are disclosed, but then I probably wouldn’t be there in the first place. In makes me cringe.

Here’s the latest pay-to-play pitch I received. To avoid burning potential bridges or causing embarrassment, I deleted information identifying the sender and organization. Come on guys, get some class…

February 6, 2006 

Dear Max,

I am writing to invite you to play a major role in the upcoming XXXXXXXXXX Conference on March 7th and 8th, which will be held at XXXXXXXXXX, located on the XXXXXXXXXX in downtown Washington, D.C.

As a sponsor, you will have an unparalleled opportunity to showcase your products and staff in front of the key campaign managers and issue advocacy execs who will be hiring consultants and buying communications and information technology for the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Our last two conferences have sold out, and we are expecting over 500 participants this year. And given that attracting political clients is a word-of-mouth business, having a major presence at the XXXXXXXXXX Conference is crucial.

This year, the Conference will devote at least one panel discussion to Word of Mouth Marketing, and speaking opportunities are still available to companies who wish to sponsor. The Conference also features a large and attractive exhibitors’ hall that is located right in the middle of all the action.

The conference is unique – a lively combination of expert advice, cutting edge vendor displays, scholarly research, and invaluable networking opportunities. It’s a professional feast for politicos – a two day show-and-tell, see-and-be-seen, find-out-what’s-on-the-horizon smorgasbord for political consultants, key Hill staffers, trade association execs and nonprofit leaders.

The materials below describe the Conference and sponsorship opportunities in more detail. Please contact our Conference Manager, XXXXXXXXXX, at (XXX) XXX-XXXX or via email at XXXXX@XXX.XXX to get further information and to reserve your sponsorship.



This is just not cool! 

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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  1. Whilst I don’t know the quality of the event in question, it seems likely that presenting to your target market is of significant commercial benefit to your organisation. Whatever your route to market, be it based upon telesales, email marketing, social media or any other demand generation activity think about the cost of sending a highly paid sales person to the offices of 500 senior executives across the region. The expense in airfares, talent and time can be significant. If you balance this against the fact that should you convert just one attendee into a customer, the contract is likely to be extremely lucrative.

    If a conference can reduce your cost of customer acquisition and deliver strong, relevant leads for you to follow up on then it is an effective route to market for your organisation and many organisations see value in paying to sponsor the best events.

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