Engagement + Marketing

How Exhibition Sponsorships Are Evolving

From blunt sales pitches and passive signage to active participation and engaging experiences, here's a look at new trends in sponsorship.

The world is a distracted place, and maybe nowhere is that more true than on the show floor. Where once exhibitions enjoyed the reasonably undivided attention of participants, now they face any number of complicating factors. Attendees want networking and education, and are turned off by blatant commercials. Exhibitors want real engagement with their industry. And everyone is dividing their time between their smartphone and the booth they’re standing right in front of.

Where does that leave sponsors, whose support helps make the whole show possible, but who often are expected to put up their money and fade into the logoed wallpaper?

jackie fast“This is important, especially within events, because people consume the world very differently than they did 10 years ago, where everybody gathered in front of the TV on Friday night at 8 p.m. for ‘Ally McBeal.’ You saw the same ads, the same commercials, the same show, all together,” said Jackie Fast, managing director of Slingshot Sponsorship, which is headquartered in London. “Now, actually, we don’t even watch TV. We watch Netflix.

“We’re very specific about the types of media we consume,” Fast said, “which means traditional advertising and logo recognition don’t actually work as well as they used to. If you’re not going to do that, and if sponsorship’s all about mutual benefit, what are the types of assets you can do that actually drive value back to a brand?”

Great question. Exhibition sponsorships have evolved well beyond a logo on a lanyard or a 90-second sales pitch before a keynote — and these four case studies show how.

People consume the world very differently than they did 10 years ago, where everybody gathered in front of the TV on Friday night at 8 p.m. for ‘Ally McBeal.’


Medical exhibitions have it toughest of all. It’s not just that their sponsors don’t want to pay for the same-old, same-old — in many cases, they can’t. Revisions to the PhRMA, AdvaMed, and EFPIA codes of conduct now prohibit or restrict many of the giveaways that sponsors used to offer physician attendees.

A workaround that 3D Media has come up with: customized patient-education posters. They start with a standard poster you’d see hanging in the examination room at a medical office — say, the basics of the human cardiopulmonary system. Then, at a show for cardiologists, a sponsor offers to customize it for attendees, adding their name and practice to the poster, right there on the show floor. The poster also includes the sponsor’s and association’s names.

christman dunhill3D Media clients have offered this at two recent medical shows, with Alcon sponsoring a poster with a cross-section of the eye at the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s 2015 Annual Meeting, and Synergy Pharmaceuticals sponsoring a poster of the digestive tract at Digestive Disease Week 2016. “I thought it hit on all cylinders,” said Christman Dunhill, 3D Media’s creative director. “All cylinders to us means it provides a valuable attendee experience, provides a relevant or precise promotion for the brand, and then it makes the association money.”

It’s also a welcome alternative to ubiquitous sponsor signage. “I always get frustrated,” Dunhill said. “We’re in the meeting space, the trade-show space, which is face-to-face marketing, and I think we should do everything we can to celebrate that and to promote that. Too often, sponsorships don’t follow that mantra. They’re reverting to print and banner and traditional mediums. We asked them to step beyond the traditional, into this space.”


Yes, the artwork for sale at the Affordable Art Fair in New York City is relatively inexpensive — priced from $100 to $10,000. But the people who go there are as passionate as any other art collectors, and just as enamored of the fine things beyond painting, sculpture, and photography. Think jewelry, food, wine. And coffee.

carol yeungAt Affordable Art Fair’s Fall 2015 show, held at Metropolitan Pavilion in Manhattan on Sept. 9–13, Keurig set up a space where attendees could make themselves a cup of joe using one of the company’s single-brew machines. “Keurig wants to appeal to young professionals and people who are probably in their late 20s or early 30s with some money to spend,” said Carol Yeung, founder of Brand Story, a New York City–based event sponsorship agency. “They want to create a brand association.”

Increasingly, sponsors are looking for such non-sales opportunities, according to Yeung, from offering a product sampling like Keurig’s to participating in a panel discussion. “They might try to put their product in [during a panel discussion], but then at the same time they know that it’s not genuine,” Yeung said. “And at the same time, they get to interact with the audience in a way that’s nice and positive. More and more of them want to do something like that.”


One of Slingshot Sponsorship’s clients is Outlook Festival, an electronic-music event held every summer in Croatia. When organizers wanted to launch a Knowledge Arena at Outlook Festival 2014, Slingshot helped sharpen and present the concept — a collection of spaces where artists could perform and also discuss the creative process. Then Slingshot lined up sponsors to support Knowledge Arena, including Native Instruments and Urbanears, Outlook’s official headphone sponsor.

“For us, engagement was knowledge,” Slingshot’s Jackie Fast said. “We set up a speaking panel with all of [Outlook’s] artists, and had them talk to their fans about how they came into the business, why they chose to play that track, what it’s like to be onstage — any of that kind of thing in a really intimate setting…. It was literally just an honest conversation with people, and getting fans close to the artist.”

Honesty is important when it comes to sponsorships. So is relevance. “I think a lot of people got really excited about VR [virtual reality], so there’s a VR simulator bloody everywhere. If you go to a trade show or an exhibition and there’s 15 stands with 15 VR things, it’s not very clever,” Fast said. “It doesn’t reach that many people. You need to not be so cookie-cutter about it. People need to be not just more creative in their execution about what they think engagement is, but also ensure that it ties back to the brand.”

For Fast, Knowledge Arena demonstrates the power of true engagement, which she thinks is often misunderstood. “Engagement isn’t coming up with the latest tool in the toolbox, really,” she said. “It’s about understanding your audience and what’s going to engage with them. You want to be a part of the conversation. You don’t want to just be disruptive. You want to add value to the experience, and that’s what sponsors want to do, too.”


Think about how passive your typical sponsor program can be. Signs, booths, lanyards — neutral, nonconfrontational, and pretty easy to tune out. It’s why 3D Media’s Christman Dunhill likes to nudge sponsors toward active experiences.

For example, at the Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) 2015 Annual Meeting & Expo, held at Chicago’s McCormick Place last July, Wellmune sponsored a pedometer contest, in which attendees competed to see who could log the most steps during the show. About 2,000 of IFT’s 23,000 registrants signed up in advance for the contest, which was run through 3D Media’s mobile platform.

We’re in the trade-show space, which is face-to-face marketing, and we should do everything we can to celebrate that.

“That means 2,000 people are at their desks and they all get an automated email response saying, ‘You are registered’ — which is branded,” Dunhill said. “The show begins. Everybody gets a welcome text: ‘Hey, the contest has begun!’ That’s branded. Now people are getting incentive push messages in a fun, conversational way: ‘I know you’re working hard at the show. Two more hours!’ The number of touch points through the mobile app is crazy. And it’s real-time messaging, so if the sponsor wants to know who’s registering, they can know immediately.”

In other words, it shows that you can use the newest and shiniest technology with your sponsorships. You just have to be smart about it. “We’re adopting some of those new channels within the guest-experience kind of approach,” Dunhill said. “If we have that kind of creative approach, we can keep adopting the new technology and media that brands and attendees are migrating toward. And I think that’ll keep the trade shows and events fresh and current.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.