Time to Renovate? Exhibitor, Sponsor Relations for Association Events

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Time to Renovate? Exhibitor, Sponsor Relations for Association Events

By Molly Marsh | Aug 13, 2020

The demolition is done. The global COVID-19 pandemic has completely dismantled the vast majority of association conferences, trade shows and events for 2020.

As the dust has cleared a little bit from the initial implosion and the reality sets in about what might be in store for association meetings in 2021 and beyond, one of the biggest struggles for association meetings is how to maintain value and relevance with sponsors and exhibitors outside of the in-person trade show or exhibit hall. Many associations rely on sponsorship revenue to drive other initiatives of value for members, and so maintaining meaningful engagement for sponsors—and the revenue stream that entails—is critical to survival.

As new approaches emerge from different associations, I am taken back to the home-improvement shows that my husband got hooked on when we were all stuck at home at the beginning of the crisis (not complaining, as I now have a lovely back patio on which to enjoy my social distancing time). Some associations are choosing simply to redecorate—they are taking the core of the relationships between exhibitor/sponsor and trying to recreate that online. Don’t get me wrong, virtual trade show environments have come a long way and there are some really great tools to facilitate a marketplace experience in an online platform for shows based on business-to-business transactions.

“We truly want to inspire our community to learn and grow, and by showcasing new ideas and taking risks, we can do that.”

For many associations, the conversation has swirled for years: What is really meaningful and valuable about participation in a conference or exhibit hall if you aren’t conducting business on the trade show floor? Quantifying ROI in terms of “relationship building” has been a challenge, and there always seems to be something out there that must be better, but it’s always easier to revert to the less-than-ideal known than to risk trying something new.

This is where associations, and the planners and leaders who support them, have an opportunity not simply to redecorate the trappings of a trade show online but to take advantage of the demolition that has happened, strip down to the studs and rebuild in an entirely new layout. Renovation is more than just recreating what you had before with fancy, online trimmings—it’s investing the time in reimagining what is possible for your exhibitor and sponsor relationships, gutting them and building something entirely new.

Overwhelming to consider in the uncertainty of a global pandemic? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely, and here is how to manage.

Have the Right Conversations

Nothing can be assumed right now. All of your association’s members, leaders, sponsors and partner organizations are likely encountering the world very differently than they did six months ago and their needs are likely very different from one another. Assuming that what “worked” before about the relationship between members/attendees and exhibitors or sponsors is a mistake—you must invest time in having conversations about what the new needs are on all sides in order to create something that will be effective now and as the industry evolves in response to the crisis.

Be Flexible and Offer Solutions

There is just too much uncertainty right now to come in without a plan, and sponsors will need some guidance about what is even possible for engagement in an online environment or when in-person meetings resume. There has been no shortage of information shared about the tools available, so as a planner you can be prepared with ideas, suggestions and models, and then use the discovery process of conversations with stakeholders to propose the options that meet those needs. Starting from the needs and then overlaying a practical solution (as opposed to having a model and trying to determine how that fits the need) allows you to redefine the relationship but still provide expert advice.   

Be an Educator

The association has an opportunity now to cement its role as a conduit of idea sharing between different groups all working toward success in the same industry. If you want to be able to escape constraints of traditional buyer/seller relationships, that means helping all parties see and understand the value of (and necessity for) true collaboration. Training on all sides is critical to ensure people are willing and able to embrace their new role—and don’t revert to old, bad habits that would undermine your new model.  


The end of the virtual event or offering is never really the end, but it’s even more critical when doing something new and different to thoughtfully assess and evaluate the program. Meaningful conversations must happen again at the conclusion of the event to determine what worked, what didn’t and how the next steps for virtual, in-person or other engagement can meet the ever-evolving needs of both members and the exhibitor/sponsor community.

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Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash



Molly Marsh
Molly Marsh

Molly Marsh has over 13 years of experience in association management, conferences, education and program development, and is a founding member of the MPI Association Planners Advisory Board. In her current capacity as AMR’s director of education and engagement design, she is responsible for innovating new approaches to conference education through design principles, adult learning, new technologies and engagement strategies. Her passion is rooted in designing educational experiences and organizational systems that elevate the professionalism of association members who strive to be the best at what they do!