How to maintain quality customer relations during this challenging time.

By Elaina Hundley

As states continue to sanction social distancing and stay at home measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 into April, many events across the association industry and beyond are being cancelled and postponed. A recent ASAE article frames this present challenge as an opportunity to nurture relationships with sponsors. Instead of it being a complete downer, it could be a chance to flex your creative solution muscles and show your partners that you can deliver value even in the midst of a crisis. We loved this article and wanted to highlight some of its best suggestions while adding a few thoughts of our own. Below are a few approaches to strengthening partner relations in the present state of uncertainty:

Proactively Communicate

It might be tempting to let things lie at this time, hoping to delay a flood of cancellations, but acknowledging the situation before that happens can be the best approach. “The first thing we see is a great need for every association—and I don’t care if your event is in April or in August—to communicate with partners,” said Dan Kowitz, co-convener of Partnership Professionals Network (PPN). “You don’t need the entire plan. It can be an email that says, ‘Hey, we are all dealing with this. We’re going to come back to you with strategies and options.’”

We couldn’t agree more with Kowitz’s strategy, but we also feel like the key to doing this well is phrasing. When done well, a message like this one can help prevent too many snap decisions to cancel on the part of exhibitors and sponsors. The message above emphasizes options—options and strategies imply alternatives to straight up cancelling. That’s exactly what your message should do. Instead of opening the door for an out, it should be a reminder that your organization is working toward a plan, that you are there to support your partners and that you’ve got ideas (or are working on ideas) for how to pivot.

Don’t Assume, Ask Questions

COVID-19 is impacting different industries in different ways. While the hospitality industry is struggling right now, grocery suppliers are holding steady. And, because a crisis like this has not happened before, at least not at this scale, it’s hard to predict how companies are responding, how they are being impacted and what they might need. Don’t make any assumptions, but instead try to ask questions and listen to your partners before you deploy new opportunities.

“The sponsorship person on the association’s staff should reach out individually to top-level sponsors,” Bruce Rosenthal, co-convener of PPN said. “Ask how COVID-19 is impacting the company, whether the company has a travel ban, etc.; agree to touch base periodically as plans change.”

Refunds Shouldn’t Be The First Suggestion

Once again, don’t assume. Instead of jumping in with a refund right away, spark a conversation about what your partner was looking to get from participating in a cancelled show. These initial conversations can help you develop custom opportunities and meaningful alternatives that allow sponsors to accomplish their goals for participating in the first place.

Other options? Consider offering partial refunds, but asking that partners use credits from a cancelled event to take advantage of increased web traffic on your site with digital advertising options. Instead of outright cancelling or even postponing an event indefinitely, consider breaking it up into little virtual information sessions and webinars, with your partners as sponsors. Sessions can be run by the sponsor as long as the content is approved, or the sponsor can simply have the opportunity to talk about a related product or service at the beginning and/or end. You may have to re-work the sponsorship packages but you don’t have to lose all of your revenue, and your partners do not have to lose their opportunity to engage with members and generate leads.

You Can’t Keep Them All

Unfortunately, you are going to have some cancellations that you just can’t prevent. And for many, this will be a down year due to COVID-19. When companies do cancel, enforce whatever policy you have in place with grace and understanding. This is a hard and confusing time for everyone so remind them that the organization is there for them and happy to help if there’s anything you can do.

Plan For Tomorrow Today

No one can predict what’s next for the association industry and no one can guess how long this crisis will last. Many associations have long relied on the revenue from one major event to sustain their organization—this is a great time to diversify revenue streams so that major event cancellations won’t derail your company in the future.

Want to learn more? Get in touch today.