Steve Levin Apr 8, 2020 12:00:00 AM 10 min read

Speaker & Sponsor Negotiations in a Crisis: Outline your obligations today...with an eye on what will be needed later

Large events across the globe—from Mobile World Congress and South by Southwest (SXSW) to the Summer Olympics and even the balance of the NBA season—have been canceled, postponed, or gone virtual. The event and experiential marketing world is responding to the COVID-19 health crisis with fervor.

As an event strategy consultant, I have been helping clients evaluate options for virtual events, postponements or full-out cancellations over the past few weeks. It has been a harrowing time for us all, but I’d like to share some tips to help you act thoughtfully and quickly for your own upcoming event.

First, gather your experts to work towards a “go” or “no go” decision

Then, be sure your contractual obligations for speakers and sponsors are part of the discussion as you monitor potential loss and/or options for format changes.

Here are your first five steps, as you assess existing agreements and manage these stakeholder relationships.

1. Review the Contracts

Now is the time to get intimately involved with those legal documents that people rarely ever fully read. I suggest you make a master spreadsheet that outlines the policies, payment and cancellation deadlines, and account for what you’ve already committed to (financially or otherwise). You’ll need to take a look at what is due and when for each of your speakers and sponsors. Once you have a handle on all the details, you can evaluate your options.

2. Understand the “Force Majeure” Clauses

In every contract, there should be a termination clause that addresses unforeseeable circumstances that would prevent the contract from being fulfilled. Force Majeure means “superior force” in Latin, which includes anything from a natural disaster to terrorist activity or pandemic—something that is beyond the control of either party.  Often, canceling or changing an agreement based on a Force Majeure argument requires input and clarification from legal counsel, because the options of both contractual parties may not be clear or obvious. 

I'm not a lawyer, but from what I'm seeing and discussing with speakers and their bureaus, having multiple states and municipalities on lockdown—with most event venues closed and people restricted from leaving their homes—is perhaps the clearest example of Force Majeure I've seen in my 20 years in this business. That said, you should consult an attorney to help determine how a Force Majeure or other cancellation might apply.

3. Rethink Sponsor Agreements

Your sponsors are smart, just like you. They have chosen your brand and event as an opportunity to align their values and vision. As long as you keep open and honest communication, you should be able to find solutions that work for all parties involved.

First, you’ll need to decide when to communicate changes to the event. Your larger, top-tier sponsors should be the first external audience notified if there are anticipated changes to the event—ideally by phone. Let them know before the larger announcement goes out and then buy yourself some time to put together the revised plan for sponsor engagement and exposure. For smaller sponsors and partners—like tradeshow exhibitors—this message can come alongside the broader announcement.

Next, evaluate all of the “gives” and “gets.” If you have decided to shift to a virtual event, it is likely that both sponsor expectations and your sponsor assets and benefits have changed. For example, you may not be able to offer stage time or an opportunity to host an attendee happy hour, so you’ll need to identify other solutions to meet their desire for attendee exposure and engagement. Work together to define what success looks like for all involved. This may not be a one-size-fits-all approach. And remember, happy sponsors are more likely to sponsor again next year.

"As long as you keep open and honest communication, you should be able to find solutions that work for all parties involved."

4. Evaluate Your Speakers and Leverage Relationships

Your speakers are your partners. You’ve invested in them, but they also invested their time and talent in you. Bureaus and speakers still want their thought leadership out there and you still want that expertise attached to your brand. All parties are interested in finding a mutually beneficial solution to your current situation, so stay focused on collaboration as you negotiate changes to platform, parameters and agreements.

If going virtual, think carefully through platform constraints and new, potential changes to program or focus. Speakers may need to be asked to adapt to the new format. Chances are, they will do just fine, as many speakers are well-versed in the virtual world and can deliver on a digital platform. Work with them to ensure they have the flexibility to produce and the video background and Internet bandwidth to do successfully if required to shelter-in-place. 

If your speaker and his/her topic are no longer relevant given current events, changes made to your program or to the new platform or delivery system, you’ll need to review your options (and those contracts, as previously mentioned) to decide if you 1) cancel and get the deposit back, 2) cancel and pay the fees, or 3) see if there is potential to apply the deposit to rebook the speaker for a future event.

If you were strategic about your event content and speaker line-up in the original program plan, you selected speakers that align with your brand values. These individuals should still be relevant at future events, so look for opportunities to realign the speaker to another internal or external event or engagement strategy later into this cycle or next. This is where close relationships with speakers and bureaus will definitely pay off.

5. Take Your Lessons with You

Without a doubt, we have learned a few lessons amid the COVID-19 crisis. Now is the time to take stock of those.

Our top advice for your event strategy moving forward:

  • Be very familiar with what you are signing. Be sure to read and understand every part of a contract, especially cancellation and Force Majeure clauses. Too many people don’t.

  • Make sure your speakers’ thought leadership applies to the overall brand strategy, not just to one event. If you do this when researching and booking speakers, even if the scope changes, the speakers and their topics will still be relevant.

  • Be ready to adapt. Live events are, after all, LIVE. Build in time for rehearsal and technology testing—especially if speakers and sponsors are participating from home or other remote locations. I always say hope for the best and prepare for the worst. 

  • Never let them see you sweat. Changes can come quickly with events. No matter how many fire drills you’re dealing with behind the scenes (or back stage), the audience should never feel it. We’ve all likely heard the analogy of a duck on water. Above the water, you are calm and serene, below the water you are paddling like crazy to stay afloat!

From making the call to pivoting strategy, Impact Point Group’s expert consultants are adept at helping clients with event strategy and design. Learn more about our digital event and engagement strategy services here.

— Steve Levin