David Pyne: Seeking sponsorship for a free event?

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The world of seeking sponsorship for a free festival is a strange and wonderful one. While brands recognise the footfall potential of our city’s flagship event, they often underestimate the significance of a potential tie up with the festival. While ticketed events can offer guaranteed audience numbers to potential brand sponsors, the free festivals sector can counter that offer with the undeniable corporate social responsibility benefits of being associated with a community event supported through some serious exposure through our media partnerships.

The Bristol Harbour Festival’s audience topped out at over 200,000 last year, with a diverse demographic of families, young people – pretty much all ages from all walks of life – enjoying a superb programme of music, circus, dance and street theatre. However, getting brands to appreciate and buy into the festival has proved hard, especially during the years of recession.

To the agencies out there, looking for regional profile on behalf of a brand, we think we offer a fantastic opportunity in the Bristol region but are often surprised that the sponsorship fees – which range from £5,000 to £25,000 – can be seen as too high? We worked successfully with EDF Energy as our title sponsor for nine years, and while their focus is now on London 2012 Olympics, we’d like to reach another major brand concentrating on regional penetration and a CSR approach to their spend?

From a green angle, our festival aims to be as sustainable as possible, with a drive this year to turn one of the main festival spaces into a ground breaking “West Country Fayre” feel, capturing the public interest in sustainable approaches and community projects.

The big question for the free festival sector is whether to work with a sponsorship agency, and whether the benefits outweigh the cost. Many sponsorship specialists have a great track record but no experience of selling a community and arts-based event and its ethos. It is a softer approach to support a large scale community event – although with plenty of solid benefits offered through sponsorship packages… and there is great PR coup for a company prepared to put it’s name to supporting one of the country’s largest free events.