Magazine article Marketing

Learning When to Play Party Games

Magazine article Marketing

Learning When to Play Party Games

Article excerpt

Backing the political parties' conferences is an increasingly popular option for sponsors.

Sponsorship has always been a bit of a political hot potato. The Labour government's handling of tobacco sponsorship attracted criticism early on in its current term of office. And now, even closer to home, the spotlight is on sponsorship at the Party's annual conference.

Reports of sponsorship deals which feature invitations to exclusive receptions attended by the Prime Minister have fuelled allegations of cash for access.

Last year's sponsorship of the conference security passes by supermarket Somerfield was so heavily criticised that the Party has now banned such activity in future. Labour delegates objected to the fact that, by wearing the badge, they appeared to be personally endorsing the supermarket.

But while Labour may be withdrawing one sponsorship opportunity, all three parties continue to offer companies plenty of chances to splash their names all over their 1999 conferences through sponsorship and exhibiting opportunities.

Everything from the delegates' packs to flowers and functions can be sponsored. Some of the more unusual opportunities include the stair treads, interpreters for deaf people and the creche. And, while Labour may have banned sponsorship of accreditation passes, that's still up for grabs at the Tory conference.

"There is a price on it, but we haven't had any particular interest," says Shirley Stotter, managing director of CCO Conferences, organiser of the Conservative Party Conference. "But it's not something we have encouraged because it is felt that the security passes have a function, which is to keep us safe."

For Labour, this year's September event in Bournemouth is set to be the largest political conference in Europe to date, with about 24,000 delegates and visitors.

"The problem now is who we are having to say no to," says Richard Taylor, head of the Labour Party Conference unit." We have had a huge demand from members to attend as visitors and the biggest challenge is going to be the safe moving of large numbers of people."

The numbers involved are twice that of the Conservative conferences, even when the Tories were in power, and that's an expensive business.

The criticism over sponsorship that Labour has attracted comes with the territory, says Taylor. "The Conservatives got more sponsorship when they were in power and now we are getting more. If a commercial organisation wants to buy observer passes or tickets to a reception,that's fine,but there is no privileged access."

Amanda Delew, Labour's head of corporate relations and fundraising says: "We publish full details of all sponsorship opportunities over [pounds]5000 clearly in our annual accounts and believe that a dialogue with business is critical to our success."

From the sponsor's point of view, party conferences can be a great chance to get noticed, as Somerfield discovered last year. "Our objective was to raise awareness of Somerfield and this was a real humdinger," says Jill Rawlins, head of public relations at the supermarket. This was Somerfield's first party conference. As well as raising its profile, Somerfield - with its chain of in-town stores-wanted to discuss the issue of greenfield sites and lobby against the relaxing of planning regulations.

So did sponsorship bring any influence? "The word influence is very emotive," says Rawlins. "Meeting Mr Blair is frightfully nice, but we want to talk to people at grass roots level. I would say we made real relationships rather than influential relationships."

This year, Somerfield is hosting a breakfast meeting for 70 people at the Conservative Party Conference.

Of course, the chance to meet the right people is what many corporate sponsors are hoping for. "We do our best to get the people they want," says Stotter. "But I have always steered clear of guaranteeing access to top people. …

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