It’s no secret that trade shows extend far beyond the speaker stages and expo halls. Ask the majority of professionals where the real deals get done, and the vast majority will say the after-hours affairs are what really matter.
After-parties, cocktail hours, and networking events are the crux of the conference circuit. Often, an after-party yields more anticipation than the show itself.
During MJBizCon 2022, the largest annual trade show for cannabis professionals in the United States, there were no less than 50 offsite gatherings. Some catered to niche groups such as C-suite executives, cultivators, or marketers, while others offered a certain vibe meant to attract like-minded individuals who wanted to celebrate and connect.
Despite the differences that exist between these events, one thing is for sure: They likely would not happen if not for the sponsors.
Trade show event sponsorship provides companies the opportunity to generate awareness and deal flow in a unique manner. Packages typically are available at a variety of price points, ranging from simple swag-bag inclusion or social media mentions for a few hundred bucks to top-tier sponsorships costing tens of thousands that often include premium activations, speaker slots, or stage-naming rights.
The events generate buzz, create epic memories, and give conference attendees a chance to mingle in a laid-back atmosphere, seemingly the perfect recipe for impactful interactions.
“We have always felt the after-party is a natural extension of trade shows, giving vendors and participants an extra opportunity to make meaningful connections in a more relaxed and casual environment,” said James Zachodni, co-founder of Farechild Events, which produces of some of the most popular cannabis industry after-parties. “When you have thousands of people in town for a tradeshow that generally ends around 5-6 p.m., you need to give them something to do at night.”
But with so many cannabis companies having razor-thin marketing budgets, a common question arises: is the promotional benefit gained from after-party sponsorship worth the cost?
Emotional deposits for long-term investment
It’s important to note “return on investment” is a bit subjective when it comes to after-party sponsorship, as ROI in this case can mean more than simply increasing sales or signing a new client.
“It is hard to calculate an ROI on this type of event, because it helped to generate publicity that will continue to bring in leads far after the conclusion of MJBizCon22,” said Tony Gallo, whose company Sapphire Risk Advisory Group co-hosted two events during the week.
Many companies list brand exposure as their main motivation for event sponsorship. Publicity before, during, and after the soiree creates increased awareness. These so-called “emotional deposits” often pay dividends down the line.
Vladimir Bautista, chief executive officer and co-founder of Happy Munkey LLC, decided to sign on as a title sponsor for the popular Shangri-La party produced by Farechild believing doing so would help put a national spotlight on the East Coast company.
“Over the past five years, Happy Munkey has focused on building our leading cannabis lifestyle brand in our hometown of New York,” he said. “Deciding to partner with Farechild was a no-brainer when thinking of how we could take the Happy Munkey brand to the next level and make our introduction to a non-New-York audience.
“This was the first party outside of New York for Happy Munkey, and we are excited to continue creating conversations and connections with the key influencers and operators to build a national brand,” he added.
John Dugas, whose company Superior Molecular was a key sponsor of the GoodLifeGang sesh, found the online engagement alone to be worth the price of admission. Much like Bautista, Dugas also hoped to increase his brand’s exposure on a national stage.
“Our social media followings have exploded since the event buildup and of course after,” he said. “The cross-promotion of Superior Molecular with all of those amazing companies really connects us as a Minnesota company to the national cannabis scene.”
Additionally, companies that attach themselves to events produced by well-respected and successful firms sometimes see their clout in the space rise. In an industry where reputation is everything, the decision can positively impact businesses well beyond the event itself.
Amy Larson, senior vice president of marketing and communications for TILT Holdings, reported this sentiment to be a big motivator behind her company’s decision to act as title sponsor of the Grasslands Party, a highly anticipated annual event with a curated guest list.
“At its core, the cannabis industry is still about who you meet, who you know, who you trust, and who trusts you,” Larson said. “The brand visibility and legitimacy-by-association that comes with sponsoring an event like the Grasslands Party fosters the types of business relationships and partnerships a company like TILT is looking to pursue and build in the industry. Being able to connect with vetted, qualified list professionals — in a fun and warm atmosphere — was a huge win for us.”
Faai Steuer, vice president of marketing at Cova, agreed with Larson. Cova’s Back to the ’80s party attracted several sponsors hoping to capitalize on the company’s esteemed status among retail operators.
“According to a recent report from Cannabiz Media, Cova is now officially the most recognizable point-of-sale brand with the highest market share in North America,” she said. “By associating their business with us, our event partners also have expanded their reach and increased brand awareness.”
Cultivating the right experience: picking the perfect party
With so many events vying for sponsors, it can be difficult to decide which one is the best investment.
The first thing to consider is which audience you’re trying to engage. Many parties target specific sectors of the vertical, while others focus on prominent figures meant to add value overall.
“We take a lot of pride in facilitating business relationships for our sponsors. It starts by having the right crowd attend the event,” Zachodni said. “With MJBizCon having such a diverse audience, we really try and get a lot of the primary decision-makers and influencers to attend the event to make sure our sponsors get a chance to shake hands with someone that can bring potential business or exposure to their brand.”
Christi McAdams, CEO at Highlite Staffing and chairman of Cannabis Community College, sponsored the Lemonhaze Executive Golf Tournament in an effort to connect with C-suite professionals and founders.
“While I value both exhibiting and attending MJBizCon, I personally enjoy having high-level conversations with senior executives and business owners,” McAdams said. “Lemonhaze caters to that specific crowd. When you bring like-minded people together, magic always happens.”
It’s also important to evaluate the mission and directive of the opportunity. Some events may support non-profits, focus on education, or promote diversity and inclusion efforts, and it’s crucial to ensure every facet of the event aligns with your brand’s guiding principles.
“We decide which events and after-parties to sponsor by which events speak to our company and values,” said Dawne Morris, chief marketing officer and co-founder at Proteus 420, which sponsored the women-centric Blunt Brunch. “There are so many events and so many things to consider, especially in the cannabis industry, and we choose to align with events that will have a positive impact on our business, connections, and clients.”
It goes without saying, but budget is always an important factor in sponsorship. Companies still in start-up mode may benefit from lower-level participation to increase exposure without breaking the bank. Larger sponsorships may come with more fanfare and tickets to offer potential leads, but the goal often is quality, not quantity in these situations.
Marvina Thomas, CEO and founder at Fourtwenty Collections, has seen her company’s partnership with Blunt Brunch achieve results in a way she didn’t expect — something all brands should keep in mind when signing on to their next event.
“We have noticed ROI [with Blunt Brunch] in the way the events open the door for larger business opportunities,” she said. “For example, I was able to connect with executives at Curaleaf and get my nonprofit, Start Living Inc., involved in their Rooted in Good Initiative, so our patients and organization can now benefit from the additional exposure, involvement, and donations from some of the largest brands in the industry.”