Selling sponsorship to arts and cultural properties has never been easy. Now faced with an economic downturn and especially bad times for the sponsor category that is by far the most active in the arts, marketers of arts properties are pulling out all the stops to reach their revenue goals.

Although fallout from the crisis facing many financial services companies is still to be determined, many arts properties no doubt are in a vulnerable position given the preponderance of deals from banks, brokerages and other businesses in the sector (see chart).

So what should arts rightsholders do to retain existing partners and secure new deals in such uncertain times?

IEG SR posed that question to some of the most innovative, experienced and successful practitioners in arts and cultural sponsorship. Below is their advice:

Offer business-building opportunities. Arts properties should try to move away from program book acknowledgements and other standard benefits in favor of programs that provide business-building opportunities with patrons and other stakeholders.

“Most deals offer branding opportunities, but to be successful you really need to drill down and help sponsors establish a relationship with patrons or donors that will result in new business,” said Jon Holman, president of The Holman Group, a sponsorship sales agency that represents the Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. and other arts properties.

Often business-building in an arts setting requires no more than offering a sponsor face-to-face interaction with a targeted audience. Case in point: a six-figure sponsorship Holman recently secured with Credit Suisse (USA), Inc. for the opening night gala at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“Credit Suisse knew it would get branding in the Los Angeles marketplace through the deal,” Holman said. “But ultimately it signed the sponsorship to play a key role in a gala that attracted high-net-worth celebrities and other patrons and to be able to have 10 of its key executives there to foster relationships with those people. It gave them an exclusive opportunity and a competitive advantage.”

Holman said a popular benefit with sponsors seeking similar exclusive access has been the right to host special events at leading patrons’ homes.

Examples from his clients include Chanel S.A. hosting a private luncheon around its sponsorship of the Houston Grand Opera; Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.’s Lexus division hosting a reception around its sponsorship of the San Francisco Symphony; and De Beers S.A. hosting a fundraiser around its sponsorship of the Geffen Playhouse and the organization’s renovation effort.

“It’s all about letting a targeted demographic interact with a brand in a non-threatening way with the implied endorsement of the arts organization,” Holman said.

Breathe new life into existing deals. Sponsorships not generating excitement for partners or audiences are in greater jeopardy when companies become worried about spending, thus properties should develop new promotional and activation elements on a regular basis.

That is what The Philadelphia Orchestra did around PECO Energy Co.’s long-running sponsorship, generating media coverage and buzz for both parties.

The orchestra created a one-off event to highlight the utility’s green energy initiatives.

The electricity supplied by PECO for the orchestra’s February 22 performance of An Alpine Symphony was generated using wind energy. To attract attention to the effort, the orchestra broadcast the live performance to more than 40 colleges and universities, had the conductor applaud PECO’s participation and green efforts, and allowed the company to distribute energy-saving kits to audience members.

The sponsorship generated extensive media coverage, said Kim Fraites, director of corporate affairs for The Philadelphia Orchestra Assn., adding that PECO executives were “thrilled” by the coverage.

Help sponsors engage employees. Properties should try to provide tickets, volunteer opportunities and other benefits sponsors can share with their employees.

A number of arts properties echoed the sentiments of Susan Brady, Carnegie Hall’s director of development. “As more and more companies look at issues of work/life balance and how they can promote their commitment within their companies, the opportunity to engage employees has come to the fore.”

Rather than just offering tickets, Carnegie Hall offers sponsors access to dress rehearsals, chats with artists, the opportunity to volunteer with the organization’s community outreach efforts and other benefits to pass through to employees.

Gaining the involvement of employees also helps companies think twice about dropping a deal when budgets tighten, Brady said.

Convert donors into sponsors. The majority of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s sponsors began their association with the venue as donors, said Peter Hansen, vice president of development.

NJPAC has been able to transition such companies by building rapport and relationships with its contacts on the philanthropic side of the company, introducing the subject of marketing-driven sponsorships once the relationship is established and then keeping them apprised of suitable marketing opportunities, Hansen said.

“It’s all about building trust and gaining internal cheerleaders. We’ve had an internal advocate with every donor that we’ve converted. It’s not just a referral, but an endorsement.”

Communicate the importance of sponsors. For sponsors to achieve their objectives, the property’s audience must understand the role partners play and be willing to support the sponsors when they can.

NJPAC highlights the importance of its sponsors in a monthly feature in its program book. The article includes quotes from the venue’s development staff as well as its corporate partners.

“Our ticket buyers and donors understand that we are a nonprofit, and some of the things we do will never be self-sustaining,” Hansen said. We want to reinforce to them that we need sponsorship to make it work.”

NJPAC also is putting more focus on showcasing its partners in local media and on the venue’s Web site, Hansen said.

Offer one-of-a-kind hospitality opportunities. Hard economic times do not eliminate the need for financial services and other B2B marketers to entertain clients and prospects.

But there is greater impetus on those programs to deliver new business, so arts properties must offer memorable hospitality experiences and not just tickets to a show, said Bonnie Hillman, president of Arts & Communications, which represents both corporate sponsors and arts and cultural institutions.

“Try to create experiences that money can’t buy,” she said, offering as examples providing access to conductors, curators and other “rock stars” who are willing to participate in private dinners and other functions with sponsors and their clients.