For its Taste of Times Square event, the Times Square Alliance faces a number of sponsorship challenges that will be familiar to many other properties.

Chief among its concerns: past practices that have resulted in a title sponsor that has locked up a great deal of the event’s most valuable inventory at a relatively low fee, along with other significant benefits being committed to in-kind sponsors.

With such a history of providing valuable packages in exchange for small investments, what are the property’s prospects for increasing its sponsorship revenue?

IEG SR put that question to some experienced sellers. In addition, we solicited IEG Advisory Services to offer its opinions. Following is the brief of the case and our experts’ ideas:

Taste Of Times Square Background
Taste of Times Square is an annual event that occurs on the first Monday of June. It is produced by the Times Square District Management Assn., Inc.’s Times Square Alliance, a nonprofit organization tasked with improving and promoting the neighborhood and its 5,000 businesses.

The event was founded in ’94 as a way to tote the area’s restaurants and raise awareness of Times Square as a destination for locals, as well as tourists.

The alliance constructs the booths and offers them to restaurateurs at no charge. The eateries are responsible for staffing the booths and supplying food, which they sell to attendees. The alliance retains two-thirds of each booth’s receipts, with the remainder going to the restaurant.

The Taste, which lasts from 5 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. and features more than 50 restaurants and three entertainment stages, attracts 20,000 attendees and is seen by an additional 75,000 passersby. Admission is free to the event, which occurs on West 46th Street between Broadway and Ninth Avenue, including Manhattan’s “Restaurant Row.”

An intercept survey of 308 attendees from this year’s event found that 68 percent were women. Sixty-one percent of attendees were between 36 and 65 years old, with 46-to-55-year-olds accounting for 23 percent. Eighty-five percent of festgoers had at least some college.

Most of the property’s sponsorships traditionally have been in-kind donations of products such as bottled water and iced tea, which the Alliance sells to attendees. In exchange, those sponsors receive signage throughout the event; mention in email blasts and mailings sent to approximately 9,000 local residents, business owners and individuals who have opted in to receive information about Times Square events; visibility in ads in local newspapers and magazines; and logo placement on signs promoting the event that are displayed at local businesses, as well as on 185 street banners throughout Times Square.

The event’s title sponsor was given prominent signage on all three stages, including the swing dance tent that hosts a band and has significant foot traffic. The company also received category exclusivity; logo placement on all napkins and food tickets; a booth where it could take card applications; and mentions in local radio ads via an in-kind media partnership with a CBS Radio FM station. It also received all the benefits offered to in-kind partners.

The two main challenges, according to Lori Raimondo, the alliance’s vice president of marketing, have been the fact that so much of the property’s most valuable inventory is committed to the title sponsor, as well as a low-value perception among potential partners.

Additionally, Raimondo said that in the past, the alliance gave some non-restaurant participants booths at no cost to “add an entertainment value to the event. That has made it more difficult for us to go and sell booth sponsorship to other parties.”

Raimondo, who took her position last September, added that vacancies in the alliance’s marketing department in ’05 and ’06 also hurt sponsorship efforts. As a result, with the exception of its New Year’s Eve in Times Square celebration–which has a roster of sponsors including Target Corp. and General Motors Corp.’s Chevrolet division–the alliance is “starting from scratch, as we don’t have any relationships with existing sponsors for most of our events.”

Along with the Taste and New Year’s Eve, the alliance coordinates such events as the Times Square Kiss-In, which commemorates the end of World War II, and Solstice in Times Square.

Take Back, Expand Inventory
Most of the experts we spoke with noted that the alliance needs to gain control over its current inventory, as well as find ways to add benefits that will extend sponsors’ involvement beyond the one-evening event.

To offer more of its current inventory to new sponsors, the alliance will have to renegotiate its deal with the title sponsor and persuade the company to give up some of its current benefits.

“The stages are an obvious avenue for new dollars,” noted Kathy Emery, president of The Sponsor Placement Co. “The alliance should let the title sponsor know it plans to sell two of the stages to other sponsors and give it the choice of keeping one stage and staying at its current cash commitment, or paying an increased rate that would reflect the value to the property of the multiple stages.”

“The alliance must explain the situation to the major sponsor,” said Terri O’Brien, president of Street Marketing. “If it is not willing to work on a solution, it is not a great partner to have and the alliance may be better off letting it go.”

Once it has its inventory under control, the consensus is that the alliance must do a better job of creating discrete packages that provide value commensurate with the sponsor’s commitment.

“The alliance should create a tiered sponsorship structure: title sponsor, a set number of official sponsors and a set number of promotional partners,” said Kevin Adler, president of Engage Marketing. “Each level needs its own distinct set of benefits and the level of exposure and pricing needs to be different for each.”

To fill those packages and add value to them, the industry experts offered suggestions on developing new inventory and enhanced benefits.

“The alliance could consider packaging all of the events it hosts as one bundled offering rather then selling each event as an individual opportunity,” Adler noted. “The bundled offering would be compelling and should allow the alliance to sell larger deals with exclusivity across all the events.”

Beyond its own assets, the alliance should reach out to affiliated organizations, said Erin McNulty, corporate relations manager for the Naperville (Ill.) Park District. “The event team could meet with Times Square businesses that are part of the district management association to discuss collaborating and sharing assets such as other events or cooperative advertising that could be beneficial to sponsors.”

Anything a property can do to extend the event experience provides value to sponsors, noted Dana Thayer, senior vice president, sponsorship, Chelsea Piers Sports & Entertainment Complex. “It could be as simple as posting favorite recipes or cooking tips from chefs at participating restaurants on the alliance’s Web site and having the content presented by a sponsor,” she said.

Abbe Kaufmann, president of Abbe Kaufmann Assocs., suggested that the event could produce a restaurant coupon book that would generate traffic for the participating eateries and also would include discounts or other offers from sponsors to generate business post-event and provide them with a measurable way to see return on their investment.

In addition to its radio sponsor, the event should look to “add other media partnerships to provide additional promotion for the event and select sponsors,” said Mark Tharrington, president of Tharrington Sponsorship Marketing.

Create Proprietary Programs To Give Visibility, “Ownership”
Taste of Times Square seemingly has many untapped opportunities for carving out areas that sponsors could attach themselves to, Tharrington said. “The alliance could develop specific venues within the event such as a children’s area or a chef demonstration pavilion.”

Given its demographic profile, the event could partner with a wine distributor and add a wine sampling tent, for which it could charge an admission fee, Kaufmann advised.

She also suggested a sponsor could present voting by attendees on their favorite restaurants and/or dishes. The property and the sponsor could use this to collect data on attendees by providing a chance to win prizes to voters who share their personal information.

Such opportunities should “integrate a sponsor’s brand into the customer experience and directly engage the sponsor’s target consumer,” Thayer said. “Ideally, these benefits could be extended across the alliance’s other events as well.

“For example, a sponsor-branded comfort station located at the Taste of Times Square would be highly visible and highly valued by event attendees,” she said. “The alliance needs to think through the customer experience and ask: Can a sponsor product or service make the experience more enjoyable?”

Provide Business-to-business Benefits
A number of experts noted that the alliance has not capitalized on any B2B opportunities surrounding the Taste.

“The alliance should consider the products that the restaurants carry and use,” O’Brien said. “Food and beverage distributors, as well as kitchen equipment and other suppliers are interested in the access to business owners that the alliance has through emails, meetings, etc.”

Similarly, the alliance could work with food and beverage companies to “design a sales promotion targeting the restaurants,” Tharrington suggested. “Ask those establishments to feature sponsors’ products for several weeks leading up to the event through event-themed specials. This would allow the property to upsell some of its existing in-kind suppliers.”

Tharrington also noted that other companies that are primarily B2B marketers may not be interested in sponsoring the event itself, but would be interested in reaching the 5,000 businesses in the Times Square district through a partnership with the alliance.

Lindsay Maxon, marketing manager for San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, advised that a private VIP event directly following the Taste would further grant B2B marketers access to restaurant proprietors and other Times Square business owners.