The Sweet Smell of Success

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2004

I smelled trouble when I walked into the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center several years ago and a lovely young woman spritzed me with perfume. As marketing director of the Van Wezel, I feared I'd have to return to the Purple Palace with "perfumer" added to my job description.

That highly commercialized corporate sponsorship trend never caught on here, thank goodness. (Okay, so we all had to wear Jose Cuervo bandanas when Willie Nelson played the hall; the tequila company helped underwrite his national tour.)

But sponsorships are a delicate dance between the needs of the organization-money, validation, money-and the desires of the sponsoring company-civic good will and the opportunity to put its good name in front of upscale audiences, over and over and over again. Ask the Philadelphia Phillies, whose recent $95-million tango with Citizens Bank to name its new stadium, Fortune reported, resulted in seats on the team plane for the bank's best customers, the bank's logo on Phillies staff uniforms, and V.I.P. locker room tours (although Fortune reassures us, the showers are off-limits).

Sponsorships are hugely important to an organization's bottom line. Last season, says Van Wezel marketing director Margaret Fuesy, the hall's 25 corporate sponsors provided $105,000 in cash and $400,000 in in-kind services-mostly free advertising, but also airline tickets and hotel discounts. In exchange, depending on the sponsorship level, sponsors got free concert tickets, access to the Founders Lounge, stage announcements, logos placed in ads and program books and on the hall's Web site, and celebrity meet-and-greets.

What they didn't get, Fuesy says, is anything that's "intrusive to the experience of the patrons." No perfume, and no product demonstration kiosks, such as Comcast is installing in the lobby of Boston's North Shore Music Theater, according to The New York Times; patrons there can see a Broadway show and shop high-speed Internet service plans at intermission.

Traditionally, local banks and media have jumped on the arts sponsorship bandwagon (such arrangements are a trust officer's dream-come-true). The 50-member Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce arts task force, created in 2002, is trying to broaden that base. Its founding chairman, Ron Saba of Ashley Avery Collectibles, was the driving force behind the statewide arts license tag campaign in the mid-1990s when he served on a similar Tampa Chamber of Commerce committee. Saba says the task force tries to convince small and mid-sized businesses to support the arts because the arts are good business, both for the number of people they employ and the number of tourists and new residents they attract.

Last year, the group persuaded the chamber to add two arts categories to its high-profile Small Businesses of the Year awards. It's also aggressively promoting the arts license tag, because the money from local sales-$146,000 since 1996-comes back to the arts council to help fund its education programs. This spring, the task force forged a partnership with the Wilde Automotive Group-Wilde Lexus of Sarasota, Wilde Jaguar of Sarasota and Wilde Sun Honda-which has agreed to display the tag on all new cars in its three showrooms and is promoting it on a billboard outside its new Jaguar/Lexus complex on Clark Road. It's the first such corporate sponsorship for the arts license tag in Florida.

Wilde Automotive had already proven its corporate good citizenship in 2002, and again in 2003, with sponsorship of the Van Wezel's Friday Fest monthly outdoor music series (to the tune of $15,000 each season) and its $50,000 sponsorship of the 2002-03 Van Wezel Broadway series. Half that money came from Wilde Lexus, the other half came from Lexus nationally. It was the largest corporate donation in the city-owned performing arts hall's then 31-year history, and city commissioners thanked the Wilde family publicly at a commission meeting.

The key to that successful partnership, says Fuesy, was Wilde's own commitment to getting involved. "We gave them lots of p.r., and put them in front of the faces of more than 10,000 people who attended the concerts," Fuesy says. In return, Wilde got permission to bring six cars to each concert, accompanied by sales teams in company-logo polo shirts, and they flew "Proud Corporate Sponsor" banners, which they created at their own expense.

Wilde came onboard, says spokesman Tracie Pierce, because "we recognize the important impact the arts and culture have on our community, and we hope to help create an environment where the arts will continue to flourish and grow in Sarasota."

Now that's a sponsorship with common "scents."

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