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Q&A with Sponsorship Thought Leader Beth Knox, CEO of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games

By Paula Beadle

Beth Knox is leading a session at this year’s Sponsorship Mastery Summit and discussing the power of relationships. Beth has produced large-scale special events for 30 years. Her ability to bring partners together and generate sponsorship revenue has rightfully earned her the reputation as a sponsorship master.

Most recently, Beth served as CEO of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, bringing 3,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities to Seattle for a 14-sport national competition. Beth previously served as president and CEO of Seafair—the region’s largest community festival. She helped bring the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon to Seattle in 2009 and position Seafair as a powerhouse in the community. She successfully navigated her role during the Great Recession and secured a new title sponsor of Seafair’s premier event. She resurrected the city’s Fourth of July fireworks show in 2013 and produced the spectacular 2014 Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl Victory Parade, followed by the Seattle Sounders’ 2016 MLS Championship Cup March and Rally.

Beth is leading a training session at Sponsorship Mastery Summit on the power of relationships. I sat down with Beth to talk about leadership, sponsorship and how cultivating and building relationships have contributed to her success.  What I learned is that, although Beth has an authentic interest in people and her passion draws people to her, building relationships is a focused effort. From the sidelines, it appears building relationships comes easy to Beth, but it’s more purposeful than that.

Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.

Paula Beadle: Your Sponsorship Mastery Summit session will be inspiring and educational and I’m delighted attendees will have an opportunity to learn from you. What are you most excited about?

Beth Knox: I’m excited about raising the bar! Properties, sponsors, agencies and event attendees all reap the benefits when we are negotiating smart partnerships that meet objectives and provide an extraordinary experience for all involved.

PB: What’s your favorite sponsorship story? 

BK: My favorite stories are the ones that have a surprise element to it. We pitched Alaska Airlines to be the title sponsor of the Seafair Torchlight Parade when the previous sponsor (a competitor airline) didn’t renew its 15-year partnership. Alaska Airlines told us that their employees used to send emails every year complaining that it wasn’t right to have an out-of-town airline sponsoring Seattle’s hometown parade. We had no idea Alaska Airlines employees felt so connected to the parade when we made the pitch, but those vocal employees helped us close the deal!

PB: Why do you think sponsorship is beneficial to brands? 

BK: Good sponsorship is not passive. It gives the sponsor a personality and engages the consumer or target audience in a meaningful way that provides a unique experience. It creates a bond with the end user that translates into a call to action and loyalty.

PB: I think most people in our business understand the importance of building and maintaining strong professional relationships, but not many have built what I consider an authentic network like you have. What impresses me about your network is how genuine your relationships are and how your connections are willing to help you. How have you built these powerful relationships? 

BK: First, I truly care about my relationships, which means I bring a personal connection to the people I meet. It’s more than just meeting someone new and moving on to the next person. I am interested in who they are and how they connect to mutual contacts or to the project I’m working on. I remember names and I often follow up a meeting with an email just to say I enjoyed meeting them. All of this makes it so much easier when I actually need something from them in the future. People are glad to help when they know they are appreciated.

PB: How have those relationships helped you be successful? 

BK: Strong relationships create a network of people who can be trusted … trusted to respond, trusted to support, and trusted to show up. It’s so important to be engaged in your community by showing up to fundraiser lunches, the annual meetings for your visitor’s bureau, chamber of commerce, downtown association and other events where community leaders are in attendance. I make a point to arrive at these events early so I can network and connect. It is these informal touch points that allow me to share an update or make an ask. This investment of my time in relationships pays off exponentially in meeting my business goals.

PB: I was in the audience for your presentation titled “Turns out Mom and Dad Were Right.”  What did they teach you about relationships that you have carried forward? 

BK: My parents modeled what it meant to be a good neighbor and citizen, so whenever possible, I choose to work with good people. It seems obvious, but I am intentional about choosing partners or vendors who demonstrate high standards and ethics, who have proven to go the extra mile when I need help. In the case where you don’t have a choice and must work with a challenging personality, I make the best of it, but most importantly I don’t let them suck the good energy from me. I save my bandwidth for good people and refuse to dwell on rude, difficult or negative people.

Paula: You landed Microsoft as the largest sponsor for Special Olympics USA Games.  What was key to making that partnership happen? 

BK: That was another story that has reached legendary status in my mind. The president of Microsoft, Brad Smith, was my honorary board chair, and early in the planning phase he agreed to pitch the Games and its sponsorship opportunities to a group of key business leaders. He asked me to brief him in person prior to the meeting and I shared the event overview and sponsorship levels, including our ambitious goal of a presenting sponsor at $2.5 million. After a few thoughtful questions, he asked, “Which company has the presenting sponsorship?” When I replied, “No one … yet,” he responded with a casual, “Well, I think Microsoft needs to be in that spot, so count us in.” Outwardly I remained calm, but there were fireworks going off inside my head! It was so incredible that it happened without a formal presentation or pitch, but that decision was a turning point in the fundraising process and had a significant impact on the event’s level of success. Best. Surprise. Ever.

PB: From a sponsorship perspective, what could events be doing better to cultivate relationships with potential sponsors? 

BK: In a nutshell—up your game. Be thoughtful about your sponsor targets so you are approaching them because of a genuine connection or opportunity with your event. Ask partners to share their key objectives and develop a plan that meets them through your event sponsorship. Then, demand your team executes from a high standard of excellence. No shortcuts, no statements that something is “good enough,” and make sure you fulfill every obligation to the sponsor in a high-quality manner.

PB: How about on an individual basis? 

BK: Establish a personal relationship with your sponsor contact and, when possible, their boss or company president. Check in with them to make sure their expectations are being met and make adjustments as needed. Extend invitations to them personally to attend the event and make time to meet them there. After the event, be part of the recap meeting whenever possible so you can personally respond to their feedback. All of this is what establishes that trust and makes it easier for them to recommit their partnership the following year.

About the workshop: Sponsorship Mastery Summit takes place September 25-26 at the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington and features industry experts facilitating intensive and interactive sessions for mastering the art and science of sponsorship. Participants collaborate with thought leaders, hear from big brands, explore new ideas, and leave with a simple sales plan, an improved story, sponsor leads, a sales process, best practices and new connections. The learning and exchange continue online for three months with webinars and information on the most relevant and important topics key to sponsorship success. Learn more and register here.

About the author: Paula Beadle is the president of Caravel Marketing. She is a results-driven trailblazer with a proven record of creating order out of chaos. Paula has helped numerous organizations discover and achieve their goals by developing and managing innovative sponsorship initiatives, generating incremental revenue and successfully coaching thriving teams, executives and boards.