Video Series: Q&A with SMS Thought Leader Pat Merna

Paula Beadle chats with thought leader, Pat Merna from the 500 Festival in Indianapolis to share ideas and insights to support the event, entertainment and sports community. Pat is a 30-year sports marketing and sales pro who has worked in college athletics, spent some time with the Memphis Grizzlies, where he was part of the team that opened the FedEx Forum. He also worked for the Indianapolis 500 and now Pat is the VP of Strategic Partnerships for the 500 Festival, which celebrates the racing community programs and initiatives.

Pat will be joining the Sponsorship Mastery lineup for a session on Integrating Sponsors into Virtual Events. Read more about his experience and what he’s doing now to plan for 2021, watch the video or read the full transcript below.

PB: So Pat, do you mind, can we start with just sharing with the audience an overview of the 500 Festival.

PM: Sure. 500 Festival it’s a nonprofit group. It was started in 1957. First started with the parade to celebrate the great race with the Indy 500. It has really grown to more celebrations around the race, but a lot more involvement with community pieces for enriching lives and positive impact throughout Indiana, and we reach about 500,000 people a year between our events, programs, registrations, and ticketing.

PB:  That’s fantastic. So, what are some of the marquee events?

PM: Our One America 500 Festival Mini Marathon. It’s one of the largest half marathons in the U S that kicks off the month of May. Our IPL 500 Festival Parade. It’s the third largest parade in the U S behind the Tournament of Roses Parade and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. It’s the city’s largest single day, event with about 300,000 spectators.

PB: Can you tell us a little bit more about your sponsorship program?

PM: Sure, we have about, I would say a hundred sponsors. So probably that pretty good list from the likes of like low-level sponsorships and to our full entitlement sponsorships with the two events that I just mentioned. A lot in the festival world, I’d say we have a lot of traditional sponsorship elements, that’s hospitality, activation signage, if you will. And then we also have a piece that’s called our corporate member program, that’s like a chamber of commerce type model where you joined at two levels and got a lot of tickets and benefits.

PB: Recently you created the 500 Mile Challenge, a virtual event. Can you tell us about that event? And also, I’m curious, have there been any other events that you have created virtually.  

PM: Yeah. I’ll start with the, 500 Mile Challenge first. That’s some of our team members and our operations side, put their heads together and came up with something that’s seen nationwide where people were doing all these great different challenges, like the great Tennessee Run, where you’re literally doing the throughout the state of Tennessee a virtual race.

So our piece is we’re fortunate to have the relationship with Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 and having those, something that’s a global brand, where now as a participant or as a team, a family team, a corporate team, you can run, walk, bike, swim wheelchair, to do your own Indie 500 from now until the end of the year.

We launched what was called a New Way to May. So there were things where you could even build your own float, version of a float, a family, online and on. We had a lot of great success with that. And I think that’s good office with the 500 Mile Challenge piece.

PB: How did sponsors respond to the new virtual event opportunities?

PM: I feel like we did a lot of good making goods with the virtual pieces and having them incorporated, more so throughout it. We did have a presenting sponsor that’s part of the 500 Mile Challenge with Cliff Bar. Great having that kind of national brand piece to it. So that’s been a big piece and that’s been more on a local level that we’ve had that partnership with one of their plants and now we’re seeing signs where it might lead to a corporate relationship, which with the brand side and that’s where we’ve been trying to get. And it’s really interesting to see in the virtual world is this is how maybe we’re going to have that relationship. 

PB: Many events have moved to online platform to host virtual events as a way of retaining sponsorship investments for 2020, your integration of sponsors into your virtual events was it able to help you retain those commitments.  

PM: Yes, we were very fortunate the festival to have great support. Large percentage of those, definitely moved to the virtual world, or even had a point with what we called, Lend a Hand where they understood the event wasn’t going to happen, but they were there to support.

PB: I want to make sure I heard you say this correctly. Did you create a campaign called Lend a Helping Hand as a way of retaining your corporate partners and their investments?

PM: Yes, it is. It stemmed from our mini marathon. So when we reached back to participants, we just, we gave them the options of hey happy to push you to 2021 but another thing that we worded as was if you want to lend a hand to the festival. So if you wanted to say, you know what keep my 2020 registration and, we’ll sign up back again in 2021. So we adopted that same type model with our partners too. 

PB: Pricing it’s the number one challenge in the sponsorship industry – so how do you price a sponsorship virtual event?  

PM: It’s definitely been a little bit of a challenge because I know we had points where we were matching our values of what we consider that type of sponsorship and thought it would be in that market. The other bits of this too, is there’s two is that this was a quick turnaround for the 500 Mile Challenge, so we didn’t have a lot of time to work trying to find prospect and sponsors and really had the goals of trying to get somebody on board because we wanted to have a name established with collecting a lot of the metrics from this year. Because that’s where we think it’s going to help pricing-wise for 2021 to know. What does the social media values look like? What are those PR advertising campaign measurements? And we wanted to get a national brand if we could. So having Cliff Bar as a big piece here in Indianapolis, that makes a bit of difference too. And return on purpose, we think is going to be a big piece as well as ROI, of course, but I think that’s going to be a good one metric to have there as well, moving forward for pricing.

PB: You’ve been in the sponsorship business for a long time. How do you think sponsorship marketing is going to change in the future?  

PM: I think there is going to be some different ways that you know, to engage, brands more. I think you had a little bit of on the employee side, that could be, that’s a big piece. That’s actually how it happened with Cliff Bar. They were looking to see being a partner if there were discount codes that they could share for their employees for something to do to engage them. So I think there’s going to be a lot more ways to try to engage that way. And definitely on the activation side, there’s going to be challenges. How do you get brands to be able to activate when they’re not physically, at an event? I think some good areas to look at some co- partnerships, so for the likes of, a Meyer grocery brand, that’s here, how can we have engagements with some of our product partners and incorporating that into the retail basis. Then matching missions. Obviously, we’re the celebration of the Indy 500 and things that have branched off with that with a 500-education program piece throughout the state of Indiana. Kids fit pieces, that’s, healthy lifestyle and training for the mini marathon. So that’s important for us to find brands and partners that have that same goal and mission. 

PB:  What’s one thing that you would encourage people in the sponsorship industry to be doing right now to plan for the future.  

PM: I think a lot of it’s still going to be, relationship based. It’s even going to be more relationship based and it used to be, I’m thinking about different ways to do that. Maybe it’s just not emailing, it’s actually doing phone calls, it’s doing a lot more Zoom connections. I think that’s going to be important to help network, and definitely keep tracking on it industry trends. So when you’re seeing what other groups are doing out there, I’ve heard it called in the past, rip off and deploy, R and D. So there’s always great ways to see what other people are doing well and to copy those or see how they can integrate your programs.

PB: Good. Really looking forward to having you at the summit in September, and thank you so much for taking the time with me today to share some of the things that you’re doing and congratulations on your success around the 500 Mile Challenge and your partnership with Cliff Bar.

 PM: Thanks, Paula. I appreciate all that you’re doing. And especially, all the other different groups out there. I know everyone’s doing really good work now.


About the Summit: Sponsorship Mastery Summit will take place virtually and in select cities September 23rd and 24th, 2020. SMS is a powerful and immersive experience specifically for sponsorship sales leaders representing universities, parks and recreation, tourism, sports teams and events, fairs and festivals, venues, arts and cultural organizations. Attendees will collaborate with thought leaders, hear from big brands, exchange ideas and leave with best practices, actionable tools, valuable resources and new connections. Participants will attend interactive workshops, industry forums, big idea roundtables, and networking events. 


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