Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Eat Drink Blog 4 Sponsorship

I do not accept PR or sponsored posts on my blog. This position is clearly stated on the homepage of my blog via a disclaimer and known by anyone who knows me. 

But I spent the past year as the Chair of the fourth national Australian Food and Drinks Bloggers conference, Eat Drink Blog, where the majority of my time was spent trying to get as much sponsorship as possible.

Is it strange to be asking for sponsorship for a conference if I don’t accept any sponsorship on my blog?

No, because I see a difference between doing sponsored blog posts and obtaining sponsorship to enable an event to be run. The context in which the sponsorship occurs and the outcomes that the sponsorship achieves is different. 

Firstly, what I chose to do on my blog is my personal choice and Eat Drink Blog is not about me or how I approach blogging. When I became the Chair of Eat Drink Blog 4, I took on the responsibility to organize a conference for Australian food and drink bloggers, a role that had been entrusted with me by the previous committee to carry on the success and legacy of Eat Drink Blog with the support of the Perth food blogging community (note: there is a WA food blogging google group where much discussion occurred during the process of submitting our expression of interest to host Eat Drink Blog 4).

Eat Drink Blog was a project that I worked on for the past year and I did whatever I needed to do in order make it happen in Perth because it was my job to do so and I’m a professional like that. 

Eat Drink Blog is a community focused, non-profit event organized by a volunteer committee of local bloggers from the host state. The conference is free for delegates to attend to encourage maximum accessibility but delegates are responsible for their own flights and accommodation. 

So organizing Eat Drink Blog is like organizing a wedding but with no budget. 

It was surprising for me to find out that Eat Drink Blog is one of the very few blogging conferences in the world that is free, most other conferences charge a hundred or more in registration fees.

The only way that Eat Drink Blog can happen is if (a) we charge an attendance fee or (b) it is supported by sponsorship. The Perth committee decided to keep in line with how the previous three conferences have been run and continue making it free to attend, and worked on securing sponsorship in the form of funds or in-kind contributions to cover the numerous expenses (venue, AV, staging, catering, printing etc.) required to run a conference.

I believe that sponsorship has a valuable role to play in facilitating events, as it would not be possible for them to happen without the contribution of sponsors to share the costs in order to make the event accessible to everyone, this goes for the large scale for-profit events like Gourmet Escape to street festivals like the Beaufort Street Festival and not-for-profit events run by volunteer organizations like TEDxPerth.

Disclaimer: I am on the TEDxPerth committee as a partnership manager/food curator where I organize the catering and after events, as well as help with securing partnerships (sponsors) to support our independently organized TEDxPerth events.

But sponsorship is also a two-way return of benefits, where a sponsor’s support of an event provides them with negotiated benefits. At a very basic level, all sponsors were given the standard sponsorship benefits you would expect for any type of conference which included their logo on the website/program booklet, signage, verbal acknowledgement, mentions on the Eat Drink Blog social media accounts for relevant announcements and an item in the conference bag. In addition, sponsors were clearly informed that bloggers may or may not choose to share on social media and/or write on their blogs about their experiences. Exposure was never guaranteed but could be assumed to be a likely occurence when you have 80 bloggers in the room with cameras clicking away. But the extent of that exposure and what form it takes is not certain. Every delegate comes away from Eat Drink Blog and shares what they have learnt from it and their experiences in their own way, evident by the variety of blog posts that have been linked on the Eat Drink Blog media page where amongst the pretty pictures there is also a lot of robust discussions and debates.

Understanding this situation and the attractiveness that an event like Eat Drink Blog poses for sponsors, I didn’t take any decisions on sponsorship lightly. All sponsorships were carefully considered in terms of its fit with the kind of Eat Drink Blog conference we wanted to put on and what the sponsors wishes were, and above all the independence and integrity of Eat Drink Blog was the guiding point on all decisions made. This is reflected in the list of sponsors that we got on board this year, where the Perth committee hand-picked and directly approached the majority of the sponsors which comprised of a lot of local businesses that we liked and wanted to have involved with our Eat Drink Blog.

Although it probably wasn’t an initial aim, as Eat Drink Blog moves from state to state, it has also become an opportunity for the host state to share a little bit of its local food and drink culture to give it a sense of place. After all, it is a food bloggers conference and we all know what food bloggers like to do. In this way, I see sponsors more as ‘partners’ of the conference, where their involvement and support can be integrated to harmoniously fit into the conference. For example, putting on a full day conference means that catering is required but rather than going down the route that you would experience at most conferences – filtered coffee, mass produced danishes and sandwiches etc. the fact that Eat Drink Blog is a food blogging conference presents the opportunity to engage local food businesses to be involved in providing food and drinks. 

From the start we wanted to incorporate a unique WA experience to Eat Drink Blog, sharing a little about what makes Perth great with delegates from award winning bakeries, artisan home bakers, street food stalls, food trucks, locally roasted coffee to family fun businesses, and local craft beer and cider…in the end isn’t this what all us bloggers do? We like to share…

We chose sponsors primarily based on what we wanted to share with delegates rather than what each sponsor could give, and we approached small and local businesses first, before looking for bigger/national businesses. We rejected as many sponsors as we accepted and the terms of engagement were carefully negotiated.

I admit that there may have been some conflict of interests where we asked businesses to sponsor who we knew but it’s something that’s hard to avoid in Perth (it’s small) and when you are seeking funds or in-kind services it is always easier to ask someone that you know. Obtaining sponsorship is hard and a lot of work. The reality is, like getting a job, it’s easier if you already know someone etc. But we only asked those that we thought would be good for Eat Drink Blog.

I admit to being completely bias in choosing who to approach, sorry I didn’t ask for sponsorship from Meat & Livestock Australia this year or Woolies or Coles “the big two” as I’m sure that we could have got a shitload more stuff. I sought the sponsorship for Eat Drink Blog that was needed and nothing more, from people that I felt comfortable working with. 

Sponsorships involve managing relationships and negotiating terms to achieve some sort of balance for the sponsor and the event. It’s hard to not become personally involved with the people you deal with and I only have good things to say about all the sponsors for Eat Drink Blog 4 because I chose to work with them.

Because I realize what’s involved with sponsorships, I choose to keep my blog free from it. It’s hard to be completely objective and hey I’m just human and nice, and maybe I’m just taking the easy way out by saying no to all PR and sponsored posts on my blog so that I don’t find myself in a grey area when I have to think twice about what I post. Or maybe I can’t get rid of my damn punk rock ethos. I choose to keep my blog an independent creative outlet, where the content is original and free from any influences but my own (ie: Tool).

Outside of my blog I like being a part of organizing events which may require sponsorships. I like the challenge of figuring out how things can work together and if the end goal of that sponsorship means that I’m creating something of value for the community – whether it be bringing the blogging community together with Eat Drink Blog or to provide a forum for amazing individuals to share their ideas with TEDxPerth then I am happy to be a part of it.

How to I reconcile my personal view on not doing sponsored blog posts and my role as the Chair of Eat Drink Blog 4?

Because I am clear on what I do and what I do for others. I am much harder on myself and kinder to others. I give more than I like to take. I am way too serious for my own good.

Given the role of organizing Eat Drink Blog which I put my hand up for, unaware of what it would involve (a lot of time, stress, sleep deprivation and unhealthy eating habits), I was going to fucking to do and do it well, and I’m gonna own it.

Being the Chair of Eat Drink Blog 4 also allowed me to put my own mark on Eat Drink Blog, to present a vision of the kind of conference that I would be proud of and wanted to be a part of. Anyone on the WA food bloggers google group would recall all the discussions we had at the beginning of the year on what Eat Drink Blog could have potentially being. But I wanted to keep Eat Drink Blog grounded, to be a bit rough around the edges and to have a community, grassroots feel. I think people who have attended past conferences got what we did and can see that we brought something different to the table, and although there were many pathways Eat Drink Blog 4 could have taken, I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way, even though it ended up being the hard and more work way.

Lastly, I want to say that all speakers at Eat Drink Blog were not paid or compensated for any travel or accommodation costs except for Adam Roberts (Amateur Gourmet) who was our special international guest and was brought over by Tourism WA. The sponsors made Eat Drink Blog possible but the speakers made Eat Drink Blog what it was. I didn't just spend the past year organising a party for you all. The food and drinks were nice, but I what I really wanted was for everyone to come away learning something.