When it comes to fundraising, you might call Tonya York Dees the “million dollar woman.” She’s built her business, York Consulting, around signing corporate sponsors for Louisville’s major events like The Idea Festival and the Ryder Cup Experience, each taking a million sponsorship dollars or more to produce. But these events are hardly fun and games to the local community. The Idea Festival and the Ryder Cup Experience are estimated to have a combined economic impact of around $200 million. The ever-popular Mint Jubilee Gala, a pre-Derby event Dees conceived and founded in 2001, has donated $1 million to the James Brown Cancer Center and Gilda’s Club. These events attract big corporate dollars, legions of loyal volunteers, and have big benefits to the community.
After many years running the Small Business Services division of Greater Louisville, Inc. (GLI), Dees turned her passion for economic development into an event sponsorship business, seeing the potential major events had for building business opportunities, tourism and goodwill in the state. In addition to her flagship events, since 2000, she’s managed fundraising and often logistics for events such as the Women for Women luncheon, The Great Midwest Venture Capital Conference, economic development trips for BioKentucky, a business conference for professional athletes and Louisville’s hosting of the national Inc. 500 conference. During her career she has donated her time and energy to more than 20 charitable and professional organizations.
Dees took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with The Lane Report about what it takes to make these kinds of major events happen in Kentucky, and why everyone should get involved.
TLR: What does it take to put these large-scale community events together?
TYD: Every event needs a champion … one or two highly placed, influential people who see the value in the idea and use their connections to bring the community’s other key players on board. Often that’s someone like a mayor or governor, but it doesn’t have to be. A key CEO, a chamber president or even a well-known philanthropist, like Stan Curtis of Kentucky Harvest, can have the force of personality to get the idea rolling. This core group then becomes a large stable of several dozen influential volunteers … those people who do the planning, make the decisions and develop the subcommittees. It usually takes a full year of planning and work from these people to make an event happen.
When you’ve done your homework, and all the right people are standing at the ready to make something big happen, then it’s really up to the sponsors. But sponsors can see whether or not a community is standing behind an event, and they will place their bets on the events they think will be professionally executed and effective.
TLR: Why has Louisville been so successful in communitywide events?
TYD: The Derby Festival has a lot to do with that. Our community understands hospitality. We know what it takes to rally our population around an event and attract attendees from around the nation. Our people, and especially our politicians, know what rewards that will bring.
A good example is the Idea Festival. It started in Lexington, but they soon found themselves outgrowing the city’s resources. So the leaders of the organization started looking for other venues. By then, the Idea Festival had developed a serious reputation. They could consider any city. Duke University was a hot contender. So was San Diego. But when Jerry Abramson (Louisville’s Mayor) and Greater Louisville Inc. got wind of it, they saw what amazing potential it had to bring not just dollars but cache to the city. They formed a task force, started proving that corporate sponsors and the right presentation spaces could be found here. They brought out influencers from around the city to demonstrate that Louisville was ready to roll up its sleeves and work to make the event a success. Basically, they did whatever it took to see that the Idea Festival’s permanent home would be here. And it worked.
TLR: How do you convince a corporate sponsor to invest in your events?
TYD: I think you have to have a lot more than just a sheet of pat, little sponsorship packages. You have to prove to sponsors that you’re willing to try innovative ideas … the kind of sponsorships that really let their brand personality speak. A good example of this is the Geek Squad’s presence at last year’s Idea Festival. They allowed attendees to bring in their broken laptops, and they would fix them on-site for free. Humana sponsored an innovation center there that same year. Our sponsors invite their employees to get involved, and they bring clients to the events, too. Our sponsors want us to update their employees on the ideas being exchanged at the festival, or the good work that’s being accomplished at some of the other events I’ve handled. We can help them feel tuned in.
A good sponsorship is more than just writing a check and getting your name on a banner or program. It’s about building sales, reaching out to your company’s target audience and generating awareness. These days, people really look to see whether a company is a good corporate citizen. And customers love to see when the company they buy from is creatively engaging the community.