Over the years I have served on a number of boards and organizations that put on events for small business owners. Having been on the organizing committees for dozens of events, there is one thing I have learned: you need committed sponsors to pull off seminars and similar events. Sponsors are often the least-understood element of good events. Organizers immediately think of speakers and attendees -- as they should. But the third leg of the event stool -- the sponsors -- gets little thought except by the most experienced event organizers. The obvious reason to bring in sponsors is to help defray the event expenses. That's especially important if you are holding the event as a fundraiser for your organization. But there are several other important reasons for bringing in sponsors. Sponsors can be a draw for the event. Lending their brand names adds gravitas and excitement to an event -- it becomes a happening. Sponsors can open doors to well-known speakers you might not otherwise be able to attract. Sponsors also can attract more media coverage and visibility. And when sponsors send their executives and other personnel to events, small business owners can get access to company personnel we might not otherwise be able to meet. When attending conferences and seminar events, I make it a point to walk around and talk -- really talk -- with sponsors. It's part of my conference routine. The benefits to me as an attendee are substantial: (1) I get a lot of valuable information from discussions with sponsors -- information it would take much longer to discover on my own. (2) Talking with sponsors has led to some of my most rewarding business partnerships. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it is because I have been able to strike up a conversation with a sponsor representative who would be very hard to meet otherwise. I engage the person in conversation, and before you know it we are identifying common ground for further discussion. It's pure serendipity. But by chatting up sponsors, you increase the chances of serendipity occurring. (3) Observing sponsors is how I learn the most effective and creative ways to exhibit at events when my own company is a sponsor. Through observation of other sponsors, you can learn how to set up your booth, including effective signage and lighting; where to stand in relation to your booth; which conversation-starting techniques are effective; and what kind of collaterals and giveaways work best. For instance, observing sponsors and talking with them is how I learned about the neat popup banners you can purchase for as little as $350 (including portable stands) from places like Kinkos that make your company appear substantial and credible. That's why when I went to the recent Make Mine A $Million event, I spent quite a while around the sponsor booths. I've previously written about this event from the attendees' standpoint, and I made some observations about the winners. Now I'd like to give a few take-aways about the sponsors: AIG, the insurer, announced at the show that it was committing $1.1 Million to the Make Mine a $Million program. That says a lot about its commitment to the small business market. While I was there, I picked up a free copy of a very helpful book on risk management for small businesses (see related post). That alone was worth my time. Cisco offers network routing and switching services -- even VOIP. I learned that they are targeting primarily the larger end of small business -- what's typically known as the "SMB market." Their solutions are going to be a fit for larger organizations with, say, annual revenues of eight figures and above. Intuit was there -- they even had a certain number of free copies of Quicken 2007 software they were giving away to attendees. Intuit knows how to use partnerships effectively. In their booth was a certified QuickBooks adviser (a consultant who does not work for Intuit, but happens to be an expert with the product). Not all the exhibitors were huge companies. I talked with the representative for the New York State Federation of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, which drove home to me what a force Hispanics or Latinos are in the small business community of U.S. cities. While at the Hispanic Chamber's booth, I even managed a little networking with an author of a new book, called Smart Women and Small Business. Ginny Wilmerding, the author, said the book was about how to transition from a job in the corporate world to running your own business. American Express OPEN had a large presence at the event, as you might expect for the main sponsor. Their booth was set up in part like a living room, with sofas and fresh baked cookies. It was low-pressure -- an oasis of sorts where you could feel comfortable. I have no doubt that American Express's leadership role in the event made it easier to attract other sponsors and big-name speakers. I have a piece of advice: next time you attend a conference or seminar, don't rush by the sponsors. Spend some time with them. You will walk away enriched in some fashion. Note: the American Express OPEN advertising support of this site enabled me to attend the event.