Educate. Motivate. Bond. Enlighten. Entertain. Amuse. Inform. Encourage. Inspire. These are all things speakers and entertainers can do at a meeting. They also can fuel change and growth, spur attendees to action, and they can clarify an organization’s brand and mission. There’s no question that the right speaker or entertainer can boost meeting attendance, and thus the meeting’s bottom line, which is why they are often big-ticket items in the meeting budget.
Speakers and entertainers are critical to a convention’s success on many levels. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. A poor keynote speaker, in particular, can get a meeting off to a bad start from which it might not fully recover, meaning attendees won’t be as engaged, won’t get the right message and ultimately won’t be inspired to take the association or their work or their ideas to the next level.
That explains why John Truran, senior vice president with Keppler Speakers Bureau, says that booking the wrong speaker or a poor speaker can cost a planner his or her job. “Finding and booking the right speaker is a very important decision for meeting planners,” Truran says.
But is the best speaker for a meeting the most expensive speaker? For such a critical role, planners may feel they have to bite the bullet and pay top dollar, hoping they can cut costs elsewhere. Happily, that isn’t necessarily the case.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that any good speaker will cost $50,000,” Truran says, noting that there are very good speakers available from $7,500 to $10,000. “There are people in that price range who have inspirational stories and who can absolutely inspire business groups.”
There are, in fact, many ways planners can save money on speakers that don’t require compromising quality. Ashley H. Pencak, CMP, manager, event services with SmithBucklin in Washington, DC, says it’s often about leveraging and depends on specific goals and needs.
“If the goal is to keep your audience together and entertained after dinner,” Pencak says, “then find an emcee to host the event and also serve as entertainment. For example, instead of hiring a professional speaker, a client in the steel distribution business saved money by leveraging a known emcee, Richard Laible. He helped connect the dots during the event and provided interesting and comedic updates at the dinner.”
She adds that planners can try to cover the emcee’s fees through a sponsorship or by having the emcee appear at a sponsor’s booth if the event is a trade show. “Again, it’s leveraging someone for multiple purposes at a lower price,” she says.
Working with a speakers bureau also can help planners who book many meetings or who have multiple clients. “When I was working for a manufacturing nonprofit association, we needed a motivational speaker,” Pencak says. “I had previously seen Jamie Clarke, an adventurer who had spoken at several other SmithBucklin client events. Even though I worried we wouldn’t be able to afford him, I contacted the bureau and told them the group’s budget. The bureau considered my request (to be) repeat business given SmithBucklin’s volume purchasing and that we’d used Jamie in the past for other clients. We received a discount on the fees, which helped me meet our budget. Clarke was fantastic, engaging and kept the audience focused (not looking at their phones), and the client was thrilled.”
Pencak also suggests looking inward. “To find an entertainer or speaker who understands your limited budget, start by asking your membership; you’d be surprised how many multitalented people are active in your group. They aren’t just surgeons or architects or manufacturers; they also could play in a band, excel in amateur photography or perform magic. They might know people just starting in the industry who are willing to charge less to help out a colleague or friend. We’ve seen this work well when we assembled a jam session for one of our clients. Individuals brought their instruments to the event, had one practice session and then played during the evening. We combined this with low-cost karaoke, and the attendees had a blast.”
Turning inward also can mean looking to board members. “For PSDA (Print Services and Distribution Association),” Pencak says, “we leveraged a board member from SmithBucklin who is also a faculty director of the Johnson Leadership Fellows program at Cornell. She has spoken at several clients’ events at a discount and covers topics such as effective team leadership, leading organizational culture change, critical thinking and problem solving, and persuasion and influence. She gets rave reviews each time.” Associations and societies have board members, too, and many are distinguished experts in their fields.
Some organizations are able to leverage connections in their specific industries to find speakers and entertainment, and/or leverage contacts in the communities where the meeting is taking place. The Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) does both.
Annette Thompson, SATW president, says the society’s convention organizers work with local tourism and convention organizations to find professional-development speakers and entertainment during conventions. “For instance, in Iceland, site of our 2014 convention, we worked with Iceland Travel to find experts on the culture and geology of Iceland for our professional-development sessions,” she says. “Without that help, we’d spend much more time and money trying to find the right people on our own. As we are planning our next convention in downtown Las Vegas, we are searching out individuals who are invested professionally and emotionally in seeing downtown succeed. We are also looking for folks tied to the history of tourism development in Las Vegas, a town built on tourism.”
SATW leverages those same local resources when it comes to entertainment, and the result is not only cost-effective but also a way to connect attendees to the local community and culture, a primary goal of the conventions. Entertainment has ranged from “the Blue Man Group in Las Vegas 10 years ago, to a Maori welcome ceremony and a Haka dance exhibition in Wellington, New Zealand, to bringing in an all-male chorus to serenade convention-goers at a dinner in Reykjavik,” Thompson says.
“By having the local culture interact with our convention-goers, we broaden the connection between the convention location and the journalist members of SATW.” — Annette Thompson
Musicians from local schools also performed the Icelandic national anthem for the group in Reykjavik. “By having the local culture interact with our convention-goers,” Thompson says, “we broaden the connection between the convention location and the journalist members of SATW.”
Not every group is looking for an annual speaker. Many small associations hold monthly meetings for which they have to find speakers who provide education and professional development for members. These programs also help attract and retain members, so quality and expertise are key even on a budget.
Author Lee Foster is on the board of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA), which hires industry speakers for its monthly meetings in the San Francisco area. The association has a formula that’s proven successful, which includes a morning session and an afternoon workshop.
“Each month is meant to pay for itself,” Foster says. “We pay the speaker $100 for the morning session and we split the gate for the afternoon workshops. Some speakers earn $500 or more from our workshops. We have a meeting-room expense of $550 per monthly meeting, so with membership fees, drop-ins fees and workshop fees, we try to keep ahead. We generally break even on an annualized basis, but we must be careful.”
The makeup of BAIPA helps lure speakers even if the guaranteed fee is small. Many of the members are authors who may well need the services speakers provide. “We don’t cover air transport or other costs,” Foster notes. “We’ve had speakers from New York and other distant places, partly because they want their message to get before our influential BAIPA group. Their publicity goes out to our 180 members and to about 900 on our mailing list. For service providers, this is an important potential customer base.”
That can be a draw even for well-established speakers who command a higher fee elsewhere. “I developed programs on e-books with Mark Coker of Smashwords, the biggest independent e-book seller in the world, and on WordPress with Chris Christensen, a WordPress expert. These were some of our most successful recent programs, helping our authors,” Foster says.
In addition to putting potential clients in front of speakers, BAIPA also allows speakers to sell their books and products at the meetings and to actively advertise their publishing services. The speakers keep 100 percent of those sales.
But what about groups that do want the big names? Can you possibly book them at a discount? Yes…and no. You’re not going to book Colin Powell or Hillary Clinton at a discount, but there are ways to get other name speakers for less.
Susan Masters, vice president with the National Speakers Bureau, says finding a speaker based in the meeting location helps save on travel costs and even fees, because some speakers have reduced fees for local events. But there are caveats. “It’s important to recognize that the more flexible you are on the topic, the better this works. If you’re looking for a specific expertise, it’s much harder to find someone local who is also a great speaker,” she says. Of course, if your meeting is in New York, Chicago, L.A. or DC, your odds of finding a good match go up.
Going local can work for entertainment, too. “Find out what entertainment might already be booked into a location and negotiate with them,” Pencak says. They could well agree to a reduced rate because they don’t have to travel or move equipment.”
Pencak says planners can save in other ways, too, such as purchasing certain items to reuse over multiple meetings and across multiple clients. “For example, I purchased a corn-hole game, painted on a generic design and divided the cost between three clients, all of whom wanted to have a game-night-themed event.”
Reusing entertainment, décor, staging and lighting from a previous group also can cut costs. “I always ask the AV company what other groups are doing during that same time period so they can repurpose materials,” Pencak adds. “Repurposing your general-session stage set for evening entertainment also helps save on labor, rigging, etc.”
It’s not just about dollar amounts. It’s also about value. It may be that a speaker won’t discount a fee but will add more value to the proposition. Some speakers, for example, will provide a video of a session that’s free for attendees to download for a certain amount of time and perhaps can be used by the association for members unable to attend the meeting. Others will autograph copies of their books at a convention and agree to be interviewed or write for an association publication or website. Some will make appearances at an exhibitor booth or meet with a small group of attendees.
Planners should consider what added value a group can offer speakers and entertainers. A few days in an exotic location, with hotel and air paid for? Products or services that the association has access to and the speaker can use? It doesn’t hurt to ask.
But how do entertainers and speakers view the budget dilemma? David Wilk, president and founding member of Four Day Weekend, an improv group that performs more than 300 dates each year, says he’s no stranger to the phrase, “Sorry, that’s out of our budget.”
He understands, but he agrees with Truran that speakers and entertainment can impact far more than a meeting’s bottom line. “Quality speakers and entertainment are not cheap,” he says. “They are, however, a value. If a client is concerned that we are too expensive, our philosophy is, ‘Do you know what is really expensive? Ruining your meeting by hiring a subpar act or speaker because they’re cheaper. That’s expensive.’”
But Wilk believes in finding solutions. Often, he says, a planner’s idea of what will work does not. “We have been offered the carrot of ‘We do a lot of meetings and this would get your foot in the door.’ Yes, that’s true, but it’s been our experience that discounted gigs only lead to more discounted gigs. We’ve also heard the phrase ‘This would be great exposure’ more times than we can count. After someone tells us the exposure line, internally we always say to each other, ‘People die from exposure.’ ”
Planners often think that cutting the performance time will lower costs, but that’s not the case. “Our real costs are not in the amount of time we’re on stage,” Wilk says. “It’s in the booking out for the day. If we’re working for you that day, we can’t work for someone else. Once we’re onsite, the difference between 45 minutes or an hour is nominal.
“The next suggestion is ‘What if you brought fewer people?’ Yes, that will bring the cost down; however, you’re hiring us because you liked what you saw when you saw us perform with everyone. I’m not saying no to this suggestion, but I do want to manage expectations.”
Wilk is on board with bartering, as long as what’s offered comes with a real value. “If your budget doesn’t quite meet the speaker/entertainer’s fee, find other non-monetary perks to offer,” he says. “Assuming the act is well-received, value a letter of recommendation at a certain price, value allowing a follow-up email to attendees at a certain fee, include services your company provides to the speaker and value those at a certain fee. This way, the speaker feels OK with lowering the fee and you meet your budget.
“Many times, if we’re out of a group’s budget, we’ll offer up additional value adds while we’re there,” he continues. “As I said, our real cost is not in the time we’re on stage but in the time we’re traveling and not available for other gigs. So as long as we are there, we have no problem hosting a panel or emceeing to up our value in the eyes of the client.”
Wilk says planners should ask speakers and entertainers for their thoughts. Some might be able to offer a condensed program or bring fewer people or they may be willing to take part of their fee in trade for service or perks, he says. “My recommendation is to always go back to them and ask ‘What can we do to make this amount work?”
Chances are, a solution will present itself. AC&F