If the recent COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated anything, it’s that the meetings and events industry is a dynamic, flexible industry always on the cusp of embracing the “latest and greatest” elements that make meetings and events truly shine.
And one avenue that can dictate the success or failure of an event is the chosen keynote speaker or entertainment lineup. In fact, in the recent 2022 Speaking Industry Benchmark Report, the first of its kind created by AAE Speakers Bureau, it was identified that the top three most important qualities of a keynote speaker, according to event organizers, are: how well they fit within their budget (75.5%), how relevant their speaking topics are (65.7%) and how compelling their story is (52.4%).
Greg Friedlander, AAE Speakers Bureau founder & CEO, says they are seeing more requests around mental health, workplace wellness and corporate culture since the start of the pandemic. “Leading a company of now 40 employees through the pandemic, I have to say it’s no surprise that the demand for expert guidance around these topics has skyrocketed,” Friedlander says. “Topics that help employers navigate a changing workforce dynamic are also in demand as companies continue to evolve their work policies to include remote work, hybrid work or even returning to a traditional office.”
Another notable trend organizations in the financial and insurance industries are interested in hearing keynote speakers discuss has been around diversity, equity and inclusion.
Mollie Plotkin, founder and president of the Mollie Plotkin Group, a keynote speaker and entertainment agency, says 2022 has shown some very significant, and specific, speaker trends. “Without a doubt, we’ve seen a huge rise in audience requests for keynotes on disruption, diversity, equity and inclusion, team building and leadership. Second to those themes would be requests for ‘strategies for bringing employees back to the office,’” Plotkin says.
Indeed, the Benchmark Report found that topics event strategists are prioritizing in 2022 are diversity, equity and inclusion (58.1%), leadership and motivation (57%), mental health (47%) and the future of work (33%).
As for entertainment, it’s “go big or go home,” many planners say. Companies that previously brought out a local band for an event are now having Plotkin broker professional artists and musical groups, such as rappers Flo Rida and Pitbull, and singer Bret Michaels.
Crystal Biringer, meeting planner and president of Toast of the Town, a full-service meeting and event planning firm, says they are often contracted to manage and work with a group’s speakers and keynotes. Biringer advises that meeting planners shop first for speakers and entertainers who have a direct link or tie in to the cause or mission of the event. “When you work to align a speaker more holistically into your event program, their involvement will often come across as much more authentic, which adds significant value perceived from the attendees,” Biringer says. “Additionally, their presence can be further tied into the pre- or post-event communications, and potentially the overall mission or organization’s messaging.”
Once you have identified a few keynote candidates who align well with your organization, mission, event, goal, message, etc., it is also very important to make sure your keynotes have a compelling story to tell. “A personal connection or anecdote goes a long way to engaging an audience here,” Biringer says. “Make sure your speakers have a direct link to the event topic.”
Also, be sure to dive into a speaker’s catalog of previous work or other talks they have done. As Biringer advises, it is not only important to make sure they align well within the event’s program, but it is just as important that they can communicate well and keep an audience engaged. “Don’t be afraid to think big and stand out. You would be surprised what it can do for your attendance,” Biringer says, especially in 2022 and moving forward. With life ‘returning to normal,’ events getting scheduled again and people gathering again, attendees want to be ‘wowed.’
“As event professionals, we know that selecting the right speaker starts with understanding your event goals,” Friedlander says. That means thinking about the desired format — it could be a keynote presentation, fireside chat, workshop or even a performance. And would it be virtual, in person or hybrid? Also consider the main goal of your event — is it to educate, inspire or raise awareness? Perhaps most importantly, make sure you come into the selection process with a clear budget range. Friedlander says all of this information will help you narrow down the kind of speaker that would best suit your needs.
Meeting planners also should look for keynote speakers who are engaging, experienced and are as invested in your event as you are. Plotkin says planners should welcome keynote speakers and entertainers who are willing to go “the extra mile” for you. Pre-conference phone calls, creating a video message to be sent to attendees, tailoring their speech for the company, industry and audience should all be expected.
“During the COVID lockdowns, it seems like everyone decided to become a keynote speaker. One thing a planner should be very aware of is making sure the speaker they hire is an experienced professional and not someone who recently decided to hang out their shingle,” Plotkin says. “You want someone who works with an agency as well. Think about it: Anyone can create a website that touts themselves as an effective, experienced keynote speaker. An agency has done the due diligence for you. If they have chosen to work with them, you know you are working with a professional.”
As event organizers identify which speakers may be the best fit for their events, it’s also important to understand what speakers look for in a solid offer,” Friedlander says. “Nearly 80% of speakers we surveyed said that if they feel the event theme and keynote speaking topic are a great fit for their subject-matter expertise, they are highly likely to accept an offer to speak. The next most popular criteria is that it is within their desirable fee range (68.4%). Coming into the discussion with a relevant topic and a matching fee range is your best chance for a solid keynote speaker to say ‘yes’ to your event.”
And when it comes to scheduling, the sooner you book your keynote speaker, the better off you’ll be. Plotkin likes to suggest that as soon as you have your date, venue and theme, the next thing on your list should be booking your keynote speaker. “Remember, the goal of bringing out a speaker is often to set the tone of your event, inspire your audience or educate them on a certain topic,” Plotkin says. “You are investing in this opportunity so give yourself extra time to market the keynote speakers to your attendees.”
Friedlander stresses that this year the demand has increased for in-person events, so he also recommends event planners book as early as possible. “With audiences excited to get back together in person, keynote speakers’ schedules are more packed than ever, so booking earlier helps give you the best chance to secure your ideal speaker. We encourage booking speakers four to six months in advance of your event — or longer, if possible,” Friedlander says.
In the AAE survey, for in-person events, 53.2% of survey respondents said they start looking for keynote speakers between two and six months before their event. Next, 37.3% answered in the six months to a year range, and just 2.8% said they book more than a year before their event. Some are operating on much shorter turnarounds, with 6.8% saying they book within two months of their event or even closer.
“The planning windows were much shorter on average for virtual events, with two to four months being the most popular range, at 30.4%. About 24.7% of respondents said they book between six months to a year before their virtual event,” Friedlander says. “It’s exciting to see in-person events coming back, but these numbers show that this transition is very much still in progress. Regardless of the event format, booking at least four to six months before your event makes it easier on all parties involved.”
When selecting keynote speakers, make sure you understand the difference between “famous” and “great keynote speaker.” For example, too many people call the Mollie Plotkin team requesting someone famous they absolutely want for their event, with no reason other than “we want a big name.” “Just because someone was great at their sport, authored a New York Times bestseller or created a unique business, does not mean they’re a great keynote speaker,” Plotkin says. “With so many excellent speakers to choose from, don’t be misguided by selecting one because your decision maker had stars in their eyes.”
Many of the mistakes the AAE Speakers Bureau sees clients make in the event industry center around communication or lack thereof. For example, in its report, they gained a deeper understanding of the challenges speakers say they face when working with event planners. As Friedlander noted, of the concerns raised, most center around communication, clarity and timeliness (20.6%), and not effectively explaining the audience (13.2%). About 30% of respondents raised a concern about getting requests for donating additional time or other extra appearances that are not negotiated up front. “On a positive note, more than half of the speakers we surveyed said they had no issues partnering with event organizers,” Friedlander says.
While keynote speakers can make an indelible mark on any event and leave attendees wanting more, the entertainment component of an event adds the much-needed fun aspect. From musicians to hypnotists, to comedians, entertainment options for financial and insurance events are as vast as the meetings themselves.
When booking entertainment beyond a keynote speaker, Plotkin says the three most important items a planner should understand are: what a firm offer letter is and how it works, additional requirements that come with producing a private concert or performance, and the necessity of proper allotment of time to make it all happen. “There are so many great options to explore. I’ve had the pleasure of working with countless comedians, musicians, magicians, chefs and mixologists over the years, and I’ve seen firsthand how they can take an event experience to the next level,” Friedlander says.
While you should feel free to get creative with your entertainment choices, as with keynote speakers, it’s also important to, again, keep in mind one of the most important rules of event planning: know your audience. Friedlander says it’s crucial that the type of entertainment you select feels appropriate for your specific attendees and fits with the overall theme of your event. “A great way to keep your event moving and your audience engaged is by also booking an emcee. Each time I’ve attended an event with an emcee, the difference is notable. They bring energy and excitement, facilitate conversations between attendees, and even cohesiveness — as they bridge that gap between sessions,” Friedlander says.
Another piece of advice Friedlander offers is to keep an open mind. Don’t be afraid to at least consider a wide array of entertainers in your search. “Depending on the length of your event, you may even have the time for multiple entertainers throughout the day,” Friedlander says. Including unique forms of entertainment at different times during your event can ensure each attendee gets to experience something new.
That said, be sure to clearly explain who the audience is to your speaker or entertainer. Friedlander stresses that the last thing you want to have happen is having a performer’s comment completely miss the mark for the audience. Understanding the audience and communicating this clearly to your entertainment will help make the performance the best it can be.
Plotkin advises that when you are booking professional entertainers, you must understand the process. You aren’t just bringing out a band or performer, you’re creating a private concert. This includes staging, A/V, bringing in additional power sources, permits and more. All of this takes time and a healthy chunk of the budget. “There are many additional people you’ll be working with, and hiring, in addition to the performer. And, as much as we would like for there to be a menu of options with set prices, it just doesn’t work that way.”
Many event planners and attendees are excited to get back to in-person events, and rightfully so. However, Friedlander strongly believes there will continue to be demand for creating engaging virtual events and experiences. “We have learned so much as an industry about how to make great virtual events, and those skills continue to prove valuable to companies and organizations. Many event professionals are creating a mix of formats to fill their annual calendars so that they continue to cater to audiences with varying comfort levels about traveling,” Friedlander says. “We’re also still seeing many event organizers go with the hybrid approach, offering a live, in-person element combined with a robust virtual experience. This allows you to cast a much wider net when attracting attendees or catering to the preferences of your audiences. It also provides event planners with a built-in contingency plan should the pandemic or another disruption come our way.” I&FMM.