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Speaker Surprises

About the last thing a program planner wants to happen in the heat and tension of putting a meeting together is … a surprise. They are occasionally going to pop up, but with careful planning and working with a professional bureau, most of them can be avoided.

Here are a few we have encountered over the years.

Working Directly with Speakers: Most planners that we have become friends with will say this can be right up there with such tremors like cancellations of program, blizzards, and food poisoning. Of course you might expect a bureau to say that, but let us explain why. Most speakers tend to be creative, right brain people with little time or use for such things as calendars and contracts. The details of the date you are talking to them about might be written down on the envelope of last month’s heating bill because they have forgotten for the third time today where they put their date book. Speakers usually don’t send out contracts detailing responsibilities and think they can be in two places in one day. They have adapted one program that universally fits anyone’s needs, and can mentally convert a keynote address into a full-day seminar faster than you can write down the title. Great brochures and ten minute, edited videos are not guarantees of quality.

We are not saying that speakers without bureaus are never any good, because some are excellent. What we are saying is that if you are going to be adversely surprised by a speaker, it most likely will be by one who has not achieved the status of working with a bureau. Speaker bureaus’ reputations are too critical to be booking dark horses or hopefuls.

No Shows: What happens when you’re working directly with a speaker and they don’t show up or miss their plane? If you’re lucky, the speaker might have a few “friends” they could recommend. Sometimes that person will fit right in. Sometimes, however, the canceling speaker is trying harder to scratch the back of another speaker who earlier scratched theirs. In that case you might get a pretty good speaker, but their presentation doesn’t match up with the content or theme you worked so hard to establish. If, on the other hand, you are working through a bureau, instant and unlimited attention would be standing by to correct the problem. Our speakers and clients not only have our office phone number, but our home number, plus two cellular numbers as well. We can then step in and provide an alternative speaker who can still do the job you expected and deserve.

Expenses: When working with a bureau, our contracts cover all areas of expected expenses. Our speakers know what is acceptable and what is not. We even peruse their expenses bills before sending them on to you. Without a bureau or a contract you might well find yourself paying for a first-class ticket, a massage, a late night video, inflated workbook reproduction costs, and a host of other expense surprises that can wreak havoc on the best planned budget.

Hawking Materials: Some meeting planners don’t mind speakers selling books, tapes, videos, and other things while they are at the conference site. Some think it enhances the image of the chosen speaker. Some look at it as further enrichment for the attendees. However, very few planners want to be surprised by a speaker who spends 20% of their speaking time selling their goods. A Canadian client once told us about a conference they were taping themselves by an outside audio company, only to find the speaker setting up his own table right down the hall, selling the same speech title at half the price of the association’s. And the speaker had the audacity to do so even though he had signed a release agreement allowing the group to tape and sell his presentation.

If you allow a speaker to sell their materials, instruct them to do so in a modest and tasteful manner. A good speaker can make an audience aware of those materials in one or two simple sentences. We know one speaker who gives away a tape at the very beginning of his keynote to the first person who sits down in the front row of the room and then simply states, “People, understand one thing, I don’t sell materials during my presentations. That table in the back of the room is a fundraising program for indigent parents with two kids in college and it is completely self-service.” He’s quick, light-hearted, and non-intrusive.

Too Many Bureaus: Some planners like to play the field with bureaus rather than developing a close relationship with one or two. That’s a call only you can make, but sometimes you can be caught off guard when two or three bureaus send you their recommendations only for you to find out that all three have suggested the same speaker. Now, what do you do? There is no easy way around this problem, and it’s best if you simply address it openly and as soon as possible. Our suggestion is to pick which bureau you have the highest comfort level with and inform the other bureaus immediately of both your choice of speaker and bureau. We all know that duplications will happen, and that we can’t expect you to select us every time. The other alternative would be to ask bureaus to share the booking. That can become very confusing and has a few of its own surprises. Just remember, the more bureaus you choose to work with, the more potential of complications and confusion.

Program Insurance: Because of particular themes or issues that affect conference attendees, many planners are asked to get certain political personalities to address their convention. A good press agent never wants to turn away constituents or the opportunity for their boss to have a platform before several thousand individuals, so they often give you a guarded, conditional “yes.” When this happens, realize that the cancellation rate is over 50% at best. Many times the arrival time can easily get changed by the minute. And we all know the “sweat bath” that program planners go through waiting for some politician who is being interviewed at the airport while 1000 people are in the auditorium looking at an empty podium. If you have ever experienced this “sweat bath” you might well want to think about a new product our bureau is offering: Program Insurance. What we offer is a back-up speaker who is willing to put your date on hold at a reduced fee. If they are put on stand-by but don’t have to be on site, that gives you their cheapest rate. Then, if your speaker cancels a day before, your second speaker is ready to fly in and assume the assignment. If you want the speaker to be on site, you can lock them in for a higher rate but still below their normal fee. If the politician shows up on time, you still pay that rate. If the special guest cancels at the last moment, your back-up goes on for a slightly higher rate but still below their normal fee. Sure, like all insurance programs, it costs you some money, but if you want to guarantee a good program and a great review, this insurance policy is work considering. The thing to remember is that even with the insurance, the total cost is still going to be less than what it would be if you had hired that speaker in the first place without considering the politician.

The Agricultural Speakers Network is an excellent resource for planners. Their staff was instrumental in helping select a speaker for our convention that fit the topic and budget. We recently had Christopher Carter kick-off our annual convention and he knocked it out of the park with his entertaining and informative presentation. I highly recommend both Christopher and the Agricultural Speakers Network.
Director of Meetings and Conventions Farm Equipment Manufacturers Association