Successful Meetings: When It Comes to Speakers, Reliability Is Key

Originally Published in Successful Meetings | June 16, 2011 | By Leo Jackson

Generally, no one can predict a scandal enveloping a speaker. If the accusations against Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson are true, he managed to trick senior commanders of the U.S. Military as well as 60 Minutes, which had spent months sending crews into war zones to find people who could poke holes in his story. That’s outside the purview of a speakers bureau. Nor could anyone be expected to know something like the fact that former California Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger had an affair and child with an employee a decade ago and that his marriage and reputation were going to implode last month.

But the speakers bureau world is a small one, says Andrea Gold, president of Tuscon, AZ-based Gold Stars Speakers Bureau. “We talk about people not showing up. Word gets around quickly.”

Many years ago, Gold recalls, a speaker she had booked at a corporate event called the day before to say that his flight had been canceled. “I had two backup speakers lined up who could have stepped in, but he assured me he could catch a flight the next morning and get there in time,” she says. “He missed his morning flight. He did not hold up his end of the bargain, and it cost me a client. To this day, I do not work with this speaker.”

On the other hand, Gold says, she had Nick Arnette booked as a speaker at a client company’s regional meeting in South Dakota on September 12, 2001. “On 9/11, everything came to a standstill,” she notes, so the speaker couldn’t fly—which obviously is a reasonable cause to miss the gig. But because the meeting was a regional one, with most attendees within driving distance, it was not canceled. “Arnette was visiting his parents in Colorado,” Gold says. “He borrowed a car from his folks and drove to South Dakota. That is a man of commitment and accountability.”

Of course, speakers’ representatives want that reputation, too. While there generally is language in a contract about controversy surrounding a speaker, Davis says, “this is where relationships are everything. If I had a long-term client and they had booked a speaker with me, and a controversy came up, obviously I’d do everything I could to make it right so that everybody was happy.”

Beyond knowing who is available and appropriate to fill in on a specific topic or type of job, speakers bureaus have relationships with each other, Davis notes. Back when she started her business, one of her clients had a speaker booked through another bureau. When that speaker had a death in the family and couldn’t make it, the bureau called Davis, who was local to the area where the event was happening. “I happened to know someone who was going to be in the area,” Davis says. “You really expand your team of resources with those relationships.”

Replacing an Unpaid Speaker

Not all speakers are paid for their time, and that takes the speakers bureau out of the equation. Particularly at industry trade shows and educational events, being asked to speak is considered an honor—a way to burnish a resume, become better known and respected by peers, and get an all-expenses paid trip to a convention the speaker would have attended anyway. But non-professional speakers can get sick, have a family emergency, or have their flight canceled, just like professionals do. And an important client meeting or other work-related issue can cause them to cancel as well.

Dealing with this successfully requires planning ahead, says Paul Mandell, CEO of Consero, a Bethesda, MD-based firm that puts together small, education-intensive events for high-level executives in the legal and IT industries. “If the first time you think about it is when it happens, it’s too late,” he says. “You have to have a back-up plan in place. If you have a panel discussion with two, three, or four participants, ensure that you have someone else who is comfortable enough to fill in, or that others on the panel can cover the material that speaker was going to bring. If it’s a single speaker, ensure you have spoken to someone participating who can act as an unofficial back-up.”

If you’ve got a little more time, even a week or two, throw the job of finding a replacement back to the canceling speaker, suggests Donna Oldenburg, conference director of the Motivation Show, which takes place in Chicago in October. “I ask, ‘How can you help me find someone else, from your organization,’ for example,” Oldenburg says. “Most of the time, if someone is canceling, they feel worse than you, and they will help.”

And while delays can sometimes be dealt with by shuffling session schedules, Oldenburg keeps a list of people in the area of the show who are good speakers on the topic. “There also are people in any industry who are good speakers who can always step in,” she says. “We have not had a lot of cancellations. You do get changes, but you don’t get down to no one being there.”

Still, Oldenburg had a scare at the 2010 Motivation Show with one of the few speakers it is very hard to replace. Dave Rife, owner and executive board member of White Castle Management Co., was scheduled as a keynote luncheon speaker and called the day before to say he had a bad flu and might not be able to make it, Oldenburg recalled. “That’s not a session you can shuffle,” she says.

In fact, Rife showed up and was great despite being ill, Oldenburg says. But he had already arranged for his right-hand man at the company to replace him if needed, she notes.

Weather and Illness

“You also need to be aware of the weather,” says Gold, noting that delays in large hubs like Dallas or Chicago can cause delays to ripple throughout the country. “If there are going to be travel delays, the client should offer to bring the speaker in earlier. It is not advisable to be cheap about that hotel room for an extra night.”

Flying a speaker in the day before is standard practice at Carlson Marketing, says Bonnie Boisner, the firm’s vice president of client operations, business loyalty. They also assign a staffer to pick up key speakers at the airport and shepherd them to the event.

Gold adds that it is also important for planners to have the speaker’s full travel itinerary, so they are aware of potential problems at either end or at a layover point.

“Weather is key; weather is everything,” says Gail Davis, president of Gail Davis & Associates speakers bureau and president of the International Association of Speakers Bureaus. “Last year, Atlanta had snowstorms. Atlanta! Who’s ever heard of that?”

At the time, Davis had Atlanta-based customer loyalty expert Lisa Ford booked to speak in Hawaii. The day before the event, she got a call from the president of Carlsbad, CA-based Speakers Office, which represents Ford. “She says, as you know, you have Lisa Ford scheduled to speak in Hawaii. There are snowstorms in Atlanta; they are canceling flights. There’s a slight possibility Lisa might not be able to get out of Atlanta. But Dr. Tony Alessandra, who also speaks on customer loyalty, is on the West Coast. We have flights scheduled, he is briefed and ready to go in the event she can’t get out.”

Illness is another factor that can’t really be planned for. While Oldenburg got lucky at the Motivation Show last year, the Bucknell Forum was not so lucky with theoretical physicist and popular author Brian Greene, who came down with the flu shortly before a scheduled appearance this February. “He couldn’t help being sick,” says Pete Mackey, Bucknell University’s vice president of communications and chair of its Speakers Forum Task Force, which hires speakers and plans the events. “We found another date that worked for him and our calendar. He was a smashing success”—in April.