POSTED MARCH 21 2001
It's best to turn the event over to the experts, says Michael Becket
YOU want to organise a conference and make it a really appealing event that everybody will remember with approval and will raise the company's prestige.
Finding a venue is no problem - everybody knows of halls and hotels with the appropriate sort of space, and the people there can probably help with furniture and even displays. The problem comes if you want a really good keynote speaker to add not just glitter to the occasion but a bit of substance and insight. Where is such a person to be found?
Turn to Speakers' agents in the Central London Yellow Pages and it advises looking under Conference facilities, Corporate Entertainment, Educational Services or Entertainment agencies. These categories are not much more help. Ten pages of conference facilities fail to include many of the large speakers' agencies, even the ones in London. Corporate entertainment has advertisements for lap-dancers and adventure events but not speakers.
One answer, according to Jeremy Lee of speakers' agency JLA, is to hand the event over to a major production company, which would certainly know the better agencies. Finding one sounds just as daunting but, as Mr Lee points out, most executives have been to a conference, or know another company which has organised one, or can turn to their trade body for help.
Getting a professional organiser might in any case be a good idea since conferences in Britain have become very slick and polished occasions - although on the Continent there are still the old-style events with a flip-chart to provide excitement. So there is a need to get expert help to prevent the occasion looking amateurish. There are some substantial companies in this area such as Imagination, Caribiner or HP:ICM which know where to turn.
There is still a need to sort out just what sort of speaker would be appropriate. Cheryl Goldhill of London's Speakers' Corner agrees that the three main categories currently in demand are e-trade, motivation and general business.
Brendan Barns, of Speakers for Business, said motivation is last year's topic. This year, in his experience, demand has been for variants on a theme: e-commerce, the future of business and the impact of technology. The motivational type includes gold-medal sportsmen, fearless explorers like Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and other specialists in overcoming adversity.
A sub-set of this category is the expert in teamwork and how to persuade people to co-operate. The general business group covers management gurus of all types and varying levels of plausibility. Alex Krywald of Celebrity Speakers reckons most of the big experts he books tend to be American and cost between $5,000 and over $100,000.
At the top end of the fee range is when the distinguished speaker is acting almost as a management consultant, giving advice on the company's own plans and so having to do quite a lot of preparatory work.
Mr Lee pointed out that some of the big American gurus charge similar sorts of fees without the consultancy and believes that to be "a total waste of money". But then you do not always get what you pay for, Miss Goldhill reckoned.
On e-commerce, for instance, Mr Lee said you can get speakers keen to get their name and message better known, and who will therefore speak for nothing. Then there are some relatively unknown but experienced speakers who know what they are talking about who will cost about £2,000 to £5,000.
The better the name is known the greater the cost - although most of the stars vary their charge according to the appeal of the people, the topic, the site and the timing. Companies looking for a biggish name as a draw, and rather less interested in the substance of the talk, might go to last year's stars because as they fall from fashion their fee also declines.
Mr Krywald, like the others, is concerned that "there is a tremendous shortage of experts". Mr Barns agrees that "finding good speakers who can put forward the arguments in a humorous and inspirational way is quite difficult".
What makes it harder is that "clients do like speakers who have been at the cutting edge rather than theorists and academics". That means using successful businessmen who are not really bothered about the fee but take it all the same.
All of which tends to show it may turn out to be easier to find the speaker than to find the money for pay him.