Beware of these traps when booking speakers

To make the most out of their events, planners need to make smarter buying decisions when booking conference speakers and facilitators. This also applies to those booking entertainers.

In any industry, talent and expertise is made available through a variety of channels. Some of these channels are more effective or less expensive than others. Speaker fees can represent a sizeable proportion of an event budget. Large sums of money can be saved when you have a full understanding of how the speaking business is organised. And when you know WHO you’re doing business with.

I’ve heard even highly experienced event organisers and conference producers use the words “agent” and “bureau” incorrectly.

Here are the basics:

Managers, agents and speaker bureaus

  • Managers and agents work for the artiste. They are responsible for the strategic direction of their client’s career, finding them work, negotiating fees and handling most, if not all, elements of each booking they receive for those artistes.
  • Agents normally represent a number of artistes. Managers usually work more closely with a much smaller number of artistes. Both managers and agents are almost always paid on a commission-only basis.

Agents and managers receive commission deducted from the artistes’ fees.


Speaker bureaus are different

  • They work for their clients, NOT the speaker. Speakers or conference facilitators are merely the products they sell to their clients. Bureaus are usually very well connected with artistes, agents, managers and their clients. Their address books positively bulge with available talent.
  • In most cases, bureaus do not represent the artistes they feature on their websites. Some of the larger bureaus do have sole representation agreements with some of the artistes and can earn more from those artistes.
  • However… if you are a client looking for a speaker, such an arrangement is not always good for you because the bureau is more likely to push a speaker who is “solely represented”, even if they are not perfectly suited to your brief.

What about the client brief?
I remember vividly a situation that illustrates this perfectly. Working as a conference facilitator for a global publicly quoted manufacturing company, I was asked to help them source a speaker in the US, where we were staging their global conference.

I sent a detailed brief to a high profile US speaker bureau. Their eventual response (after repeated and increasingly desperate emails from me) included the line “Our favorite motivational speaker is…” They then waxed lyrical about someone who had nothing at all to do with the brief that specifically stated the client wanted someone who was involved in a business ‘turnaround’.

My response was along the lines of “I don’t care who your ‘favorite’ speaker is, please supply someone who fits the needs of my client.” A terse reply came back. “We are unable to help you.”

This happened only one day before a scheduled meeting with the CEO who wanted to know how the search was progressing. I was stressed. So I contacted Amanda Gore, an outstanding Australian speaker who was wowing audiences in the US at the time.

Amanda instantly put me in touch with Brian Palmer at the National Speaker Bureau. Within hours Brian took the brief, found the perfect speaker who was on-topic, within budget and available. The speaker was contracted for the meeting and went on to do an excellent job.

In North America, bureaus charge the same fee you’d pay if you contacted a speaker direct. Their fees, as with agents and managers are deducted from the artistes’ fee. For an artiste, they negotiate the level of commission they are prepared to pay the bureau based on how much business is directed their way.

By contrast, when you hire a speaker via a UK or European speaker bureau, their fee is almost always added on top of the artistes’ fee. Commissions of 20-25 per cent are standard. Unscrupulous bureaus have been known to charge their clients double or even triple what they will pay the speaker.

UK and European bureaus are therefore the most expensive way to hire on-stage talent. But does that mean you should avoid working with UK/European speaker bureaus?

Absolutely not.

The good ones provide their clients with a massive choice of high-quality speakers. They also guide client choices by offering outstanding advice based on many years experience in the industry – and charge about 20-25 per cent in commission.

Speakers who work with bureaus are probably the most reliable source of referrals.

Creative agencies
Also be aware that if you are working with a creative agency (production, AV, PR or live communications) they may offer to source speakers for you. Some will also add a hefty mark-up to the speaker fee. This means that in some cases a speakers’ fee will be subject to two commissions; the first by a bureau, and then by the creative agency. Also consider that the artiste may be represented by an agent who will then deduct their own commission of, say, 20 per cent.

Speakers don’t always receive what you have to pay!

Options to consider

  • If budget is not a consideration, or you don’t have time to do your own research, contact a trusted speaker bureau so they can source who you need.
  • Alternatively, if you know the name of the speaker you wish to book, find their personal website, Twitter account, Facebook page or LinkedIn profile and contact them direct.
  • If you can’t find their personal contact details, search for their agent or business manager. However, make sure you’re not misled into thinking you’re contacting someone direct, when in fact you’re being directed elsewhere. For example, if you search for my name “Roy Sheppard” you may find a Google Ad that looks as though it links to me, because it states “Author & Conference Moderator Direct…” I have no connection with that company. Nor do I want to if that’s how they conduct their business!

Get the best deal
Experienced producers and event managers tell me when they have some idea of the type of speaker or topic you’re looking for but don’t know who to choose, they will often visit speaker bureau sites, create a shortlist of potential speakers and then try to find their direct contact details or shop around to different bureau to get the best deal.

Roy Sheppard is a conference moderator who runs Facilitator Expert. He is a former BBC TV anchorman and radio talk-show host

For more, see our feature on hiring and working with celebrities

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