The Speaker Industry Rises to the Challenge

By: Jeanne-Marie Robillard

What words would you use to describe the silver lining of the pandemic?

Personally, in the first two months, the words that came to my mind were not to be repeated in polite company. The pandemic truly decimated the meetings and conference industry and we all felt it. Hard.

However, now that we have the fourth month under our collective belts, I have many positive words to describe how our speaker-clients and our booking-clients have handled things: agility, collaboration, innovation, solidarity, partnerships, belief, compassion, creativity, kindness, generosity, and the list goes on. So much good has come out of an unexpected hardship. I couldn’t be prouder to be part of the association community.

In the early weeks, it was very challenging to share with our speakers that they wouldn’t have work for the foreseeable future. For many of our speakers, this is their only source of income and many have families. It was disheartening to make call after call, sharing the disappointing news of yet another cancelled or postponed event.

Having said this, the conversations that resulted were healthy, supportive and kind. Our team at National Speakers Bureau (NSB) worked tirelessly to adapt the contracts with our buyers. These were also positive conversations. Thankfully, most speaker contracts were postponed to a later date or converted into virtual opportunities. I have rarely felt more grateful to work with such solution-focussed people. Even as a bureau in business for almost 50 years, we had never previously encountered this sort of challenge and everyone worked together to resolve things.

Currently, our bureau is mostly booking virtual speaker presentations. This has required us to be agile and – to use an overused word these days – to pivot. Same is true for the speakers. Technology has been our friend during these times and speakers are amongst the most creative in adapting their offerings to the virtual space. NSB was quick to identify which speakers would be best suited for this shift. Some speakers invested in the construction of professional studios in their garages or basements, converting these spaces into high-tech environments with state-of-the-art lighting and sound, alongside high-end back-up systems to ensure that bandwidth is not lost during a presentation. To support speakers, NSB offers a “Do’s & Don’t’s” page for each speaker booked, ensuring that the presentation is seamless for attendees.

Our speakers see this time as one of opportunity and they continue to bring hope and optimism to their audiences, while offering a greater intimacy and accessibility than some live events. The formats of their offerings are more flexible than ever before, offering pre-recorded segments to help market the events, alongside a full presentation, a Q&A session with perhaps a fireside chat.. It has been fun to create a customized experience for each association, government or corporate buyer.

The speakers’ value stays the same as pre-Covid and all speakers continue to put as much work into the pre-event calls and customization research, individualized to each engagement. Of course, not having to travel does allow us, on a case-by-case basis, to offer a fee reduction. With some speakers offering fee reductions, this is a great time for organizations to book someone they could not afford in the past. There are many opportunities out there, as value of the speaker experience has not changed. As our CEO, Theresa Beenken, often says, “the speakers fee is not for the hour keynote, but rather for their lifetime of achievements, experience and leadership leading up to that hour and their ability to distill it into info that helps the audience”.

Another area that requires more attention is that of contracts. At NSB, we are working closely with our buyer-clients to ensure that everyone, including the speaker, is well protected. It is a more collaborative approach to contracting than in the past and, so far, it is working very well.

NSB has had to be creative, too. For example, one of our new offerings is a series entitled “NSB@Home” which is a customized grouping of 4-6 speakers that can be scheduled based on the buyers’ personal needs. The segments are designed to be of interest to the entire household. The idea is that if we are directed to stay at home, why not offer a creative approach for members to further bond with their families, partners and/or roommates. Imagine setting up an engaging presentation from an astronaut or an Olympian at the end of the work day, then pulling out the talking points and take-aways, followed by a lively discussion at dinner. We can even design the program to cover parts of the elementary and secondary curriculum. This series has been offered as a special gift that is sponsored by a corporate association member for the entire membership.

Many of our planner clients are also getting creative. Without knowing what the future will hold, some are planning hybrid events, while others, like the CSAE National Conference, are doing a great job of designing a multi-month experience. Some of the most popular topics these days are healthcare, future trends, innovative workplaces and wellness and mental health.

 I’d like to ponder one last word:  UNITY.

These days, we are often hearing the phrase: “we’re in this together, tous ensemble”.

Ironic that this happens to be one of the core tenets of associations. I truly believe that, together, we’ll come out of this stronger.

Bon courage, stay well et au plaisir de se revoir très bientôt!

Jeanne-Marie loves matching inspirational messages to audiences. For her, there’s nothing like enjoying a live experience, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the audience and sharing an “ah-ha” moment with everyone in the room, at the exact same time. Before joining the National Speakers Bureau in 2001, she spent 15 years representing performing artists and companies like the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company. At National Speakers Bureau, Jeanne-Marie is helping to create the ‘wow’ factor. She strives to have each speaker generate such an impact that when the audience leaves they’re excited about repeating what they heard. She calls this the ripple effect. When Jeanne-Marie isn’t creating ripples, she’s a busy mom and wife. She enjoys reading, watercolours, (and traveling times & entertaining, in normal times). Jeanne-Marie also speaks three languages; English, French and Spanish.