A conversation about hiring professional speakers with Maurice “Moe” Desmarais, Executive Vice President, SmithBucklin Association Management, Chicago, IL.
Interviewed by Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE.
ER: Moe, how was it that you got into the association management industry?
MD: In the early 1970s I was a part-time instructor for the Professional Insurance Agents Association and they ended up offering me a job, Director of Education and Convention Services. After that I held the position of executive director for the American Supply Association and later President of Association Management Services, an association management company located in Massachusetts . For the last 10 years I’ve been with SmithBucklin, an association management company with 220 client associations.
ER: At SmithBucklin, what do you currently do?
MD: I’m the Executive VP for three associations; (contracting) Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI), (distribution) the North American Association of Floor Covering Distributors (NAFCD), and (manufacturing) Battery Council International (BCI) and a senior director at SmithBucklin.
ER: What drives you crazy about working with professional speakers?
MD: When a speaker walks into the meeting room and has a fit that things are not set up how he or she wants them. This even happened right in front of me several years ago when I gave a presentation to the New England NSA Chapter. The other speaker had an “emotional breakdown” about the room. Sometimes for a variety of reasons, the meeting room might have to be a bit different from what one desires. A professional should be flexible enough to adjust.
Second, when a speaker is not timely in getting program descriptions, photos, and other requested information we request to us when needed. Third is when a speaker that does not take the time to learn about his or her audience. As an example, the Battery Council audience members are manufacturers of large lead acid batteries, not the batteries that go in your watch or flashlight. It makes for a better presentation when the speaker knows that, and doesn’t provide examples that don’t fit the audience. A speaker loses credibility when he/she is not properly prepared to address his audience.
ER: Currently, what is your process for selecting professional speakers?
MD: First, I’d like to differentiate between professional societies and trade associations. Professional societies tend to be more volunteer-driven when selecting speakers as they are looking for specific technical information and trade associations more staff driven in speaker selection. For BSCAI, we generally hire keynoters that are inspirational or customer service driven and breakout speakers that are content driven and professionals within their industry. There is a volunteer committee that will suggest topics. The paid staff then implements their recommendations.
At SmithBucklin we have the luxury of a substantial experienced convention services department that maintains an in depth speaker list so finding the right speaker(s) is not terribly difficult. Since I administer a manufacturing and distribution association, I participate in both “NAW” National Association of Wholesale-distributors and “ NAM ” National Association of Manufacturers. They both maintain list serves where I can put out a question about a specific speaker or inquire about a speaker on a specific topic. I find it very helpful to receive speaker information from my colleagues from other associations.
ER: Tell me more about the trade associations.
MD: In the past with trade associations, we’d usually start on the following year’s meeting just after the current year’s event. The economy has caused us to have shorter lead times in selecting venues and shrinking meeting length. This reality has caused shorten lead times in selecting speakers. Today, we are dealing with fewer attendees at meetings so meeting cost is such a huge issue and I expect budgets to remain challenging through 2010.
ER: Any specific industry trends that you have noticed?
MD: Trade associations are currently focused on economy, cost reduction, and green topics. Motivational speakers are currently taking a beating, unless they are specifically tied to a particular industry. Software user group meetings have just recently started to see an attendance drop-off. On the bright side, healthcare groups seem to remain solid in attendance numbers.
ER: What changes have you seen recently in professional speaker fees with the groups you manage?
MD: Huge changes. From 2006-2008, budgets for keynote speakers ranged from $10,000 to $35,000 and now for 2009-2010, the budgets are basically being cut in half. We are trying to ease the pain for speakers a bit by trying to add additional value to the contracts by offering expo booths, book sales and signings, and article placement in our magazines.
ER: What about speakers that are presenting break out and concurrent sessions?
MD: The same pattern follows, from 2006-2008, we’d generally pay $5,000 to $15,000 for those sessions. For the 2009-2010, are budgets are half. All of the SmithBucklin account executives have been instructed to ask speakers to work within our budgets. Some speakers agree and some do not.
ER: Tell me about the type of professional speakers you are currently hiring.
MD: As I stated earlier, unless a motivational speaker has very specific content or positioned him or herself in an industry, they are not getting hired. Also less of the entertainment type speakers are being considered because the volunteer leadership and attendees are thinking about survival in this economy. Meeting attendees want specific answers to their problems and challenges. In 2009 & 2010, it is content, content, content!
ER: How can a professional speaker start to build a speaker relationship with SmithBucklin?
MD: There are four avenues to building relationships with us: first, connect with our “CTS” Convention Tradeshow Services who in some cases are responsible for speaker coordination. Second, is our “EPS” Education Program Services staff who handles a large volume of our speaker contracts. And third is to connect directly with the account executive, the executive director, of our smaller client associations. The fourth is to visit us. While knocking on doors might be time consuming, the benefits are amazing. We receive so much direct mail and cold calling, you need to differentiate yourself from the masses.
ER: Moe, what are your thoughts about working with speakers directly verses through bureaus?
MD: I’m not booking many speakers through bureaus these days. I’d prefer to work directly with a speaker, eliminating that third party filter. The third party filter tends to slow things down a bit and we want our speakers to have direct contact with the leadership so that they understand who they are delivering their message to.
ER: How important is a professional speaker’s web site today?
MD: I’ll generally take a look at their site, and perhaps the video clips, testimonials, etc but their web site is only part of the criteria for selection and definitely not the final determination.
ER: When you have narrowed your speaker selection down to the final two or three, what’s the determining factor?
MD: In the past there was more of an even weighing of content and price. However, today the weight leans more toward price. The speaker that offers more value added gets pushed up in consideration.
ER: Since value added is important, are you asking speakers to do more at your events?
MD: Yes we are. With an across the board 50% budget cut, if a speaker can fill more slots in the program (keynote and breakout) that is very helpful. That reduces our total travel, AV, and lodging costs as well.
ER: What makes a professional desirable to you?
MD: Here’s my partial List:
- Rich content
- Easy to work with
- Accountability in getting materials to us on time
- Learning about the industry
- Stays a while after the talk rather than running for the door
- Minimal travel cost
- Minimal AV requests
- Multi-day presentations at my meetings; having the ability to do more than an hour and the skills to be interactive enough to hold an audiences attention for several hours
ER: Moe, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with the members of the National Speakers Association.