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Business Partnering

A conversation with Maurice “Moe” Desmarais

Business PartneringA 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.

Joseph Thompson

A conversation with Joseph Thompson

Joseph ThompsonA conversation about hiring professional speakers with Joseph Thompson, CEO at Thompson Management Associates, LLC, ( TMA ) Annapolis, MD. 

Interviewed by Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE.

 

ER: How many client organizations does TMA manage?

JT: We manage four different not-for-profit trade associations and two educational alliances sponsored by 44 wholesale trade associations.

ER: For how long have you been hiring professional speakers?

JT: I’ve been hiring speakers for about 20 years.

ER: Over the last five years, what has been the fee range of the speakers that you’ve hired for your various associations?

JT: I’ve used speakers at fees as low as $3,000 and up to $25,000. Fees are relative to the event and my client’s needs.

ER: Who have you recently hired at $25,000?

JT: One client has hired Jeffrey Gitomer on two occasions.

ER: How do you approach hiring a professional speaker?

JT: Once I’ve decided to consider a speaker, based upon referrals or personal observation, I try to weed through the issues I don’t want to put up with, such as canned or irrelevant topics or presentations or the degree to which a speaker will do what they say they will do. Then I consider the minimum performance that I’ll accept, and finally, what makes me happy as to the speaker’s attitude, style, and content.

ER: Would you expand on your last thought?

JT: What makes me happy with a speaker encompasses four basic areas:

  1. When my understanding of the content that the speaker offers matches with what I believe my client needs.
  2. A speaker that has the personality to keep the audience awake.
  3. Make my life easier, I don’t want to receive a 12-page pre-program questionnaire—I’ll never get to it.
  4. Beyond simply delivering content, I prefer speakers when they make the extra effort to connect with the audience. This is generally done through interviewing audience members and visiting their Web Sites prior to the talk. Then the speaker will better know what’s going on in the industry and be able to better speak to the needs and issues of my client’s members. Additionally, I appreciate a speaker putting in a bit more effort than just showing up, speaking, and hitting the road. Following up their presentation with additional outreach to the attendees is always appreciated, even if it’s just posting their handouts on their web site for audience access afterwards.

ER: How do you generally find the professional speakers that you hire?

JT: Mostly I contact the speaker direct based on a recommendation from a colleague or prior contact when they have called my office.  I do occasionally use speaker bureaus, mostly when a particular speaker prefers that method or if they have an exclusive arrangement with a bureau. Sometimes I see a speaker at an event where they are showcasing for a particular bureau. In that situation, I’ll book through the sponsoring bureau.

ER: What else do you do in the area of selecting speakers?

JT: I’m involved with the 20 year-old Association Education Alliance (AEA) where we, association executives, gather twice a year and one of the topics covered is speakers—participants offer their feedback on speakers they’ve recently hired. The AEA also maintains a speaker rating listing in the “members only” section of our web site. Additionally, I’m active with NAW, the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors, where they also have a similar speaker listing that includes ratings. In situations where I’m not familiar with a speaker, third party endorsements are very important.

ER: What is your lead time before an event for selecting a professional speaker?

JT: In most cases it is from six to twelve months before the event that I need to select and hire my speaker.

ER: What role does the Internet play in your speaker search and selection process?

JT: First, speakers need to have a Web Site that offers more than fluff. I tend to check out the bio section to determine if the speaker has the depth of knowledge to serve my group. I also pay close attention to the “clients” section, especially when the planner’s contact information is included—frequently, I will call the planner and talk to them about the speaker’s performance. Then the program descriptions must be descriptive enough to give me a good idea as to what the speaker will deliver. And last, I hate crummy video. Speakers should spend the money to have quality clips, five minutes is fine, on their Websites. I’d rather watch high quality studio video than low quality live video with awful sound and jumpy and grainy frames.

ER: Why do you hire professional speakers rather than to use industry speakers that come to you at little or no cost?

JT: First, because they are professionals. Industry speakers generally have excellent content that is specific to the needs of my audiences; however they are generally not skilled presenters. For some of the breakout sessions, industry speakers are the best choice. For other sessions, especially general sessions or keynotes, I want the commitment that a professional speaker brings to the platform—they add an emotional element rarely found in industry speakers.

ER: What do you expect of professional speakers?

JT: I expect them to be on time, delivering the right content and humor for my audience at that particular point in time. I want them to share their passion and knowledge in a way that moves my audience members. I expect a professional speaker to keep my audience interested and engaged for the duration of their talk. It’s all about a speaker connecting with his or her audience, that’s what makes me, and my members, happy.

ER: Tell me about your organizational process for selecting speakers.

JT: Unlike a number of trade associations that use the committee process, my clients (trade associations) trust that the association management staff, I and the associates, will select the right speaker for their meetings. We’ve been doing this successfully for quite a number of years. Each event is crafted differently and may require using recommendations, bureau catalogs, or an online search to find the correct speaker.

ER: In dealing with you, what could a speaker do to create an advantage for themselves over another speaker?

JT: Like all of my peers, my time is at a premium – do the translation for me. Spend time at the Websites of the associations that I manage, visit the Web Sites of some of the members and figure out for me how your presentation will make a difference in the lives of my meeting attendees—don’t expect me to figure it out from cryptic marketing materials. The speaker that helps me to cut through the clutter by addressing how they can truly meet my members’ needs has the upper hand in my book.

ER: What is the best way for a speaker to initiate contact with you?

JT: Let me know that you understand my client’s industry and issues and how you are able to deliver compelling business value through your presentation. By doing your research before you call me, you send a message loud and clear that you have something of value to share. Your Web Site is mostly to legitimize yourself to me and present yourself in a way that assures me that you can deliver on your promises. And finally, when listing you own clients on your web site; include a brief description of their industry or profession as well as the types of content that you presented.  

ER: Joe, Thank you so much for your time and insight