CELEBRITY CHAIRS

Does the audience have any questions?” must be one of the most repeated, and dreaded, phrases filling conference centres throughout the country. There is typically no response. Audiences remain mute, hands stay down and the conference speakers slink quietly off the stage.

As one organiser said recently: “Conferences can be pretty bland. They can be just a whole package of glossy messages with pretty pictures and away you go. For the cost and time involved, people deserve, and nowadays expect, a better return.”

One obvious solution against ineffective conferences is to hire facilitators to spice up the proceedings by actively encouraging two-way discussions between the stage and the audience. Increasingly, these chairpeople are celebrities. Don’t get the wrong idea – one can’t quite picture Will Carling or Barbara Windsor chairing a group of high-level finance executives about worldwide equity markets.

Rather, these star attractions are likely to be television and radio current affairs presenters. Many household names including Michael Buerk, John Humphreys, Peter Jay, Nick Ross and Valerie Singleton are now engaged by conference organisers as independent catalysts. More and more, organisers recognise the value of having an impartial voice onstage, and in the audience, to guide discussion, provoke stimulating debate and take question and answer sessions.

Such celebrity chairpeople represent a new spirit of openness in business where everyone benefits. Nicky Havelaar, director of Crown Business Communications, says: “The people who are staging the conference get their message across by bringing in a facilitator and the audience feels that if the facilitator does the job properly. He will have taken an independent view and will put into words what the audience is thinking. As soon as he starts to do that, the audience opens up. He’s taken the front-line attack and the audience can follow behind. You tend to get a better idea of what people are thinking.”

Using well-known conference facilitators is therefore ideal for employee communications where the management board meets with its personnel. It is equally useful for trade or professional associations and for international meetings of senior managers from within a single global company. For example, John Humphreys has chaired a conference for IBM, Nick Ross for Apple Computer executives in Amsterdam, Peter Jay a Foreign Exchange meeting and Valerie Singleton a Blackhorse Life conference. Of the business communications groups polled in this article, most indicated that one fifth to one third of conferences use news presenters to chair.

More often than not, audiences are freed from the shackles of timidity. As Laurence Croneen, director of sales and marketing at Spectrum Communications says: “Quite often the audience is scared of asking critical questions. There is a desire to pose questions which may be fulfilled by the chairperson. He can walk away at the end of the day and doesn’t care if he’s put someone’s nose out of joint. Whilst we don’t want to see anyone being given a pummelling on stage, I think the notion of interactivity, of two-way dialogue, means the proceedings are a bit more real.”

Business-to-business communications group, The Presentation Company, also recommends celebrity presenters to its clients. As managing director Miles Johnson says, “Nick Ross is used to thinking of 750 million different things at once in front of a lot of people, keeping cool and managing responses. Well-known presenters tend to add credibility. They don’t need to play to the board of the Post Office or whoever, and they don’t need to kowtow to anybody. Also, they add a bit of sex appeal and excitement. Everybody likes to go home and say I shook hands with Michael Buerk today – it adds a bit of pizzazz.”

The charm factor does add a special touch to what could be a lacklustre conference. Croneen has seen Humphreys (presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today and BBC1’s On The Record) and Ross (presenter of BBC2’s Westminster Live, BBC1’s Crime Watch UK and Radio 4’s Call Nick Ross) in action many times and says they are masters at gauging the temperature of an audience, adding “a quick corporate joke” when necessary. “Just an understanding of how John Humphreys got on that morning when he was talking with the Prime Minister relaxes the audience and in itself is a complete art.”

Taking sides with the audience might seem like an ideal way to alienate clients but the long-term benefits are worthwhile as Nick Ross explains: “It’s not a game where you’re going out just to get the right messages. Six months later you must have moved things in a direction so that the company is more united, where people are pushing in the same direction together. If not, it’s been a waste of money.”

Not everyone, however, is convinced that celebrity presenters make ideal conference chairpeople. Many conferences deal with specialised or hi-tech subjects requiring chairpeople with expert knowledge which some mainstream television and radio presenters lack. For example, the music conference Mifem and television conference Mipcom, both held annually in Cannes, only use journalists from the specialised trade press. The Paris-based conference manager for both events, Reed Midem’s Marianne Rollet explains: “As our conferences are attended by industry specialists, specialist journalists are the only ones who know the area really well. We can’t allow journalists as chairpeople simply because they are well-known. They must be professionals who know the market well and who are skilled in leading the conference,” she says.

“I would never do a conference because I had Patrick Poivre d’Arvor (France’s David Dimbleby), but because a problematic subject concerning the music industry had a need to be discussed and tackled at an international level by experts.”

Diana Ambrose, chief executive of Conference Associates and Services, agrees that personality chairs aren’t always relevant. “Most international conferences are attended by chairmen who are peers in their group. They’d rather spend money on chairs who are top in their field.”

Indeed, the big names don’t come cheaply. As Spectrum Communication’s Croneen notes: “While they bring a certain gravitas to the proceedings and their value is undoubted, celebrity chairpeople are fairly costly.”

Well-known presenters receive a fee that ranges from 5,000 to 15,000 per conference (a half or full day plus advance preparation including a briefing meeting with the client a few weeks beforehand). Knighted television presenters receive upwards of 15,000 to 20,000 a go. So-called second tier chairpeople, lesser-known journalists for example, receive much less – in the region of 2,500 to 5,000.

For a modest conference costing between 50,000 and 60,000, these figures represent a significant chunk of the budget. Reed Midem’s Rollet never pays journalists to chair her Midem and Mipcom confer-ences, noting, “we don’t buy an individual because he is well-known”.

However, news presenters undoubtedly are good value for those conferences whose clients see them as essential tools in achieving clear objectives. “If you look at the overall spend on the conference itself and its effect, then I think it’s a cost-effective way of operating,” says Havelaar.

Another drawback is the fact that some presenters risk over-exposure. Humphreys and Ross do several conferences a month, BBC Business and Economics editor Peter Jay does about one a month. “Potentially the feeling could be that they are on the conference bandwagon and just zipping from one conference to another,” says Croneen. “There are people like Nick Ross and John Humphreys who quite frankly are so good at what they do, I couldn’t care less if they do it every afternoon and every morning!”

Whatever the pitfalls, it is clear that it is not only conference organisers and their clients who are excited about the long-term advantages of using celebrity chairpeople. The presenters themselves gain from the experience. Ross says he develops a breadth of knowledge inaccessible to senior business people, who at the most, work in three different industries during their lives. Away from a broadcasting studio, Humphreys appreciates the direct feedback of a live audience and the chance to hear more than soundbites. “In the normal course of events, you wouldn’t find yourself talking to captains of industry for more than a few minutes on the Today Programme. Here you’re talking with them on a detailed level for hours on end. You learn a great deal.”

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