Don’t be fooled by fame

The British public may be obsessed with celebrities, but that doesn’t mean that hiring a famous face will add value to a corporate event, says Richard West

According to Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan, there are more than 500 “professional celebrities” living in Britain. “The problem is,” laments Morgan, “many of them have absolutely no discernible talent except for self-promotion.”

It’s hard to disagree. Yet anyone who watches reality television or reads gossip magazines will know that a little self-promotion can go a long way. It would seem that Britain has become a nation obsessed with celebrities who appear to be famous for little more than getting their faces on television or in a magazine.

It would appear that now is a good time to be a professional celebrity. This was demonstrated by the latest series of “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here”. Before the first episode had been aired, large sections of the media were speculating about the amount that the contestants could expect to earn from endorsements and corporate appearances.

But in the world of corporate entertainment, celebrity alone buys a very short time in the spotlight. The moment soon arrives when a celebrity has to prove his or her worth – whether that is working an audience or motivating people to perform better. In the lucrative world of corporate gigs, celebrities that are famous for little more than fame’s sake count for very little.

Talent spotting

“People are entitled to their 15 minutes of fame, but celebrity should not be confused with talent,” says Joseph Jones, managing director at Celebrity Speakers International UK, an agency that organises speakers for corporate and public events. “It is all very well being famous for being on TV, but that alone isn’t going to get a celebrity far on the corporate circuit. Unless they add value to the event, no one is going to hire them.”

It’s easy to see why organisers use big names to promote events. If it is a public show, a popular performer can boost ticket sales and generate enough media interest to cover their costs. For an in-house production, a celebrity can add glamour to an event.

Corporate Events Association chairman Sam Gill claims that the corporate events industry has experienced “an awful two years”, but believes that the worst is over. “Even before September 11, companies were cutting back on staff entertainment,” he says. “Since then there’s been a long stream of excuses for not spending more on company events. But there have been some significant changes, coupled with a gradual improvement in the economy. For targeted, thought-through events there are signs that things are improving.”

One of those changes occurred in spring 2002, when the Chancellor raised the tax threshold on spending on staff parties from £75 a head to £150. Gill believes that the impact of this is beginning to filter through – particularly when it comes to “motivational entertainment”. He says: “This year will be a transitional year, and the tax changes will hopefully encourage companies to put on better events. But the market is still very cautious, so companies are looking hard at value and benefits.”

However, the more favourable climate seems to have triggered a mini-boom in demand for motivational speakers. Where once a sales conference would have included a predictable sequence of ramblings by senior managers, followed by a David Brent-style speech from the managing director, these days the workforce will feel hard done by if the person addressing them hasn’t won a World Cup or became a global tycoon by the age of 25.

But few would be naïve enough to think that a big name alone is a guarantee of success. Sadly, many well-known faces simply don’t cut it on the corporate circuit and fail to motivate, inspire, entertain or add any kind of value to the event.

So what makes a successful corporate entertainer or speaker? “A mixture of things,” says Ben Rodber, international events director with communications company, Rodber Thorneycroft. “It all depends on the nature of the event. A motivational speaker or a business guru will tend to have different qualities to those of a comedian or entertainer.”

Didn’t they do well?

However, as Rodber points out, “One of the factors that ‘A’ list performers such as Jonathan Ross and Bruce Forsyth have in common is their ability to engage with the audience. The best performers, and not necessarily the highest paid ones, can give an after-dinner speech to hundreds of people – but everyone will go home thinking that the speaker was talking to them personally.

Humour is important, but the performers also need to have done their homework. Lapses in detail, such as mispronouncing a name, jars with the audience – these things are noticed. So too are big egos. Celebrities who merely appear and then disappear in a limo add little value in relation to cost.”

Rodber admits that celebrity appearances are not always appropriate. Budgets need to be taken into account (a popular speaker will easily command a five-figure fee), but more importantly, it’s about meeting the objectives of an event. He says, “It’s vital to establish, at an early stage, what the objectives are meant to be. If it is to produce an exclusive, theme-led event that will make an impact in its own right, then a celebrity becomes unnecessary.”

Do yourself a favour

Incentive Travel & Meetings Association (ITMA) executive director Charles Robinson agrees. He believes that one of the most common mistakes is for the organiser or decision maker to choose their favourite celebrity. “It’s essential to start with a blank sheet and make the audience profile and event objectives the key decision-making criteria. The company chairman may be a great fan of a particular performer, but that does not mean that the audience will identify with the same person.”

A well researched and properly rehearsed event should, in theory, prevent major mishaps on the day. “It’s absolutely crucial to ensure that the speaker is briefed on the background to the event and understands the sensitivities of not offending the guests, sponsors or host organisations,” adds Robinson.

Another danger is the risk of a hired celebrity behaving in an unruly manner. While guest presenters usually respect constraints, examples of bad behaviour, indiscretions and throwaway remarks can make the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Head of CNN Ted Turner once had to apologise to an entire nation after making jokes about Poland at a private event that ended up on the front pages.

Left speechless

Despite the love affair and popular interest the public has with celebrities, the immediate future of the after-dinner/corporate events industry is far from certain. Organisers, agents and performers are hoping that the market will continue to improve, but most observers believe that corporate events will become much more closely monitored, with fewer big company bashes and more small group activities. Rodber believes the industry will need to innovate to survive in a stricter, more controlled future. He says: “The question is: what value does the activity add to the organisation? If it is looking to make an impact using a celebrity theme, the ‘celebrity’ doesn’t need to be a person. It can be a venue or even an activity. We organised a packages event for a client which involved trips on the Orient Express, the Queen Mary and a journey via vintage cars.”

Many believe that with corporate organisations insisting on greater accountability in every area of business – and also making extra efforts to get more for their money – there will be an upsurge in these types of smaller-scale events, and they will increasingly be linked with some kind of team-building activity.

But 2004 will be a big year for sporting events, with Euro 2004 and the Olympic Games taking place. It is likely to be a boom time for sports hospitality and, if the feel-good factor that accompanied England’s Rugby World Cup triumph is repeated, there will be a glut of motivational speakers and an enthusiastic audience clamouring to see them. If that happens, the corporate sector may decide it’s time to start spending again.

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