Celebrity guests

Celebrities are a good crowd-puller at any conference or event, but is a household name on its own enough? Should guest appearances be tailored to suit the industry or organisation that they are addressing?

We’ve all seen a celebrity in public and said hello, fooled by their familiarity that they are a friend. And even when we realise our mistake, we’re unable to stop ourselves watching them. Celebrities have enormous pulling power, which is why many event organisers use them to draw in the crowds at business conferences, events and awards dinners. After all, we’re all dying to see if the celebrity is as good looking, funny or awe-inspiring in real life.

Simon Hambley, director of events and conferences agency Acclaim, believes that celebrities bring star quality, which clients and audiences love. He says: “A big name adds sparkle and life to an event. As the economy heads towards recession, celebrities are even more important. Better to reduce production costs and keep the celebrity who can attract people to the event.”

“We book celebrities because they sell tickets,” says Nick Simpson, publishing director at Centurion Publishing, which has hired sports presenter Gabby Yorath to appear at the Professional Recruiter Awards for Excellence. He adds: “The idea of lunch at the Dorchester is great. But a good, well-chosen, celebrity makes the whole event memorable.”

Incentive World 2002 managing director Ian Allchild agrees: “Celebrities are a great attraction at exhibitions. Not only do visitors flock to the stands to see them, but other exhibitors get excited by their presence and feel that the show is buzzing.”

Allchild says that Sir Richard Branson was an amazing crowd-puller at Incentive World 2001. He adds: “Both Virgin Incentives and the exhibition received huge press attention because of his presence.”

But celebrity appearances can backfire. Financial solutions provider Navision hired John Cleese as its keynote speaker for its conference in Copenhagen this year. The company had just merged with rivals Damgaard and tension between employees was high when Cleese took the stand. His humorous talk only served to highlight the cultural differences between the two organisations and his joke that the two camps of employees were sitting on opposite sides of the theatre was too close to the mark. Comments afterwards from employees were negative (especially as the majority were Danish and some of Cleese’s jokes didn’t translate too well). Press coverage also focused on the talk rather than on the company.

Guests at the Credit 2001 awards dinner in the Natural History Museum were expecting to be entertained by Red Dwarf and Brittas Empire star Chris Barrie. But his jokes about the profession being armed with baseball bats and regularly indulging in knee-capping received nervous laughter.

Journalist Kate Adie was the keynote presenter at the 2000 Logistics Forum organised by Richmond Events. While her talk about her experiences in war zones from the Iraqi desert to Bosnia was fascinating, it had no relevance to the event, and delegates and exhibitors – some of whom had paid several thousand pounds to be there – were disappointed by her delivery.

There’s little point in booking a celebrity for celebrity’s sake, according to Leadership Trust sales and marketing director Jacque Langford. She says: “There’s no doubt that a famous name does draw in the crowds. But the most important thing is that the person has to be relevant to the organisation. Different celebrities appeal to different audiences. You would have a different speaker for a rugby dinner than for a mixed audience.”

Centurion’s Simpson agrees: “You have to choose a celebrity who matches your organisation. We chose Yorath because she will appeal to our audience and resembles our brand. She’s young, very professional, dynamic and has integrity.”

Speakers’ agents and event organisers play an important role in matching the right speaker to a client’s needs, says Chris Moon, who was blown up by a landmine and lost a leg and an arm, and has gone on to run ultra marathons and complete the 250km Great Sahara Run. He gives talks about leadership and team building, dealing with difficulty and change, rising to a challenge and the process of achievement.

Christian dating agency Choices invited Christian triple jumper Jonathan Edwards to speak at their 2001 summer ball at London’s Café Royal. Christian chartered surveyor Davina Kettel says: “I bought a ticket because I wanted to hear him speak. He’s an amazing role model for young Christians who want to succeed in life.” But would a non-Christian speaker have had such an impact?

A speaker’s link to an industry can be tenuous. Everest explorer Sir Chris Bonnington was the keynote speaker at the Project Management Institute’s conference. He talked about the project management involved in getting a group of climbers, sherpas and equipment to the top of Everest and back down again safely.

When the Women’s Institute (WI) invited Tony Blair to speak at its conference at Wembley Arena last year, his presence not only helped to achieve media exposure for the event, but also linked the WI to current affairs. Unfortunately Blair’s speech did not go down well, and when he had finished speaking he was booed by the audience.

Wembley Conference and Exhibition Centre senior commercial and marketing manager Julie Warren says companies too often rely on the celebrity to pull in a crowd, rather than market their event thoroughly and effectively. And this is a big mistake. She says: “Celebrities are not a substitute for good PR and marketing. They are part of the marketing and must be well publicised.”

But it is not just the organisation that books the celebrity that has to do its homework. Professional after dinner speaker Graham Davis says: “Speakers must research the company or audience they are addressing, or the talk will fall flat on its face. I would never talk at an event without meeting the organiser first. You have to tailor your speech to the audience.”

Speakers’ bureau Speakers Corner managing director Jan Jenkins says: “The best speakers can convince an audience that they know every wrinkle of a company or industry, even if they have only had one briefing. One recently amazed a client by learning the names of at least 80 executives and staff, using them during his presentation. This is quite an art. Thorough research is definitely part of quality public speaking.”

The first British woman to conquer Everest, Rebecca Stephens, talks about her experiences at a wide range of events and agrees with the idea that speakers should be well prepared. She says: “Organisers must brief speakers about what they want, so that they can prepare their talk accordingly. No speakers worth their salt will mind dedicating the time to get ‘under the skin’ of the company.”

However, some celebrities decide not to tailor their speeches and rely on their famous face to carry them through. This can still work for event organisers. As Chris Moon says: “I once shared a platform with a huge name, who justified his fee just by turning up. Because everyone wanted to see him, the conference sold out in just three days, which cut marketing costs and also brought additional sponsorship.”

But sometimes the speech doesn’t need to be tailored. John Nichol, the flight lieutenant who was shot down and captured by the Iraqis during the Gulf War, says: “I can’t really tailor my talk. Mine is an amazing story and it’s not something I can change.”

To gel a group of speakers, most conferences also need a moderator. The moderator’s is an important and highly skilled role, and best performed by an experienced anchorman, such as a television news presenter, argues Langford. He says: “They are best equipped to lead a Q&A session, introduce speakers with a spontaneous and seamless link and to pick up and draw on points made in speeches. They have the knowledge and experience to take in a huge amount of information very quickly.”

BBC journalists such as Radio 4’s John Humphreys and senior news presenter Nicholas Witchell have made sideline careers from moderating at conferences. Witchell says: “As journalists, we have certain skills to chivvy the speaker along, ask the right questions that perhaps the audience would not be able to ask and get the discussion moving.”

In a twist on the anchorman’s role, Jon Briggs, voice of Radio 2, the BBC’s Weakest Link, and a moderator, also uses a computer generated moderator called the Vuppet, which can be anything from a frog (called James Pond because it’s so smooth) to a caricature of the managing director. He says: “It allows you to be much ruder than a real moderator, for instance you can interrupt in the middle of presentations.” And it injects energy and a memorable moment.

High cost of stars

But celebrities and news anchormen don’t come cheap. You can pay anything from about £3,000 – for a person with a good story to tell who’s not necessarily famous – to £8,000 for a legend. But big names such as Michael Buerk and Jeremy Paxman can set you back £20,000. Acclaim’s Hambley says: “You might pay big money for the big names, but they are more likely to be worth it. Buerk, for instance, is well known for sticking around at events after his official role has finished and talking to clients and delegates.” Carol Smilie is rumoured to cost £25,000 for an appearance, plus a first-class return flight from Glasgow. But of course there are also unscrupulous agents who over-hype speakers.

Famous names also have to put up with difficult situations. Anna Ford is rumoured to have quit public speaking after several managing directors thought a night with the speaker was part of the package.

The celebrity might well be the icing on the cake, but audiences also expect a good venue, good food and efficient organisation, says Simpson. Making sure the location is right and comfortable is a must, adds Kim Einhorn, managing director of event organisers Theme Traders. But there are also other things you can do to keep a captive audience and make your event memorable.

She says: “Conferences often need livening up. Themed breaks, such as coffee with a jazz band or meetand-greet robots, are ideal. This makes it very memorable and gets people talking.” Einhorn is also a keen advocate of lookalike celebrities, such as Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin, who can mingle with guests at events and act as icebreakers.

Whether you go for a fake Marilyn Monroe or a living, breathing Gabby Yorath, it is up to the event organisers whether the celebrity becomes an attention stopper. A well-marketed and properly briefed celebrity, who tailors the speech to the audience, can add huge value to an event. But without effort from the organisers, celebrities remain a gimmick for the audience to ogle.


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