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How to Avoid a Keynote Catastrophe

An association recently lost its big-name keynoter with only hours to spare. Here’s that tale of near-disaster plus key steps for having a back-up plan in place.

It’s surely one of the worst nightmares an association-event planner could have: Sending out an email to thousands of attendees that reads, “Programming update: Our keynote speaker has cancelled his main-stage appearance at the last minute.”

Unfortunately for the planning team at the Society for Human Resources Management, that nightmare came true in late June, when actor Jason Sudeikis backed out of his keynote-speaking slot less than 24 hours
before SHRM’s annual meeting kicked off.

But with a lot of money suddenly freed up, SHRM was able to fly in a popular speaker from its 2023 annual meeting: Al Roker. And according to the social-media accounts of many attendees, Roker—a television anchor and Broadway actor—did an excellent job even on such short notice.

Despite this happy ending, the lesson for association planners is clear: To ensure attendee satisfaction and protect the association’s reputation and pocketbook, there must be solid contingency plans for each keynoter and other featured main-stage speaker at a conference.

Intuition Is Valuable
AM0724SethDechtmann-lowres.pngSeth Dechtman (in photo), president of The Keynote Curators, a speakers bureau, says that the first thing he does for meeting clients is vet potential keynoters for their reliability. “In the case of big-name speakers, I ask their management about the likelihood of them backing out,” he says. “Their answer is not always clear and convincing, so you have to investigate. I ask how many events they have done in the past 12 months and whether I can speak to the planners of those events. Then you can get a sense of how they are with pre-event preparation and responsiveness,” which is an indicator of reliability.

A Partner in Risk
Dechtman notes that “planners should definitely expect a speakers bureau to have back-up options ready to go in case a keynoter backs out. Make sure your contract says the bureau must provide a replacement speaker of similar or greater monetary value, and that the replacement speaker must be mutually agreed upon” and come from a pre-determined list of possibilities the planner has approved.

Choosing the Right Replacements
As it creates the list of possible replacement speakers, “a bureau should know the planning team’s thinking behind why they chose the keynoter—for the draw of a big name, or because they match the audience’s demographics, or they have a specific work- or life-experience connection,” says Dechtman.

Of course, “availability can be a challenge” even if several possibilities have been identified. Especially when a conference is within about four weeks, one factor that complicates getting a highly preferred replacement is “whether the meeting client’s decision must go through a committee or can be made by one person,” says Dechtman.

“A committee decision increases the chances that the replacement won’t be available by the time I get approval,” he notes. “A point person who can act with speed and decisiveness is so important.”

No Speakers Bureau? Try This
For planners who are sourcing and contracting with speakers on their own, the back-up plan becomes that much more critical. The best way to ensure that contingency speakers can fill in on short notice is to consult with the convention and visitors bureau in the event’s host destination.

A CVB can identify the major players from its local corporate base as well as influential players among its university community who could address the group’s desired topics, or present life or work experiences that would interest the audience. In fact, many companies and universities are members of their local CVBs or are well known by CVB staff. And a CVB’s services in this area are often free.

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