Preventing a Show-Stopper: Backup Plans for Event Speakers

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backup plans for speaker contracts

Contractual backup plans for speakers and presenters

Here’s a nightmare that many meeting and event planners have surely awakened from with a shudder: One of your top executives is ready to present to the largest audience of the year, including a host of print, web and TV journalists seated in the front row. He steps to the podium and begins to speak…and then he faints.

For one event planner at the automobile company, BMW, this nightmare came true. During the Frankfurt auto show in September 2015, CEO Harald Krueger collapsed and fell hard onto his back just a few minutes into his presentation of the company’s new product line. Krueger was quickly attended to by colleagues and appeared OK in the following moments, but he did not continue. Fortunately, the company’s chief financial officer was on hand to finish the presentation and take questions from the media.

While that is the worst-case scenario a planner could face, the key to averting disaster due to a nonperforming speaker at any event is to build a backup plan for scheduled presenters. And that plan must address how to secure a backup presenter one week before, one day before and even one hour before a scheduled session.

Making Room for Plan B

Over his 10 years of procuring keynote speakers, Antwone Stigall, CMP, president of West Wing Events in Memphis, Tennessee, now includes this condition in his contracts with speakers: They must have another person accompany them to the meeting who could give the presentation in their place if necessary.

“The speaker’s associate has seen the presentation many times before, and can deliver it in a pinch,” Stigall notes.

Alternatively, most professional speakers are part of formal or informal networks of colleagues who deliver presentations on similar topics or for similar audiences. So when one speaker is unable to fulfill a commitment due to an emergency, these folks will usually come to each other’s aid. Of course, the meeting planner has final say on whether a potential replacement is acceptable.

Gene Griessman, owner of Atlanta Speakers Bureau and a professional stage performer himself, notes, “We put in writing that if for any reason the contracted speaker cannot perform, we’ll make every effort to provide a speaker of at least equal ability, who is subject to the client’s approval. [In fact,] our circles are big enough that we’re often able to bring in a more expensive speaker who will accept the contracted rate as a favor to us. We all help each other out, because we understand the rigors of this business.”

In cases where a planner did not use a speakers’ bureau to obtain a keynoter or another main presenter, a speaker cancellation might require contingencies that are focused within the host city. Contacting that city’s convention and visitors bureau weeks ahead of time for a list of locally based speakers is a good start. It’s also wise to contact the local chamber of commerce and nearby universities to develop a list of potential backup speakers from business and academia who would be available during the meeting’s dates, and could present on a topic that’s relevant to the audience.

Griessman gives this warning, however: “Academic speakers generally don’t cost much and have great knowledge, but they won’t be as strong on style or entertainment value.”

With this in mind, planners should consider using an alternate format: Have a moderator ask questions of the presenter at certain intervals to keep the content audience-focused or dedicate more time than usual to audience questions.

Using Your Resources

For a breakout session that loses its presenter, local businesspeople or academics could work well enough as a substitute. But there are other sources a planner could use—and they’re already at the meeting.

“You can ask any other speakers who are onsite that day to fill in,” Griessman notes. Even if they act as a discussion leader rather than a lead presenter, professional speakers are sufficiently polished to be able to conduct an effective session.

Another option is to ask several high-profile attendees to participate in a session consisting of small discussion groups where they impart their views on industry topics or lessons learned throughout their careers.

“We call it a Meet the Pros session,” Griessman says. “Attendees love spending quality time with industry luminaries. We’ll use eight-person rounds and have attendees move to a different table after about 30 minutes. Attendee feedback for this is always good.” In fact, the National Speakers Association uses this format as a regularly scheduled breakout at its annual conference.

Proactive Check-Ins

Regardless of whether it’s a keynote speaker or a breakout-session leader, Stigall checks in with every scheduled presenter one week ahead of an event. He asks how they’re feeling physically and whether there is anything going on in their lives that might cause them to cancel.

“I’m not asking them to give me specifics,” he stresses. “I just want to know whether there is some possibility that they could back out, so that I have time to set the contingency plans in motion.”

Presenters and entertainers are an important factor in any event, and meeting planners must have a contingency plan for if plan A falls through. Double-bookings, flight delays, illnesses and other complications are bound to happen, but the show must go on.