3-1 Work with Speakers Bureaus

A speakers bureau is an organization that specializes in connecting speakers and meeting planners who are hiring speakers for their conferences and conventions. Speakers bureaus have trusted relationships with event decision makers who select speakers for their upcoming events.

How Does a Speakers Bureau Work?

The speakers bureau does not charge the host organization, but takes a commission (usually 25% to 30%) from the speaker’s speaking fee. They will also charge a 10% to 20% commission for product sales generated as a result of speaking engagements. In order to make it worthwhile, most speakers bureaus only take on speakers that charge at least $5,000 per speech and give 30 or more speeches per year. Reputable bureaus do not charge to review a speaker’s materials to see if the speaker is right for the bureau.

A lot of speakers sign on to more than one bureau. Some bureaus want exclusivity in exchange for a guarantee of bookings (perhaps 20-30 per year). If exclusivity exists, then speakers refer everything to the speakers bureau.

Speakers bureaus are used by Fortune 500 companies, universities, nonprofits and others. Speakers bureaus know the current experts, the trendsetters, news makers and others who are hot at events.

Those experts who work at speakers bureaus help meeting planners judge the quality, content and affordability of a speaker and they help in the scheduling and getting contracts finalized with meeting planners.

When an event planner who is hired to coordinate a meeting wants to find the best speaker, he or she goes to the speakers bureau to find a great speaking match (and many perhaps several) for that meeting.

The relationship between speakers bureaus and speakers is critical to the marketing of speaking engagements. A VSA can play a pivotal role in maintaining that relationship.

Why Speakers Want to Work with Speakers Bureaus

Many speakers want to be represented by a speakers bureau because of the access and the relationships the bureaus have with important buyers. Many also think the marketing effort to find speaking opportunities will be less. The reality is that speakers must still market their services and the relationship with speakers bureau is just one way that they obtain speaking engagements.

The relationship between a speakers bureau and a speaker can be tricky and fraught with misunderstandings and disagreements. Speakers bureaus usually want as much support from the speaker and the VSA as possible in promoting the speaker as part of the speakers bureau, while the speaker wants to maintain some independence from the bureau.

Most of the time the bureaus do not create enough business for the speaker to build a practice around. Many speakers, particularly new ones think if they are being represented by speaker bureaus they won’t have to do any marketing at all. Unless you’re a celebrity, quite the opposite is usually true. Speakers bureaus rarely create enough speeches to maintain the business or sustain the speaking business. Many speakers bureaus specialize in a particular type of speaker. For example, the Washington Speakers Bureau specializes in high profile media figures and others might specialize in working with sports figures or business gurus.

The Role of the VSA in Managing the Process

A VSA supports this relationship by coordinating details and acting as a conduit between the speakers bureau and the busy speaker who travels a lot. These are the VSA’s main roles:

1. Research the right bureaus for the speaker – start with a listing of many speakers bureaus on the website for the International Association of Speakers Bureaus (IASB).
2. Talk to the speaker about which bureaus to approach
3. Make sure the speaker’s site and other materials are top-notch before approaching speakers bureaus
3. Coordinate contracts with the speakers bureaus
4. Maintain great relationships with the bureaus

Approaching a Speakers Bureau

If your speaker is looking for a new bureau, then he or she may request help from the  International Association of Speakers Bureaus.

Preparation before the approach must be first-class. The speaker’s website needs to look great, the speaker demo video needs to be just right, the one-sheet must be first-class professional. All those tools need to be in place before you ever approach and follow-up with the speakers bureaus.

The speaker may ask you to send the bureau an email to invite them to hear the speaker speak if the speaker is speaking in an area where the bureau is based. So for example if there’s a convention in Dallas, Texas, and the speaker is going there for a speech, the VSA may send an invitation to hear that speaker and arrange it with the host organization to have seats up front at no charge.

Another very effective way to approach a bureau is to have a client introduce the speaker to the bureau. This can be very effective, if the client and the bureau have a good relationship. They are more likely to hire a speaker who is not in their stable, based on the already valued client’s recommendation.

The more prominent the speaker is, the more interest a bureau will have. As a VSA there are ways that you can help the bureau on the speaker’s behalf that go above and beyond the call of duty. Even if the speaker makes it on the bureau’s database, that doesn’t mean that they are pitching your speaker or including your speaker in the list of speakers that they recommend on a regular basis.

Consider how to stay in touch with the bureau in ways that are meaningful to them – congratulate them when you hear one of their speakers is on television or got a great review. Blog about how delightful their staff was to work with, send them articles and leads. But probably the biggest thing you can do is to keep them informed about any interesting venues, topics and news about your speaker. Whatever you do, be attentive, get their questions answered as quickly as possible and be a pleasant force to deal with at all times.

Be Bookable

A bureau also looks for what is called bookability – how easy is it to book this speaker. If a speakers bureau pitches a speaker a couple of times and they don’t have availability to speak, then the speakers bureau will keep them on the database, but not pitch them.

The VSAs Role with the Speakers Bureau Once It Is Selected

Once the bureau is selected, The VSA’s role is to coordinate the logistics of that relationship and be responsive to help maintain and support the relationship while the speaker is on the road.

Holding Dates

The VSA plays a major and very responsible role in holding dates between the time a call comes in and when the agreement is actually signed. There is generally some juggling to do and it is extremely important that the VSA is very clear in all communications in this area.

It is the biggest area of misunderstanding, miscommunications and overall awkward moments, this is a huge subject of debate in the industry.

Let’s say Patricia from the private ABC organization calls into the office and says “I want to book Tom to speak.” And you say “Sure, Patricia, let me have the date to check his availability right away”. You check the availability while Patricia is still on the phone and you tell her he’s available. Patricia ends the call by saying, “We’re really interested in Tom – we love his book.”

As the VSA, your next steps are to:
1. Talk to the speaker (does the speaker want the engagement?)
2. Start to pull together the information to send out to the prospect on the speaker.
3. But then let’s say two or three hours later, a bureau calls, a speakers bureau that you’ve had a good relationship with. Tom is in their database and they say “We’d like Tom to speak..” and it is exactly the same time and it turns out to be the same event.

By this time, that date’s already been held for ABC organization. And the bureau says “well that’s who we’re working with” and then pretty soon they call saying “We were the ones who recommended Tom. I’m sorry that they called you directly, but too bad, this is our gig, you still have to pay our commission.”

It is very important that the VSA provide accurate notes and date stamps and documentation of these calls, but NOT get involved in any of these conversations directly. The role of the VSA is they have got to make sure that the speaker has all the facts.

One office procedure that can save the VSA a lot of headaches is to make sure that paperwork is time-stamped on all for held dates and that this is done automatically when a call comes in.

You and your speaker must have a have a policy in place for held dates. That’s why it is the VSA’s job to make sure that when you hold the date, you confirm with them what day that was held, what time it was held and who’s holding it. So in other words ABC organization calls at 12:03 pm on June 11 and then at 12:35 pm, June 11 bureau calls. The VSA needs to have a record of these events so the speaker can deal with the commission issue.

The less said by the VSA the better, in case anything you might have said would inadvertently commit the speaker, when the speaker does not want to be committed.

Tracking System

A key in working successfully with bureaus is for the VSA to have a tracking system to flag the particular clients in the database that come from the bureau. The speaker will sign an agreement with the bureau that any business obtained from that speech will pay that bureau a commission. So if someone in that audience hears the speaker and wants to book them as a speaker, the bureau still gets a commission from that second booking. So it’s going to be important for the VSA when the speaker comes back from the speech with all those business cards, that when they are put in the database and that interested clients are flagged as part of the bureau account. Bureaus are very particular about this and the speaker and VSA must take utmost care to make sure this detail is buttoned-down and that the bureaus feel respected and never cheated.

Marketing Tools

Another role that a VSA has is making sure that the speakers bureaus have the marketing tools they need in order to effectively promote the speaker. These might include one sheets, bios and the media kit. The bureau will expect to receive speaker videos via DVD so they can upload them to their own site.

Staying in Touch with the Bureau

Once the speaker is in the speakers bureau database, a great role for the VSA to play is to make sure the speaker stays on the bureau radar. The VSA can send postcards to the bureau about the speaker’s interests and new topics. You also want to make sure that the bureau is on the mailing list to receive any emails and newsletters showcasing what the speaker is up to. Finally, the VSA can encourage the speaker to periodically visit the bureau in person.

How the Speaker Gets Paid By the Bureau

When the speaker is confirmed most will require a 50% deposit up front. Usually half of that deposit will be kept by the speakers bureau. The event pays the bureau the deposit and half of that will go immediately to the speaker. Once the balance is paid to the bureau after the speech (usually within 2 weeks) by the meeting planner or corporation/organization, the bureau pays the speaker the balance owed.

Generally, if the event is canceled or the organization cancels the speaker, the speaker will keep the 50% deposit that was paid up front.

The VSA will need to submit to the bureau the travel expenses (see Section 3-4 for reimbursement forms) in accordance with the contract between the speaker and the bureau. The bureau may or may not provide its own forms for that purpose. You will need to make note of when the check comes in and that it is correct.

Next Steps

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