Understanding Speakers Bureaus: Working with an Agency to Book the Perfect Speaker

January 8th, 2010

Understanding Speakers Bureaus: Working with an Agency to Book the Perfect Speaker

By: Terri Pepper Gavulic

When a meeting planner needs to book a speaker for their event, they often turn to a professional speakers bureau. Many articles have been written for meeting planners about how best to negotiate with a speakers bureau. This article, based on an interview with Don Epstein, the CEO Greater Talent Network, one of the “big five” speakers bureaus, presents the industry's perspective about their purpose and how meeting planners can work well with them. It is interesting to see the process from another perspective.

There are many bureaus in existence. The five largest and most widely used are exclusive agencies, meaning they have exclusive contracts with the speakers in their roster and are the only agency authorized to book these speakers. While this may seem restrictive, the bureaus believe it's in the best interests of their clients.
A Helping Hand

The ultimate goal of the speakers bureau is to make the client, company and planner look good so they will have the benefit of repeat business and steady referrals. They cull through thousands of speakers to determine whom they wish to represent. They have intimate knowledge about their speakers and use this to counsel meeting planners about which speakers may be the best fit. Often a meeting planner will have a specific speaker in mind and ignore advice that someone may not be a good fit for a particular meeting. Ultimately, if the speaker does not live up to expectations, both the meeting planner and the bureau suffer. As Mr. Epstein said, “It is more important for us to have people excited after the event than before the event.” The lesson for meeting planners? Be receptive to the advice of your agents. They want your future business so will strive to make you look good and succeed at your event.

Sometimes meeting planners are suspicious that an exclusive agency is only trying to “hawk their own wares.” From the bureau's perspective they've vetted thousands of speakers to ensure they represent the “best of the best.” It only makes sense to them to push those speakers they have vetted and whom they feel comfortable putting their name behind. If there's a speaker that might be a better fit for a meeting than one represented by your bureau, they'll work with the other bureaus to secure that speaker for their clients. Similar to the real estate business, the major bureaus buy and sell from each other's inventory. This allows the “best of the best” to be accessible to all of the top bureaus. There is no mark-up in price when one bureau contracts with another.
How It Works

Mr. Epstein said there is a lot of trust in the industry. The top five bureaus have held that status for 25 years or more. When a planner expresses interest in a speaker the bureau escrows the fee (to reflect that they are taking this available date away from a speaker) and then make good on all commitments. Willing to put themselves at financial risk in this way, the agents working within a bureau think of themselves as consultants and strive to establish a long-term relationship with their meeting planner clients.

Once the agent recommends a few speakers who would be appropriate based on the meeting planner's stated goals, they help the planner complete an offer form that specifies everything the planner is asking for. This form is used to reach a meeting of the minds and is considered a commitment. The arrangements offered and accepted are then written into a contract. The agent stays with the meeting planner through the conclusion of the event, making sure everything goes as planned and evaluating the success afterwards. That means it's critical that the agents are able to understand what the meeting planner really wants. They put themselves in the shoes of the planners and try to mitigate any possible problems at every point, including travel, meals, hosting, and other arrangements.
Taking a Test Drive

Many bureaus set up regular client events in which meeting planners who book through them are invited to come and meet some of the speakers on their roster. This gives meeting planners a chance to “test drive” the speakers before booking them. Mr. Epstein's agency also encourages their clients to go see a speaker present at someone else's event (with permission, of course) – another way to try a speaker on for size before committing. If you regularly work with a speakers bureau, ask them how you can get on these invitation lists.

All of these measures, coupled with the development of a trusting partnership between the bureau and meeting planner, should help to allay any fears and ensure for the planner that at least this part of their program will go well.

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