Should You Break the Bank to Hire a Celebrity Speaker?

More seats remain empty at keynote and main sessions. Here’s why featuring celebrities probably isn’t the answer to filling them — and what audiences care about instead, according to research from Freeman.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

generic male celebrity speaker coming on stage in spotlight

Only 1 percent of respondents to a Freeman survey said they preferred celebrity speakers at events to those who had something relevant to say to their groups.

Event organizers who are considering straining their budgets to hire celebrity speakers — or who feel pressure to do so — may want to think again. When Freeman, the global event company, surveyed event attendees about the kinds of speakers they preferred, only 1 percent of event attendees chose celebrities, compared with 37 percent who wanted to hear from industry leaders and experts, according to Ken Holsinger, Freeman’s senior vice president for strategy. Another low performer was the award ceremony, which came in at the bottom five percent, Holsinger said.

Freeman was following up on a trend that has emerged as attendance at in-person events began its climb back to pre-pandemic levels: More people are skipping the main sessions and keynotes. “We wanted to understand why,” Holsinger told Convene. When Freeman asked attendees about the preferred speakers and topics that motivate them to attend a keynote or general session, the topic chosen by the largest number of respondents — nearly two out of five — was innovation and new ways of thinking. Twelve percent were interested in inspirational and motivational speakers, and 10 percent said they preferred “unique stories of interest,” according to Freeman’s survey results.

bald man with glasses, goatee

Ken Holsinger

The takeaway, Holsinger said, is that meeting attendees want to hear from their peers, to be inspired, and maybe go to a concert or a standup-comedy act. “But in my general sessions, I want content that is hitting me between the eyes with where I’m at as a professional,” he said. “I want to see innovation and I want to see industry expertise and leadership.” When it comes to celebrities, “think about that context,” Holsinger said. “Does that celebrity actually have context for me in my industry? Or are they just somebody that’s cool that we’d love to watch?”

What Are They Hiding?

The survey showed another mismatch between audience preferences and what meetings most often delivered: More than nine out of 10 keynote sessions are 90 minutes in length, yet less than 2 percent of respondents prefer sessions that lengthy, Holsinger said. “Are we going to switch all of our stuff to be shorter? Not necessarily, but I do think we need to be a lot more transparent about what I would call ‘micro-scheduling.’”

In meeting room breakouts, organizers are likely to share the information that, for example, there will be three presentations over an hour-long period, he said. But organizers are much less forthcoming about what’s on tap for a keynote or general session, Holsinger said. “We’ll never tell you the timing because we’re hiding something from you. You are our captive audience and we’re going to shove our governance on you, and our awards on you, and all these other things. And we’re going to stick our keynote speaker at the very end so that you are glued to your seat.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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