Wherever there are third parties and commissions, there are ethical questions, and the competitive speakers industry is not immune. The latest buzz is being caused by some speakers bureaus upping their commissions for their marketing, negotiating, and other go-between services from 25 percent to 30 percent.
“In most cases, it is the speaker who pays those fees,” says T. Scott Gross, who makes his living speaking about customer service. Gross notes that speakers are expected to offer the same rate to planners who book them directly as the bureaus charge. But that could change. “Some bureaus could be pricing themselves out of the market, and speakers might have to up their fees correspondingly. Or there could be a trend toward planners booking direct with speakers for net fees.”
“I think some speakers will choose not to work with those 30-percent bureaus, but there will be plenty of speakers who will,” says Scott Friedman, CSP, a motivational humorist and national vice president, National Speakers Association, Phoenix. “I think some more-established speakers and celebrities will move to a net fee plus add-on commission type business model. Not a significant number, though.”
“I know of only two bureaus that have gone up to 30 percent,” says Ruth Levine, founder of Speak Inc., San Diego, when asked about the bureaus' perspective. “And they have gotten some push back from speakers.”
Another hot button is the impact of “spiffs” on bureaus' recommendations to meeting planners. Spiffs are an up-front, one-time payment speakers pay bureaus to book them. “Bureaus feel they have many good options to fill most slots and, all things being equal, may choose based on a spiff,” says Friedman. “That being said, I believe that spiffs reflect negatively on the industry because of the perception of unfair business practices and therefore should not be used. It's much cleaner for a speaker to send a gift to the bureau representative afterward if they so choose, but not up front as a spiff.”
Adds Levine: “No reputable speaker bureau agent would book solely on spiffs, because it would come back to bite them. Our goal is to develop long-term relationships.”