One of the oldest tricks in the event professional’s bag is booking a big-name speaker to get people in the seats. A little star power can be a powerful motivator for selling tickets or convincing people to stay until the last day of a conference. But they can bring baggage to the stage as well—in today’s #MeToo climate, it is more important than ever to find out what you don’t know.

What to Look For

Nancy Lauterbach, co-founder of Michigan-based RedPropeller Speakers Bureau, stresses the importance of doing due diligence on everything from accusations of sexual or other misconduct to inappropriate social media activity. She cites a recent search into the postings of a proposed speaker for a banking group that turned up comments inconsistent with the mission of the group.  As a result, she contacted the manager to pull a contract that had been sent. “You really have to be careful today,” Lauterbach says.

Another background check that paid off occurred when motivational speaker Rudy Ruettiger, former University of Notre Dame football player and the inspiration for the movie Rudy, was charged with security fraud by the SEC. The case was settled out of court, but still. “If a celebrity is accused—even if it isn’t proven—that may not be what you want at an event,” Lauterbach says. If a group books the speaker despite a controversy, she wants them to be forewarned—to be prepared for any fallout.

Similarly, when a group brings a comedian to the stage, Lauterbach wants to know in advance what is coming. Does it need to be family friendly? If the comic’s routine is edgy, to what degree? “That needs to be clear with all parties,” she says.

What to Negotiate

Even when celebrities bring a clean reputation, they still require extra care, Lauterbach says. Because she has been booking speakers since the 1980s, she knows which ones in her stable are more difficult to work with, and can share that in advance with planners. “A celebrity often demands to call the shots; they can have a lot of handlers and strict time limits,” she warns.

For that reason, Lauderbach suggests extra diligence in upfront negotiation.

  • Will they come in the night before?
  • Will they answer questions and take photos after the presentation?
  • Will they stay for a VIP event?
  • Will they share content to make marketing the event easier?
  • Do they have any special travel or hotel requests?

We have all heard about Van Halen’s contract requiring no brown M&Ms. Take no chances. Ask before signing on the dotted line.