Note: I drafted this way before the current coronavirus global pandemic. Given the devastation this has wrecked on the global conference market, I thought about shelving it for better days. However, I think that events now have a heavy incentive to become virtual experiences. That means that finding creative way to reward speakers will be more important than ever since travel will be less of a perk for the foreseeable future.
I’ve been fortunate to develop my public speaking to the level where I regularly receive some form of cash compensation for my presentations. Speakers engage in a large amount of labor including creating compelling talks, rehearsing, taking on the stress of travel, and then presenting on stage in a way that will keep the attention of attendees. Since speakers often drive ticket sales, it makes sense to share a portion of that revenue with the people who create valuable content for the event.
However, event organizes often expect speakers to do all of this labor without payment. Despite having prominent sponsors and often charging hundreds of dollars per ticket, they may not have the budget to pay speakers. Also, the event may be in a country where paying speakers presents difficult tax or visa complications.
There are creative ways that conference organizers can compensate speakers without making direct cash payments.
There are few things nicer than getting an unexpected gift. Providing some token of your appreciation, especially if tied to the host city or theme of the conference, can do a lot to cement your relationship with your speakers. While it’s ideal to receive these gifts in person, they can also be shipped to speakers after the event.
I once received a pair of cowboy boots from a conference held in Nashville, Tennessee. The conference had to plan in advance by asking me for my shoe size when I registered for my speaker ticket. I was very appreciative of this gesture, and I still remember that conference when I wear my boots even though that event was years ago.
Let’s be honest. It takes a certain amount of vanity to get on stage in front of hundreds of people and expect them to benefit from what you have to say. You can appeal to this vanity by providing personalized gifts like bags or chargers. You can also have a special “speaker” version of the conference shirt or hoodie that’s identifies as a speaker and includes their name.
There are two events in Budapest that offer hand drawn pictures of the speaker and then give them to the speakers in a nice frame. I really cherish these pieces of personalized art, and I wish more events did the same. To pull this off, the event organizers asked for headshots in advance, and the artist included the conference’s symbol in the drawing. I’ve also seen other speakers receive these portraits with an interesting background image like the skyline of the host city. Others had their portraits drawn in the likeness of their favorite super hero.
While not as personal as a themed gift, a gift card can be a nice gesture. You can provide an electronic gift card to reduce the burden of having to collect a physical item.
If event organizers plan ahead, they can ask speakers to provide the name of their favorite restaurant when they register for the event. You can then provide a gift card for that restaurant after the event ends.
Many event organizers arrange hotels for speakers, and these hotels often have gyms and spas. You can make sure speakers have free access to the gyms and also one or more free services in the spa such as a massage, manicure, pedicure, etc.
If you have a virtual event, you can still leverage relationships with hotels that have properties in the home cities of your speakers and negotiate providing these services there.
Most speakers have a full time job in addition to speaking, and event organizers can provide assistance no matter where they are in their career.
When a speaker registers for the event, ask if they are looking for work. If they indicate that they are, then ask them to indicate their desired roles and if they’re interested in working at one of the sponsors or vendors of the event. Since sponsors and vendors are often involved in events to find talent, you can then arrange one-on-one meetings between the speakers and the companies that match their interests and background.
I’ve seen a number of events that provide speakers free access to sessions but not to the workshops. You can invest in the professional development of the speakers by also giving them free access to one or more workshops.
You can ask speakers in advance to pick a charity, and you can then make a contribution in the name of the speaker to that charity. You can go a step further and ask speakers to pick from a list of charities that align with the theme, mission, or interests of your event.
While these ideas will require some room in your budget (and have to wait until the lockdowns imposed due to the coronavirus are lifted), they can go a long way towards rewarding your speakers without directly paying speaker fees.
Lump Sum Reimbursement
If the speaker is arranging their own travel arrangements, event organizers can offer a lump sum reimbursement. That means that instead of directly paying the exact cost of the flight, hotel, etc.), the speaker can be offered a set amount that they will be reimbursed. This requires knowing a reasonable range of travel costs based on the speaker’s point of origin. This benefits the speaker by letting them pocket the difference if they find great deals for their travel costs. Speakers can also get creative with how they arrange their travel. For example, some may choose to use reward miles for their flights and then get the cash value from the reimbursement.
Fly first class or business class
For event organizers who are arranging flights for speakers, bumping their travel to first class or business class can greatly ease the stress of travel. This is especially valuable for long international flights.
Upgraded hotel room
Similar to flights, booking upgraded hotel rooms can go a long ways towards making travel easier for speakers. This is even better when perks like a free breakfast can be included.
Event organizers can use the event itself as a way to make speakers feel welcome and special. These ideas also have to wait until current travel restrictions are lifted, but now is a great time to start negotiating for their inclusion in your budget.
Upgraded Green Room
Most events provide speakers a green room, but you can take it up a notch by providing upgraded snacks and coffee. You can also negotiate with your food service provider to give speakers an upgraded version of the meals provided during the event.
Speakers often have to use green rooms to take calls before and after their speaking slot, so having hygienically cleaned noise cancelling bluetooth headphones can make this an easier experience.
As a speaker, I have to manage a lot of details when I’m getting ready to go on stage at your event. I have to make sure I arrive in time to do an audio check, make sure my laptop is compatible with your system, drink enough water to stay hydrated but not so much that I have a full bladder in the middle of my presentation, etc. Assigning a volunteer to each speaker to be their own concierge can make it easier to manage these little details. Make sure you explain to both the volunteer and the speaker what concierge services are available. This can be as simple as getting some water or as complex as recommending nearby restaurants and making reservations for the speaker later that night.
Speakers often find it difficult to explore the cities they visit to speak at conferences due to the preparation time needed to perform well on stage as well as the need to attend to their regular job and also stay in contact with their families and friends. Making it easier to see more of the city can make their trip even more memorable. These ideas are also dependent on current travel restrictions being lifted.
Most event organizers have relationships with representatives from the local city government. You can use these relationships to arrange tours of the host city. This can be as simple as a bus tour around the city that stops at tourist attractions.
I’ve been to conferences hosted at beautiful museums, opera houses, train stations, and other architecturally interesting locations. Providing special access to these venues can provide speakers with memories of your event that they will long remember.
While this requires a substantial budget, providing experiences for speakers that they may not have access to in their home cities is great way to reward them for their time. This can include golfing, sailing, fishing, hiking, etc.
Coming up with creative non-cash ways to compensate speakers for the labor they perform for your event can go a long way towards helping them feel appreciated. Furthermore, events that find novel ways to reward speakers will attract more speaker interest in the future.