It's every event planner's worst nightmare. The keynote speaker is a no show. (Is there a pit forming in the pit of your stomach?)
Unfortunately, it does happen. Speakers can get hit by a slew of unfortunate events - sickness, missed flights, accidents, emergencies - if it can happen to you, it can happen to them.
We're not talking about missing an event because of uncontrollable circumstances; this is about when a keynote speaker cancels because something else came up.
It's not pretty. It's important to know though that although you can't control everything, you can come close.
Here are a few ways to save your event if your keynote speaker doesn't show up:
Have a clause in the speaking contract that if the Keynote speaker cancels
Like in any business, contracts are everything. If you are hiring the keynote speaker, they may provide a contract , or they may ask to use yours. Also, a speaker bureau will have their contract. Either way, make sure you have a clear policy on keynote speaker cancellations.
It doesn't happen often, but I have heard of keynote speakers canceling a gig last minute because they got a better speaking engagement. If you have a clear contract, you can help avoid this. Include a contractual clause that if the guest speaker cancels on the event, the deposit will be refunded.
If a keynote speaker doesn't make it because of the weather, this is unavoidable. This has happened to me twice, and the meeting planners both asked me to keep the deposit and scheduled me in for the following year. They were also nice enough to cover my travel expenses.
However, more often, I'm hearing of speakers canceling because something else came up. This is not ok. A contract is a commitment that you shouldn't break, especially if you have hundreds of people waiting to hear that speaker's message. How do you know if the keynote speaker is canceling for legitimate reasons or not? In most cases, I think you trust them. However, if they say it's weather or flight cancellations, check on the flight and see what happened. Today, everything is pretty transparent. You can check keynote speakers' social media for any updates and do a google search to see what shows up. A cancellation clause is different than not showing up for personal reasons or weather, and you need a clause for purposeful cancellations.
I have had a couple of national events that put a clause in the contract stating a specific penalty if a keynote speaker cancels. In one case, it was upwards of $10,000. I asked the meeting planner why it was so steep; she said they have had some very high profile keynote speakers cancel, and the only thing that prevents this is a stiff penalty.
Have a strong keynote speaker arrival protocol.
As a keynote speaker, I travel to over a hundred events a year. Every event has its protocol for how they communicate and handle guest speakers' arrival, microphone check, AV setup up, and more. Some events are very organized and coordinate every detail in advance. Others leave it up to the speaker to show up on time and be prepared. I try to judge by the planning committee how involved they want to be. However, it can get confusing. Some event planners say nothing about timelines like arrival, mic check, etc. and I make sure I am where I'm supposed to be well in advance. Usually, these organizers are in panic mode throughout the event, wondering where their speakers are.
The best-organized events will send out an email at least a week in advance to all their guest and keynote speakers. This email details:
Arrival protocol. Every guest speaker should send the meeting planner a quick note that they arrived at the venue the night before they speak. These days, I find text messaging is the best, fastest method. An event planner's email is often set to an autoresponder while they are at the event, so they may not get the email. Many people today don't answer their phones anymore, and they may not pick up voicemail.
Also include any specific timelines for AV checks, etc. Be very clear about how early a keynote speaker should be at the conference venue before they speak. Also, outline anything the guest speaker needs to bring with them (i.e., handouts is they use them or their PowerPoint). A keynote speaker may be more likely to cancel if they don't have a lot of correspondence from the event planning team. If they do cancel, they may do it last minute, and you need time for a backup plan.
Check out this article on creating effective keynote speaker agreements.
Also, have keynote speakers register for the event in advance and outline what other sessions ( and meals) they will attend.
- Some of the best events have a backup keynote speaker in mind. This is not easy to arrange, especially if the keynote speaker you hired initially has a lot of notoriety. I have been hired as a backup to a keynote speaker twice now. As the keynote speakers both showed up, I presented a break out session instead.
- Call a local speaker bureau for an alternative recommendation. If not, contact your local NSA Chapter to find a replacement.
- Some meeting planners cringe at this idea, but why not try putting a call out for local keynote speakers on Social Media?
- Have a backup activity in the wings. If all else fails, have something energizing and engaging, an activity suitable for a general plenary session. You could create a networking opportunity, Or plan a last-minute panel as they did at the MPI, Meeting Planners International, World Education Conference.
Keynote speaker make their living on their reputation. Canceling on an event is not something most speakers would do. However, it does happen, and you don't want it to affect your event. I've seen what happens when a keynote doesn't show up for whatever reason, and the event planner is caught scrambling, looking for a solution.Having a keynote speaker fail to show with little notice doesn't happen often, but when it does, if you aren't prepared, it can be a disaster.
I hope that never happens to you!