Every meeting planner has the same nightmare… They use months organizing the perfect event for their company or association, with an eagle’s eye for every detail. Then at the last minute their keynote speaker backs out. Programs are printed, people are arriving and there is nobody to take the stage.
While scarce, this does happen now and then. While there is no excuse good enough for the meeting planner, I have known of speakers who have had travel issues with airlines, been in car accidents, gotten the flu, calendared the wrong date, or had a family emergency.
A speaker no-show is more shared for small groups that are not paying the presenter or use local executives for their program. Professionals make their living serving the client and will move mountains and part the oceans to be at the event. Because specialized speakers work with meeting planners everyday they understand and respect all the nuances that go into executing a meeting.
I have seen events of all sizes scramble at the last minute to fill an open slot in their agenda. Below are four things you can do if your speaker cancels at the last minute. (These apply for both local business club luncheons or a large multi-day industry conferences):
1. Always have a Plan B. I have worked with several organizations who have my phone number on speed dial in case of a need for a last-minute speaker. While you might not think this would be something that would happen very often, I have filled in seven times in the last four years (last minute can average a few days in before the event, several hours in improvement, or once I was pulled from the audience to deliver a 45 minute keynote).
Savvy specialized speakers also have a network of industry friends they can recommend who can step in at the last minute if a problem occurs. While you never want to get that call from your speaker saying they are too ill to speak to your audience, if they have already found a fantastic solution it will make your day much better. (Speakers who are members of the National Speakers Association can tap into this network no matter where in the world they are scheduled to speak).
2. Look to your event agenda, past speakers or future speakers. A multi-day industry event will have a complete docket of speakers who will already be present. Look to see whose program could be up-graded from a break-out to a keynote. If it is a break-out session you need to fill, see if the keynote speaker has more information that can be delivered as a “booster shot” to those who might want more following his or her main stage program (some speakers will charge you for the additional presentation, but most will be happy to step in and help you out in your time of need).
If it is a local business luncheon, look at your list of past speakers you have had over the last two years and see if you can bring one of them back for an encore presentation. Since they already know the audience and the venue, they might be comfortable filling in with little notice.
Additionally, maybe a future speaker would be willing to come in and do his talk early. Some people might not be able to do this from a preparation stand-point, but asking is always a good idea.
3. Create a round-table lab. Your audience is complete of bright people. Select two or three topic questions that are cutting-edge and include timely issues. Get someone on the board or planning committee to be the Master of Ceremonies and explain openly and honestly about how the speaker could not be there. Next proclaim this to be a fantastic and rare opportunity to crowd source knowledge and best-practices. Make the audience the idols. Then proportion the discussion topics, having each table elect a discussion leader. Every few minutes the MC will encourage a new question be bantered about at the tables. During the last 20 minutes of the meeting each table reports to the whole the best thoughts shared in their group.
4. Make it a networking opportunity. Turn the speaker-less meeting into a “Networking Speed Dating Bonanza” by encouraging people make more contacts. Extend the reception time, and once seated for the meal have everyone introduce themselves around their table. When dessert is served encourage everyone to move to a new seat in the room.
A main reason people attend business events is for the “networking opportunities”, and most meeting planners let in that no matter how much time they schedule for people to mingle, they do not do a good job of it. Make this open time powerful by easing introductions and connections.
Leadership is paramount to success in this situation. If you confidently communicate to the attendees that the meeting will nevertheless have an equal or greater impact, then they will follow. If you are timid about the changes to the program being positive, then they are lost.