Got a hot gala planned in Maui? Think it would be great to get the “queen of soul” to headline? Better think again. “Aretha Franklin is not going to get on a plane,” says talent buyer and producer Phelps Hope of Atlanta-based Aspen Productions, noting the celebrated singer's aversion to flying. • Knowing the stars' travel quirks is just one of the jobs of a top event entertainment company. Here, an A-list of entertainment pros shares secrets for booking the best act, scoring a great deal and getting on with the show.
MAKING THE MATCH
Marrying events with appropriate entertainment is priority one, booking pros say.
For Hope, that means steering clients away from what he calls “the emotional buy.” Putting an older, sophisticated crooner in front of an audience of 25-year-olds because the client company's CEO is the singer's biggest fan, for instance, can be a “crucial mistake,” he says. “The audience has a terrible time. Then you've wasted all your food and beverage, travel, everything.”
Knowing what the client needs guests to be doing during entertainment also helps Hope avoid mismatches. For a networking atmosphere, he says he might suggest singer Al Jarreau, who provides “a nightclub kind of feel.” On the other hand, if clients want audience interactivity, rocker Rod Stewart is a probably a no-go, he says. “You love him or leave him, and you don't rock the boat or he's off the stage.”
Gary Good, president of Oklahoma City-based Gary Good Entertainment and Speakers Bureau, says that matching entertainment to event theme without taking the audience into account can be a recipe for disaster. He notes one situation in which a New York-based client hosting an event in the Midwest insisted on a country act to entertain an audience of New Yorkers at a Western themed event. “After about 10 minutes the novelty wore off and people were looking at each other like, ‘What do we do with this?’” Good says. “Fortunately there was another aspect of the evening that was able to shift gears.”
Paul Creighton, CSEP, executive vice president of Orlando, Fla.-based booking and production company T. Skorman Productions, takes into account not just demographics but also venue variables. “Can we rig?” he may ask. “Is there a low ceiling?” According to Creighton, these questions are critical, especially if a client is considering a “more theatrical production,” such as an act based on popular dance-and-percussion group Stomp — a hot ticket these days, he says.
Also essential to providing the right entertainment, experts say, is knowing when a budget will flex, when it's locked and how to give clients the most for their money.
With cash-conscious clients, says Chris Janese, executive vice president of San Diego-based TBA Entertainment, “We're not a company who's going to say, ‘You don't have a lot of money to spend, so let's throw in some B-league act that's not going to deliver what you need to deliver.’” For a company with $20,000 to spend on entertainment for a conference-closing gala, for instance, he may provide a film crew to shoot a video scrapbook that could be screened at the event — even copied onto tapes for guests to take home as keepsakes.
While there are times when budgets are firm, says Leonard Neil, president of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Leonard Neil Productions, there are other times when the client may want to spend an additional several thousand dollars to get a more desirable act. “It's sort of like buying a pair of shoes that are on sale, but they hurt your feet,” he explains. “Well, yeah, you only spent $40 for the shoes, but you can't wear them. Whereas if you spent $50 for a pair of shoes that you wear all the time, that would have been a good investment.”
Merv Goldstein, president of Woodland Hills, Calif.-based American Event Entertainment, adds that professional booking companies like his own typically save clients money on the bottom line, despite charging a fee that usually ranges from 10 percent to 20 percent of the entertainment cost. He notes one situation in which a client planning an event in Singapore had been trying to deal directly with an artist's agent. Besides a higher artist's fee, the client faced retail prices on airline tickets for the artist's travel. When Goldstein eventually took charge, “We cut their cost by $100,000, charged them $10,000 and saved them $90,000,” he says, “and also they had no aggravation.”
Taking care with artists' contracts is as much a part of the entertainment professional's job as matching events with entertainment.
Familiarity with an artist's rider — the list of requirements from onstage lighting to backstage buffet to dressing room decor, which is attached to every act's contract — helps Jim Corrieri forge successful deals. As an example, the production manager for New York-based Empire Entertainment notes that dance favorite Earth, Wind & Fire is a great party act, but says the band's rider calls for a bottle of wine that can cost up to $1,000. “It's because of our relationship with Earth, Wind & Fire over the years that we can say, ‘We're not going to go out in Mexico City and hunt down this bottle of wine,’” he says. “Our clients come to us because they know they're not going to have to deal with issues like that.”
The formal “offer letter” a booking company issues to an act's agent on behalf of the client can also cause problems if not handled properly, Hope says. Though it lacks “a lot of wherefores and therefores,” he explains, the letter is considered a contract. If the client company wants to cancel after both parties have signed the offer, it can expect to pay 50 percent of the total contract cost, he says. Once the actual contract has been signed, a client can expect to pay the full cost for canceling — even for changing dates, which is considered canceling and re-booking, he adds. “You've got to be very, very careful when you pull the trigger. I make sure that the client is aware of all these things before I move ahead.”
Speaking from entertainment's supply side, Chris Burke, vice president of the William Morris Agency, says a change in perception among artists has been a boon to clients looking for big-name talent.
According to Burke, who oversees corporate and special event bookings for the Los Angeles-based entertainment powerhouse, there was a time when A-list entertainers regarded the corporate gig as the signal of a career slide. “It was something they didn't even want to think about,” he says. “Until they realized that some of the guys that are doing it are flying on private jets and playing at beautiful golf courses and staying at the Four Seasons and keeping the majority of the money. And all of a sudden, it's not so bad.”
A new respect for the lucrative proposition of special events, coupled with tech-boom startups with young, hip leaders at the helm, has helped draw a flood of top-tier acts to the event world over the past several years, Burke says. He cites Sheryl Crow, The Eagles, Whitney Houston and Busta Rhymes — all William Morris clients — as some of the heavy-hitters who are wowing today's corporate event crowds.
But if you're thinking of booking Whitney, Burke says, use an entertainment professional to get her. Corporate clients who call William Morris directly thinking they can “save a buck” are likely to be directed back to a professional talent buying or production company that is capable of providing a positive experience for the performer. “Whether it's a $2,500 artist or a $100,000 artist,” Burke says, “they need to come back to me and say, ‘That was great. That was cool. I want to do more.’”
RESOURCES American Event Entertainment, 818/888-1672; Aspen Productions, 770/955-6656; Empire Entertainment, 212/343-1645; Gary Good Entertainment and Speakers Bureau, 405/840-2020; Leonard Neil Productions, 888/453-1137; TBA Entertainment, 858/509-8700; T. Skorman Productions, 407/895-3000; William Morris Agency, 310/859-4000 See this story on the Web at www.specialevents.com.