Rich pickings at the executive dining table
After-dinner speaking can be a lucrative alternative career for some celebrities.
Thursday 11 June 1998
The listeners are enraptured. George Cohen, right-back in the victorious England side, leans across the table. "What Jack is telling you is exactly what Alf Ramsey did," he confides.
Kenneth Wolstenholme, the veteran commentator, thrills everyone with his closing line of the match: "They think it's all over ... it is now."
It sounds like pub reminiscing but in fact, it's a private lunch at the Hilton Hotel involving hundreds of company directors. They are not talking about interest rate rises or EMU, however. Last Friday, the Institute of Directors hired all surviving members of the 1966 England team. For pounds 125 a plate, business people and their clients listened to Geoff Hurst describe his hat-trick.
The team will have split a fee upwards of pounds 15,000 between them for the lunch event. The likes of Nobby Stiles and Martin Peters are part of a massive and growing market in public speaking. Indeed, they don't even have to speak. Ray Wilson, who played left-back in the 1966 team, is so shy he just signs autographs.
It's not just sport personalities who are in demand. "Any kind of ex-cabinet minister, in any way sensible and with a reasonable profile, can command a price," says Stanley Jackson of Food for Sport, purveyor of celebrity speakers. "The market price would start at pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000 and goes to pounds 35,000 for the likes of Margaret Thatcher."
Jackson runs one of half a dozen leading London agencies. Typically, big companies present them with a budget to guarantee their top executives have a good time or go away with a message from the latest thinker or figure of inspiration. Attendance is usually either obligatory or by invitation, so the speaker needn't worry about an audience.
Flavour of the month is Richard Noble, who recently set the world land speed record and now commands about pounds 5,000 per event. "Richard is a very popular motivational speaker," says Jeremy Lee of JLA, the London-based speaker bureau. "Audiences want to hear someone who has had a vision, put it into practice and has a few lessons from experience which can be translated into the corporate environment."
You don't have to be a Ranulph Fiennes or Chris Bonington to fit into this category. Heather Mills, the former model who lost a leg at 25 when knocked down by a police motorcyclist, is box-office. Now 29, her story is of personal courage - her campaigning has led to 30,000 artificial limbs being shipped from Britain to the victims of landmine explosions. Terry Waite can charge up to pounds 15,000 for his kidnapping tale. Col Bob Stewart, former UN commander in Bosnia, is considered good value talking about crisis management for pounds 3,000.
Then there are the business gurus who write a best-seller and then sing for their supper around the world. Top billing this year goes to the American academic Rosabeth Moss-Kanter, who takes home $60,000 a time in the States for proselytising her "Three Cs" guide to success - good business concepts, competence and far-flung connections. Richard Scace, Professor of Organisation Behaviour at the University of Kent, is a British futurologist much in demand on pounds 5,000 a time.
"I've recently sent him to conferences in Argentina, Oslo and Jersey," says Brendan Barns, of Speakers for Business, another London agency. But there are surprisingly few business heroes who make it on to the circuit. Sir John Harvey-Jones still makes a killing. Tim Waterstone is making waves at pounds 4,000 a time. But few other household names are available.
The biggest financial hitters are the men who have run wars. So Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf makes $175,000 for offering proximity to, and insight into, supreme power. Colin Powell is up there with former American presidents who can expect $100,000 a speech (although the ex-president George Bush charges a $20,000 premium).
It's not easy to get into the big league. Those who could command large sums are often not permitted to speak for money because they are in public positions or because, like Richard Branson (whom everyone wants), they don't have the time or the interest. Those out of office have often failed and lose their appeal. You also need an international profile. So most British politicians are too parochial - Margaret Thatcher being the exception.
"Chris Patten is very busy at the moment," Brendan Barns says. Being in charge of the Hong Kong handover has given him important expertise on China and Asia. He can cost up to pounds 20,000 in the UK. "In the US, where the market is much more established, a speaker can double his fee," Barns says. Leading Authorities, an American agency, publishes a 150-page list of speakers covering everything from "dealing with difficult people" to "political humour and satire", with published fee ranges going up to $75,000 plus. John Major is signed up with the prestigious Washington Speakers Bureau, which pitches for $50,000 a speech, in effect pricing him out of the British market.
New stars are constantly emerging. Jeremy Lee's tip for next year's hot speaker is Helmut Kohl, if he loses the German elections, and Nelson Mandela when he retires ($100,000). Brendan Barns favours Sir John Weston, at present British ambassador to the UN, who retires in three weeks' time.
Speakers can also lose their appeal. Anita Roddick used to be much in demand but her star is setting as The Body Shop finds itself in trouble. In May, Lech Walesa was booked to speak in central London to 2,500 paying guests. The event had to be cancelled because of lack of interest. He was yesterday's man. Next year, they are trying for Benazir Bhutto at around $30,000.
Nevertheless, the emerging market, which in Europe is largely run by British agencies, leaves lots of room for the famous to make a healthy living. Journalists such as Martyn Lewis, Anna Ford, Trevor McDonald and Laurie Taylor are great beneficiaries. Peter Hobday, former presenter of Radio 4's Today programme, is ubiquitous. "He has the added advantage of not still being with the programme, so he is more available," says Jeremy Lee. "Well-known presenters can be used to suggest objectivity at big company events. During Q&A sessions, the chief executive appears to be given a hard time, when in fact a lot of questions have been worked out beforehand."
And some people never go out of fashion. Who is the favourite comedian, guaranteed to leave your business clients with a great after-dinner glow? Make your booking fast for the immortal Bob Monkhouse.
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