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Spicing Up Conferences : At Celebrity Speakers Firm, Talk Isn't Cheap

October 22, 1985|ALAN GOLDSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

When Bob Levine, president of the Southern California sales group for Printing Industries of America, is afraid that no one will show up at his meeting every other month, he gives Al Blender a call.

A silver-haired man with a glad-to-see-you handshake, Blender, 68, is a speaker's agent. He arranged for ex-astronaut Scott Carpenter to rouse mobile-home sales people in Tampa, Fla., and he put economist Arthur Laffer in front of brokers from San Diego-based Sentra Securities.

Helps to 'Make It Fun'

Blender is director of the Celebrity Speakers Entertainment Bureau, a small Westlake Village company whose clients include Carpenter and Laffer, as well as Zsa Zsa Gabor, the actress, comedienne Phyllis Diller and game-show host Geoff Edwards. The speakers bureau is part of a growing business of talent agencies that send personalities to business conferences.

"People look at these meetings as an extension of work, and frankly, most would rather not go if they could get out of it," Blender said. "So you've got to make it fun for them."

Many speakers, like actress Tina Louise who played Ginger on "Gilligan's Island," are invited just for fun. But some lecturers educate and motivate workers, organizers say.

For example, Levine wanted a "role-model figure to get the sales people really pumped up" at his meeting in January. He asked for Pat Haden, the former Los Angeles Rams quarterback who is now an attorney and CBS sportscaster. "We were all competitors in that room, and Pat had just the right kind of touch to get everyone really excited," Levine said.

Blender's company has few local competitors. The big speakers' agencies are in New York, Washington or Boston--close to the associations and firms that use them most often. On the West Coast, many local celebrities are represented by the same agents who get them in night clubs or on television commercials.

The Celebrity Speakers Entertainment Bureau books some college dates, an industry mainstay, but focuses more on developing contacts with businesses and associations. "Program chairmen at colleges change every semester, and it gets too difficult to establish a relationship," Blender said.

With 140 celebrity clients, the company expects to book 260 engagements this year. In 1984, it arranged for 200. The fee for a typical half-hour talk with a 15-minute question-and-answer session ranges from $500 to $10,000. Travel arrangements and accommodations are arranged separately and paid by the host organization.

Most speakers have set fees. The Celebrity Speakers Entertainment Bureau bills organizations directly, then takes a 30% cut. The percentages at other agencies range from 10% to 40%.

Fleetwood Enterprises, a Riverside mobile-home manufacturer, paid $4,000 for Carpenter. Laffer cost Sentra Securities $6,000. Levine paid $3,000 for Haden.

Madam Commands $1,000

Blender books a former madam for $1,000 a speech. "Who knows more about management problems than a madam?" he asked.

His company employs five at its offices inside National Superstar Inc., a company that arranges real estate seminars. The two partners of National Superstar, Tony Hoffman and Bob Francis, each own one-third of the bureau. The other third is held by Bruce Merrin, a public relations specialist.

Harry Walker Inc., a big New York speakers' bureau, represents the hottest names on the lecture circuit--national politicians. Walker can ask more than $20,000 for former President Gerald Ford, ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger or ex-vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro.

Kenneth Eisenstein, vice president for sales at the American Program Bureau, one of the nation's largest speakers' agencies with 2,000 engagements a year, said most of his clients receive $2,000 to $10,000. His percentage varies, he said.

The American Program Bureau lists consumer advocate Ralph Nader and G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate figure, among its clients. Liddy spoke last year to a chapter meeting of the National Management Assn. at H. R. Textron in Valencia.

Dean Offers Different View

For a different perspective on Watergate, the group paid $3,500 for ex-White House counsel John Dean, one of Blender's clients, to speak last week. Dean, now an investment banker living in Beverly Hills, said after the lecture that he speaks because he enjoys it, not for the money.

"My normal function might have been to come in there and talk about leveraged buy-outs, equity capital or capital markets," Dean said. "But that's not what they called on me to speak on tonight."

Terrence L. Collins, vice president of the host chapter, said Dean's lecture had a lesson for managers. "The lecture's message was that access to top management is vital," Collins said. "Dean said he tried to warn the President but his influence wasn't great enough."

Even a lecture by a joke-book writer contained a serious message for those attending an August convention in Anaheim of the National Coffee Service Assn. "I talked about how a sense of humor can improve customer relations," said writer Larry Wilde, who has contracts with several speakers' bureaus and gives 40 lectures a year for about $1,500 each.

That makes him a bargain contrasted with many of the other speakers. Diller commands $15,000, Gabor costs $7,500 and quiz host Edwards $3,000. And, 18 years after Gilligan's Island sunk to rerun status, the program's "Ginger" costs $7,500.

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