Maritz Global Events Blog

Your Big-Name Keynote Speaker is a No Show. So Now What?

You and your team have been trying to book a big-name, big draw keynote speaker for years. Finally, the stars align, and their bureau and booking agent say yes! But at the last minute, they're out. What do you do?

You shared the news the day the contract was signed via a press release, your event website, and social media.

The result? Attendance is at an all-time high, and energy at your convention has never been better.

You are four-eight hours away from their arrival time, and you get the dreaded call.

“I’m so sorry but (insert celebrity name) isn’t able to come to your conference. They’re:

…snowed in at the airport

…under doctor’s order not to travel

…in ER with their child or

…required to return to the studio to cover breaking news.”

Your heart sinks. Now what?

Here are several tips to keep your conference moving forward, even with this scheduling glitch.

Dos and Don’ts When a Big-Name Keynote Speaker Cancels

DON’T panic.

Take notes and listen to what the caller is saying.

Follow the next step while you have them on the phone.

DO brainstorm options.

Ask the following questions:

  • Can the presenter get to your destination later tonight or tomorrow? Is the keynote address at the beginning of your session? Try to shuffle your schedule around to move them to the middle or end of your conference.

  • Can the speaker be available for live streaming? If they are stuck in an airport or have to attend to a family emergency, can they carve out a couple of hours to go to a local studio? Make it easy for them by locating the closest one to them. Have your AV team on standby if this option becomes a reality.

Is there someone they’d recommend that lives where your host city is?

  • If your conference is in LA or NYC, you will have a bigger pool of well-known names to pull from for your event. But, if you are in a third-tier city, options become much narrower.

DON’T automatically accept the benchwarmer.

The speaker’s bureau or agent may talk up two-three replacements they have available to step in.

They may or may not be the same caliber as your keynote presenter.

Gather all relevant information and let them know you’ll get back to them within a couple of hours.

DO call together your stakeholders.

Before your conference began, you identified a crisis team.

Bring that team together at your command central and determine who is going to do what.

Time is of the essence – so agree to meet back in one hour with updates.

Here are the activities that need to happen at once:

  • If the speaker or speaker's bureau has presenter recommendations, vet them

  • If live-streaming is possible, bring the AV team into the loop to work out all the technical details

  • Reach out to all your company resources for presenter recommendations and vet them.

DON’T fill the time with a networking activity.

If your attendance is up over last year’s, chances are they came to hear your well-known speaker.

Replace that person with another opportunity to mingle and they may not return next year.

DO reconvene and make a decision.

Review, discuss and come to a consensus about what to do.

Remember, whatever your team decides, there is some level of risk associated with that decision.

There may be negative fallout, so have a plan in place to address it at that meeting.

Have you experienced a keynote no-show at your conference or convention? Please let us know how you solved the problem in the comments section below.

De-de Mulligan is the President and Chief Content Strategist for Mulligan Management Group. As a former meeting planner who has received Ohio MPI’s Planner of the Year award twice (2006 & 2012), she brings a unique perspective to these blog posts.