When a Club Hosts a Speaker
by Steven Pro
by Steven Pro
As an aquarium society grows, they inevitably want to bring in out of town experts to educate their membership. The first thing that the club leadership needs to determine is, what would the members like to hear about? Do they want to hear the latest on reef aquarium lighting or would they prefer to discover the most recent breakthroughs in marine fish breeding? Some clubs prefer hands-on workshops on things like coral fragmentation, aquarium photography, aquascaping, fish necropsy, or acrylic and PVC fabrication. While other clubs might prefer more formal, educational lectures or picture heavy travelogues. Once it has been decided what the club is looking for, finding a speaker to fill that niche is much easier.
The Marine Aquarium Society of North America (www.masna.org) provides a database of speakers, their contact information, and their specific requests to provide lectures and/or workshops to their member clubs. I urge you to take advantage of this resource, but if there are speakers not listed, do not hesitate to ask the board so that they can assist in locating and contacting the speaker. MASNA is also pleased to make suggestions or comments about the speakers in terms of their availability and the types of presentations they give (style, content, etc.). And, I am sure MASNA would like to hear about speakers that a club has had that is not currently listed. There could very well be some people out there that MASNA is unaware of that would be excellent additions to the database.
There is another very good reason for a club to take a look at MASNA. It is their MASNA Speaks program. It is basically an opportunity for a MASNA member club to get up to $300 to subsidize the costs of bringing in an out of town speaker. Given that it only costs a club $50 a year to join MASNA, this is a great deal! Note that a club has to join MASNA and apply for the MASNA Speaks program well in advance (at least 30 days) of actually having the speaker come to town. It is not a retroactive program.
Making the Invitation
Once the club has decided on a speaker, it is best to have a club representative contact the speaker in the form of an invitation. The club contact person should ideally remain the person who maintains communication with the speaker. If multiple club members are in communication with the speaker, responses and information can be lost or repeated and speakers do not have a clear idea who is the best person to address in terms of logistics or problems. Invitations should begin with an introduction by the club member and include a brief background of the club and the event. Speakers want to know what to expect and will adjust their presentations according to the individual club. For example, a small club with a small meeting area has different projection needs than large rooms. A speaker may need to add higher resolution images to a lecture to accommodate larger audiences and projections to make the slides readable. Some clubs may have a preponderance of beginning hobbyists while others may consist largely of advanced hobbyists, and the speaker may need to adjust their presentations accordingly.
The club should then provide a number of possible dates for the event if possible to fit into the speaker’s schedule. If the speaker(s) is desired for a specific event where the date is not easily changed, the speaker should be invited well in advance of the event to minimize the possibility of date conflicts. The club should also outline clearly the time of the actual event, as well as any other planned activities so the speaker can arrange appropriate times for travel. If the invitation is made too far in advance, be aware that date conflicts may occur if the speaker has unintended conflicts arise (i.e. work related trips or unforeseen personal matters). In such cases, the club should periodically make contact with the speaker to make sure that all plans are still in place and on schedule. Likewise, if the club makes changes to the event program, be sure to notify the speaker as soon as they occur. After receiving acceptance letter from the speaker, there will be further communications necessary (described below), as well as logistics to address.
Most speakers prefer to book their own airfare rather than having the club set up airline travel arrangements. This way, the speaker can get the seat they like, fly on their preferred carrier, get frequent flyer mileage, and book dates and times that are convenient for them. Another good reason for having the speaker make his or her own bookings for airfare is because of security. Since 9-11-2001, security at every airport has gotten much stricter. If the host club misspells the speakers name on the ticket, forget about them making the meeting. Furthermore, the credit card used to book the flight is sometimes required to make changes to travel plans due to cancellations of flights or delays.
Just be sure the speaker flies into the correct airport. Some larger US cities have multiple airports. One in particular might be much more convenient to the meeting location or to the general membership. Be sure to inform the speaker as to which airport works best and I would suggest you provide them with the proper airport three letter code. The same applies if the club is booking the airfare for the speaker. Confirm ahead of time which airport they wish to leave home from. I recently read a newspaper story about a tennis player that went to Carlsbad for a tournament. Unfortunately, they went to Carlsbad, New Mexico instead of Carlsbad, California. That kind of problem could have easily been addressed by using the three letter airport codes instead of just the name of the town.
Once the flight has been booked, a confirmation email is usually issued to the to whomever made the reservation. The itinerary should be forwarded from the speaker to the club contact or vice versa. After the club gets the flight confirmation email, they should do two things: 1) arrange for transportation to and from the airport, and 2) issue a reimbursement check. The reimbursement should be handled as quickly as possible so that the speaker does not incur interest charges on their credit card while waiting for the check. If the club does not reimburse the speaker for their airfare immediately, or if the speaker indicates that reimbursement can wait for the event, then never forget to issue reimbursement immediately at the event. Do not let the speaker leave without being paid or reimbursed. Far too many speakers have a story to tell about their efforts trying to get reimbursed or even getting “stiffed” by clubs. This will quickly spread among speakers and your club will not be looked at favorably or may be balked by future speakers, especially the one who had a bad experience.
Some speakers may want the club to arrange their airfare, and the club should provide this service. Communication to ensure any preferred dates, times, and airports should be clearly understood by both parties. Once travel arrangements are made, the club should send the itinerary to the speaker along with any instructions. Whether or not the speaker or the club makes flight arrangements, it is in the interest of the club to ensure that the airfare is not unreasonable. Speakers usually understand this, but it is a good policy to communicate and help retain the best price on airfare, within reason. It is not a good idea to ask a speaker not to use their preferred carrier or to take multi-leg trips in order to save a few dollars. In general, I have found that airfares are highest when booked far in advance (before the airline knows if the flight will be full) and less than a week in advance. There is usually a period of 1-3 months in advance when fares seem to be lowest. The club and speaker can help in this regard by checking airlines for specials and by periodically checking what current airline fares are since they vary by day and season. The club may want to consider that travel that involves at least one weekend day is usually cheaper than weekday travel. If clubs have members or partnerships where they have contacts that can provide the speaker free travel, discounted travel, or upgraded travel (first or business class), the club should make that information available to the speaker. I have been known to forego frequent flyer mileage on my preferred carrier in lieu of a business class upgrade on another carrier. Many speakers will also forego their preferred carrier if they know that they can save the club money by using another carrier (note: it is a good idea to pass some of this savings back to the speaker for their sacrifice).
Airport Arrival and Departure
This is a critical area often neglected by clubs. Make sure to inform the speaker in advance of their travel who will be meeting them at the airport, where to meet them at the airport (i.e inside at baggage claim, outside at passenger pickup), and provide at least two contact phone numbers for the speaker. The club should also be abreast of the arrival gate/airline for the speaker, check before leaving for the airport for any known flight delays or early arrivals, and for current traffic conditions. If there will be unexpected delays, make sure to have a means to contact the speaker by cell phone or by airport paging to let them know their pickup status on arrival. The club transport or contact should make the speaker aware of what they are wearing, what vehicle they are driving, their appearance, any signs they will be holding, or other means of identification. Likewise, the club contact or transport person should know how to identify the speaker. I have heard of times of speakers and their pickup person both wandering around airports looking at the eyes of strangers watching for some subtle sign of recognition. In this day and age, it is much easier to simply swap cell phone numbers to assist in a seamless pickup. This is also useful in making new arrangements in the case of delayed flights or if the pickup person gets caught in traffic. On departure, make sure that the speaker has plenty of time to get to the airport and does not find that they did not have adequate time through check-in and security to make their flight.
When speakers are driving to the event rather than flying, reimbursement for travel is usually only given once they arrive. Payment can be made from receipts for gasoline and tolls and should be doubled to account for the return trip. Alternately, the club can suggest that a standard mileage rate be used, such as the current government reimbursement rate. See the IRS website for information.
Other Travel Costs
Although your club event may only last an hour or a day, the speaker generally must take 2-3x that amount of time to attend, often having to take a full day of travel to and from your event. Included in this effort may be time and costs associated with preparation for the lecture or workshop; costs of driving to the airport in gas, mileage and tolls; parking fees, food and Internet fees at the airport, and otherwise unnecessary cell phone usage. These little fees can certainly add up and should be accounted for and reimbursed accordingly.
Most of the time, the club arranges for a hotel room for the speaker. These are usually booked on the basis of convenience to the meeting location as well as any side trips and/or the home of the person who will transport the speaker around town or to/from the airport. The accommodations do not have to be fancy; clean and convenient is fine, but budget rate motels should be avoided.
Choosing a hotel with a breakfast service is a good choice. Otherwise, plan to make your first stop with the speaker somewhere to eat on arrival or in the morning after their night in the hotel. Another strong benefit when selecting a hotel is free Internet access. This way the speaker is not cut off from his home or work, and today this is almost essential. If Internet access is not free, the club should at least offer to pay for access during the speaker’s stay. If no one in the club is familiar with the hotel choice, it is a good idea to search out reviews online. If a number of past guests have complained, it might be better to find another hotel.
When checking in, it is a good idea to go in with the speaker and make sure the check-in arrangements are taken care of properly. Hotels will usually ask for a credit card when checking in for incidentals: phone charges, room services, Internet, etc. Most often, incidental expenses should not occur, and make clear to the speaker what charges will be paid by the club. If the club is not providing meals elsewhere, or Internet, the club should allow these charges. Clearly, excessive expenditures should not be expected (i.e movies, min-bar expenses, excessive room service). These terms should be clear between the parties.
It should be noted that if the reservation for the hotel room is made online using a credit card, and the hotel staff has a second one from the speaker in their hand for incidentals, they may charge the room to the speaker’s credit card (i.e the one they have personally seen, verified the name, matched the drivers license to the reservation, and in general is more trustworthy than the one someone anonymously typed in on the Internet). Going in with the speaker ensures that they are not charged for their hotel room. On checkout, make sure that the club gets the hotel invoice from the front desk or the speaker (often, room charge invoices are slipped under the door of the guest the night before checkout) for the club records.
In general, invitations should be made early to help ensure the speaker can accept an event date. Travel arrangements are generally best left to the speaker, and these should be made in advance of the event, but usually do not need to be made immediately after the invitation. The club and the speaker should be in regular contact about the event and the logistics. The speaker should know in advance where they are staying and the schedule of events. Travel reimbursements should be made twice, ideally; for airfare immediately after the speaker sends confirmation, and immediately following the event for any additional reimbursements, fees, and/or honorariums. Make sure both parties are able to contact each other in multiple ways (email, phone, cell phone, address) and to at least two persons before and during the event.
These are certainly not necessary, but they go a long way towards making the stay a comfortable one. Nothing expensive is needed; snack food and a few bottled beverages are usually good ideas, or something with a local flair. A few inexpensive items really make speakers feel appreciated for taking time out of their lives to do these kinds of events.
Things to Do With the Speaker
Most clubs want to know what the speakers want to do before and after the event. It is not unusual for all of your club members to want to show off their aquarium to speakers, but do try to schedule some down time for the speaker to decompress after travel. Food and a hot shower is often the perfect way to end a long day of travel. While this is probably an exciting moment for the club members, many speakers have spent years seeing other people’s aquariums and visiting local fish stores. Most speakers are more than willing to do it again in your town, and many share the same excitement and pleasure in doing so. Most speakers are equally engaged and enthusiastic about the hobby and will spend hours talking with the club members. Some may not, so it is a good idea to know what is mutually enjoyable for club members and the speaker before they arrive. Remember, this is your town and most speakers have an interest in seeing your town. Include in your planning some time to take in some of the local sights. Show off your city, not just the aquariums in it. Also, not all speakers want to talk about fish tanks all of the time. It may be hard to suppress the group’s enthusiasm, but recognize that people may share other interests and topics of conversation, as well. Don’t feel obligated to "talk fish" all the time because the chances are that the speaker doesn’t feel that obligation and is there to enjoy the company of new and familiar faces.
Honorarium and Speaker Fees
Some speakers tell you ahead of time exactly how much they require to give a presentation. This is a simple transaction, although some speakers may be willing to waive their normal fee for other perks (spouse/significant other airfare, special trips outside the event, etc.). If the club cannot afford their price, it should not be insulting to either party; just explain the situation and find someone else. Sometimes, nothing is said regarding fees, or the speaker database lists that no fee/honorarium is required. In my home club, we give everyone an honorarium. Sometimes, the speaker will refuse it, but it is still nice to be offered. All speakers that fly to my club are given $100 as an honorarium unless their requested amount is higher. When speakers travel, they also have to pay for parking as well as travel to and from their home airports. Add to that food at airports for those with layovers or changing airplanes, and $100 goes quickly. There is nothing worse than being gone for a weekend away from your family, possibly taking time off of work, and returning having ended up losing money for your efforts because you have to pay travel costs and the club gave you nothing.
During early communication with the speaker, it is a very good idea to inquire how they want to present their talk. Will they require a PowerPoint projector? Most speakers do, but occasionally you will find someone who wants to use a slide projector. There may be some other items they require. For instance, some presenters might like to use a chalkboard, dry erase board, overhead projector, or an easel with a large pad of paper to write on or demonstrate something. Some might want to show a movie clip or possibly need a high-definition projector. When holding workshops, any number of additional equipment or materials might be needed. In some cases, the speaker will provide them, but in other cases it is inconvenient to travel with them. Such things might include saws, glue, coral base material, and other propagation tools for “frag” workshops, microscopes and video for lab-type demonstrations, or plumbing and construction material for DIY workshops. It is a lot easier to know these things months ahead of time instead of finding out the day of the show that items are needed to allow the event to go forth, and then scrambling around trying to find what is needed.
Find out if the speaker plans to bring a laptop to do the presentation or if they prefer to travel light and only bring a CD/DVD or flash memory device that has their presentation on it. In the second case, the club would have to provide the computer. If that is the case, be sure to double check that both the speaker and the club's computer are using the same programs so that the presentation can be easily loaded and displayed. It is a good idea to have the presentation run as a trial before the event begins to ensure there are no technical issues and problems. Having a laser pointer available for the speaker is a good idea, as well as making sure any sound devices (microphones, speakers) are checked in advance. If the event is held at a facility with in-house A/V, make sure the club or the designated operator is familiar with the speaker needs and the equipment.
If the club intends to record the presentation, be sure to ask the speaker ahead of time for permission and explain how the recording will be used. Usually no one objects unless they are discussing unpublished material. These tapes are usually just for the club records and only loaned out to members that missed the meeting and are not offered for sale.
Some speakers have items that they wish to sell at the club meeting, such as books, posters, magazines, or other promotional material. It is customary for the club to give the speaker a table to display their products and to make sales. It is also customary for the speaker to donate some of these items to the club. Items provided by the speaker can go into the club library or be raffled or auctioned to help underwrite the costs associated with bringing the speaker into town. In other instances, instead of a donation, the speaker will give everyone in attendance a discount on the purchase price of the items. Either way has advantages and disadvantages; with a donation, the club can generate some revenue if the item is raffled or auctioned, but with a discount more club members can potentially benefit and bring something home. These terms should be discussed and a decision made during early stages of communications with the speaker.
Events typically have full schedules, but food is a necessity that should not be forgotten. Remember to try to schedule time for three meals per day for your speakers. It is generally customary to take care of all the food expenses of a speaker while they are involved with your event. Sometimes speakers arrive earlier or leave later to visit friends, family, or to take a vacation. The club should only take care of the meals and accommodations for the speaker during the course of the club event. For most clubs, it is likely that you have taken your speaker to various local fish stores and/or members' homes to view their aquariums. The speaker has almost assuredly talked nonstop since arrival. This is a tiring performance, and while a speaker is only expected to make a presentation, the usual course of events means that speakers are effectively in a constant roundtable of discussion with members and the actual presentation is only part of the whole performance. When speakers make their formal presentation, a bottle or glass of water is literally the key to getting them through the lecture. A roll of mints or some gum throughout the day will also help to keep the speaker's throat from becoming too dry. I cannot count the number of times I have lost my voice or felt like I had a sore throat at the end of the event day(s).
During your early communications with the speaker, it is also a good idea to ask them ahead of time if they have any special food requests or dietary restrictions. Are they a vegetarian? If so, that famous steakhouse you were planning on taking them to is not going to be a good idea. Others might not be able to tolerate greasy or spicy foods. Others might enjoy the exposure to local cuisine or seek out obscure types of foods that they don't have at home. Knowing ahead of time makes planning and executing their stay easier for everyone.
During the preliminary communications with the speaker, you might want to inform them of the local weather for that time of year so they can plan their attire appropriately. It is a good idea to check the advanced weather forecast for any expected changes in temperature or precipitation for the comfort of the speaker, as well as preparing for potential travel delays. Veteran speakers are probably already doing this before you are, but those with less travel experience may not think of such things.
It is also a good idea to ask if the speaker will want to attend any religious services since most of these trips are held over the weekend.
Remember this is a small community and most of these speakers know one another – and some know each other very well. If a speaker is treated well at a club or an event, they will let it be known it to other speakers and clubs. The same holds true for the opposite, if a speaker is treated poorly, it will quickly be known in the speaker circuit. Your club may end up being a place of last resort for speakers, be the recipient of invitation declines, or only be available to speakers who don’t care or don’t yet know about the poor treatment. Seize these opportunities to make the speaker happy. In turn, your club will be happy and you will discover that getting other speakers to accept your invitations and have successful events will become very easy.
Sidebar – Speaker Survival Guide
For those who are newer to the speaker circuit, I offer a few tips to assist you in surviving your first few engagements and hopefully enjoying yourself more.
In most any hotel, there is a small coffee pot in the room. But, these tiny convenient devices can do more than just make coffee. Bringing along small individual packets of oatmeal, tea, or hot chocolate can go a long way towards making the stay more enjoyable. I also like to bring along a few extra sugar packets for my coffee, as the little prepackaged portions that are typically provided are not enough for me, but I have a bit of a sweet tooth and can't stand artificial sweeteners.
Granola and candy bars are other useful items to pack. They can give a quick energy boost when needed or help fill up the stomach when the time between meals starts to drag on. They can also save you some money when unexpected layovers or flight delays occur. Food on the airplane or at the airport is seldom cheap or very good.
Air travel has an unwelcome side effect — dehydration. It is very easy to become dried out when flying, so drink plenty of water. Otherwise, one could show up at the meeting ready to give the presentation and find themselves losing their voice from being parched. Chewing gum, mints, and perhaps throat lozenges go a long way to saving the voice over the course of a weekend trip speaking. I have also found warm tea with a bit of honey to be helpful. And in extreme circumstances, gargling with warm saltwater (not from an aquarium, of course) is very soothing. Besides the actual formal presentation, there are usually a lot of eager aquarists dying to talk and ask questions. Working on rehabbing your voice during the stay helps to keep you from showing up back at work on Monday unable to talk.
Steven Pro is the current president of MASNA (2011-2012) and a member of Pittsburgh Marine Club (PMASI).