How to Replace a Keynote at the Last Minute

By Matt Swenson, May 9, 2018

When planned keynote Magic Johnson pulled a disappearing act at MPI’s World Education Congress last summer, event organizers had to run a fast break to fill the empty spot in the general session. The result was entertainment in the form of masked dance troupe Jabbawockeez. But MPI also transformed the turn of events into a teaching moment by holding a panel discussion onstage about last-minute planning.

MPI President and CEO Paul Van Deventer says the idea was to assist planners in the audience should they face a similar situation. “If we can take these challenges and turn them into learning experiences, that is a great outcome,” he says. While MPI was fortunate to be in Las Vegas—home to hundreds of entertainment acts—the following lessons apply regardless of setting. “Some of what we did, you could do whether you are in Biloxi or in Sioux City—it doesn’t matter,” says Van Deventer.

Always Be on Call

When MPI got the cancellation call from Johnson, it set off a chain reaction. With little time to prepare, MPI needed key players from the CVB, hotels and the organization to be available. And whether they were hosting a dinner at MGM Grand’s Morimoto or in their room in their pajamas, key staff proved they were on call to brainstorm. When a crisis like this emerges, it’s important to remember this is a relationship business. Someone may know a replacement who’s the right fit or have a connection for a quick fix.

Know Who’s in Town

From Blue Man Group to David Copperfield (and even Carrot Top, if you get desperate), Las Vegas is ripe with entertainment options. You may not be as fortunate elsewhere, but there are resources you can use. It begins with getting the landscape for events in the same city at the same time as yours. “Think about reaching out to other hotels,” suggests Van Deventer. If you’re lucky, a keynote from another conference in town may be available to you at a reasonable price. Even better: There might be a hometown celebrity with ties to the CVB who can pitch in. Another idea: Pluck a speaker from your attendee list, especially if CEOs or industry pillars are among that group.

Go Virtual

Truth be told, you’re only one delayed or canceled flight away from a keynote missing your event. That’s to say nothing if travel restrictions are put in place due to a terrorist attack or natural disaster. If you can’t bring the keynote to your event, you can bring the meeting to the speaker virtually. While the speech may not make quite the same impression as it would in person, the speaker can still get key messages across through livestreaming technology. Van Deventer says MPI explored this idea with Johnson, who joined the Los Angeles Lakers front office after accepting MPI’s speaking engagement and was tied up with the NBA Draft.

Don’t Surprise Attendees

The only thing worse than not delivering a promised speaker is not letting attendees know about it until they’re in the session he or she was scheduled to be in. Use your event app to communicate the change of plans as soon as possible. (MPI issued a video statement on its app and also emailed a press release.) Attendees may not be checking email frequently, so use push notifications on your app to send everyone the key message. That said, you can still have one or two tricks up your sleeve. MPI, for instance, kept Jabbawockeez under wraps, adding drama and excitement to the session.

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