Controversy over the use of high-profile speakers at events was highlighted last month when a jobs-creation quango hit back at accusations it wasted taxpayers’ money on hiring celebrities for corporate events.
New figures released under Freedom of Information rules show Scottish Enterprise paid £44,440 to celebrities over the past three years. Last year it paid £30,000 to guest speakers, the highest total since the recession. Speakers at business conferences and events included TV comedian Fred MacAulay, chef Tom Kitchin and broadcaster John Humphrys.
MacAulay, who has appeared on Mock the Week and other panel shows, the newspaper alleged, was paid more than £21,000 to host three dinners at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre celebrating Scotland’s life sciences business sector. Kitchin was allegedly paid £15,000 to travel to Dubai for a five-day world food exhibition at the Gulf state’s World Trade Centre. BBC presenter John Humphrys was allegedly paid £6,600 to attend a Commonwealth Games business conference in Glasgow last July.
A spokesman for Scottish Enterprise told The Scotsman newspaper: “We only use ‘personalities’ to host a small number of large-scale customer events and conferences. These are generally self-financing as income is generated through ticket sales or sponsorship.
“This allows us to offset speaker fees and other costs associated with staging these events and to ensure that we secure maximum value for money.”
Scottish Conservative enterprise spokesman Murdo Fraser, MSP, said that while he appreciated Scottish Enterprise needs to have a budget for paying high-profile celebrities, the “sheer cost” had to be called into question.
But critics of the expenditure were branded as “stupid” by JJ Jackson from the Performing Artistes speakers’ bureau.
He told CN: “It’s stupid to look at these things individually. The organiser may well spend five times the amount on catering as they do on a speaker. It depends on the nature of the event. If they are revenue-generating events then you need to put bums on seats. It may be a little shallow, but staff are motivated by meeting famous people and they can learn from their success.”
Nick Gold, MD of Speakers Corner agency, said: “Curating and organising an event is similar to conducting an orchestra performing a piece of music. The event organiser is pulling together many different aspects to create something memorable as a whole. It is only when the performance in its entirety is played does the impact reveal itself. Events and conferences should be memorable for participants for long periods of time after and the external speaker or host, whether celebrity or not, can help ensure the event delivers its goals.
“I agree with push back on events in terms of cost, but this should be contextualised, as per any other areas of business in terms of return on investment – ‘What are the goals of the conference?’ ‘How does the outside speaker or host contribute to these goals?’ and ‘Is the cost related to this, a cost well spent?’ It is too easy to isolate individual areas of a big picture and criticise – this does a disservice to the potential impact and effect that the overall product can have on an individual or company.”