Let me begin by saying, I’m a huge fan of local entertainment, especially comedy & improv, & hardly a week goes by without me going to watch a live performance. My default preference is for stand-up comedy, but I take in the odd theatre or musical performance too. It’s a real pleasure for me to see people working on their craft & I have a real affinity with performers who do what they love. Which is why, when I decided a decade ago to turn my ‘paying hobby’ into a professional career, I was excited about the prospect of spending as much time as possible on the stage.
I was also aware of the risks of creating a career in a generally unstable & challenging market, so I identified the particular niche I wanted to work in – corporate events – & set about developing a business model that would serve that market. That said, making the move from occasionally performing for ‘pocket-money’, to performing to cover your entire monthly expenses, is a risk not many would want to take. At the time I make that choice, in 2003, I certainly didn’t have the same commitments I have now as a husband & father, so it was fairly simple. However, I have always had the mindset that what I do is a profession – albeit a rare one in South Africa.
My business focus & area of speciality is for the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Events (MICE) industry. The MICE industry is fairly large in Southern Africa & there are hundreds of service providers playing in this field; event coordinators, AV suppliers, venues, caterers, etc… Additionally, there is plenty of competition between entertainers within this industry; musicians, comedians, dancers, jugglers, magicians, fire-breathers – the list goes on! Based on the number of independent event coordinators I’ve worked with, it seems like every Tom, Dick & Harry owns an event management company (or wants to). Of course, not everyone is going to succeed, but that doesn’t stop people from wanting to become involved in an industry worth millions of Rands annually. Unfortunately, this inevitably leads to people who are not necessarily qualified or well-suited to the industry trying to ‘get a piece of the action’ – which can translate into major problems & tears for clients. This is something that really bothers me, because poor service providers don’t only damage their own reputations, but they actually do real harm to the industry as a whole.
Naturally, my thoughts on professionalism within the MICE industry are based on my experience as a full-time professional entertainer, speaker & MC for the last 10 years. Therefore, while it is quite likely that my ideas are applicable to other service providers in this industry, I can’t talk on their behalf.
So, why is being ‘the professional party guy’ such a serious business to me?
Well, my approach has always been that if I want to service companies which require high quality entertainment that is fun, reliable, consistent and easy to work with, then I have to organise my business to meet those needs.
As my primary income is from performing a world-class show at corporate events, I need to have two things; firstly, a high-quality show – both in terms of performance skill & entertainment value. However, there is an old Professional Speaker’s saying, “anybody can get booked once”. As such, the second thing I need is a show that is so good, that my existing clients both recommend me and book me again themselves.
What often gets overlooked, is the fact that the amazing performance that the audience experiences is actually the very ‘end result’ of years of practice, rehearsal, marketing & excellent business service on my part. As such, the vast majority of audience members who have enjoyed my shows, are never actually aware of all the work and planning that goes on behind the scenes. So I thought I’d take a moment to share what actually goes on ‘backstage’ in my business…
- Development & Cost of New Material
The magic that I perform has taken thousands of hours of practise to perfect and over 20 years to collect. It is important that my shows are regularly updated with new material, so that when my clients book me again they are going to see something new. However, adding a new ‘trick’ to a performance is not as simply as just ‘slotting it in’. I learn the bulk of my material from specialist magic books & DVDs, the majority of which are imported from North America & Europe. It often surprises even my friends when I tell them the amount of money I invest into purchasing new material. And, even after a substantial investment, there is no guarantee that a trick will even end up in my show – something which seems good on paper, may not translate well into my performance. To put this into context, the investment I’ve made in terms of material, props & time for my current one-man comedy magic show, Sleight of Mouth, is in the region of about R50 000. Over the years I’ve easily invested over R800 000 in materials, new magic, books & DVDs.
- Administration & Business Expenses:
Because 90% of my business is conducted directly with corporate clients, I need to ensure that my administration works smoothly. That means I need to own (design, write, host) a website, pay for email services, pay for accounting services, pay for proposal/quote/invoicing systems and online backups. I need uninterrupted internet access and, of course, I need to own the kind of IT equipment that allows me to work mobile because of how frequently I travel.
- Marketing & PR Expenses
As with any business, advertising & marketing is essential – business cards, brochures, video demos and adverts. Occasionally I need to pay a PR agent, or carry the financial risk of performing a showcase event. As such, this category of expenses is considerable.
As an ethical business practice, I always pay commission to agencies that book me, regardless of how little work they may actually have to do in terms of administration. Normally, commission is between 10 & 20% of my performance fee.
Whether I’m driving or flying to an event, there are multiple travel costs which I need to cover – car payments and maintenance, car hire, petrol, travel insurance, flights and accommodation.
- Corporate Proposals & Payments
The proposal process averages about 3 weeks from the first enquiry, to actually securing the performance. In this time, I will have had to create a unique proposal, negotiate the terms and conditions of a performance, wait for approval, send the invoice, complete a vendor/BEE/SARS clearance form and, depending on company processes, payment can often still be delayed by up to a month. When payment is delayed, then associated performance costs such as travel expenses, have to come out of my own pocket, which can create real challenges for me in terms of cash flow.
- Grooming & ‘Appearance’ Costs
In this industry, grooming and appearance are important – no-one wants to hire a professional entertainer, only for the performer to arrive looking shabby or untidy! As such, taking pride in my appearance is part of my job description – I make sure that I get my hair cut regularly and that I own several good-quality suits, shirts, ties & pairs of shoes.
Naturally, I need to pay myself a decent salary. It is one thing to live off two-minute noodles when you are 21, but as a husband and father I have greater responsibilities and I need to be forward thinking. As such, my salary needs to cover a savings plan, pension plan, medical aid and insurance as well as the basic day-to-day costs of food, electricity and rent etc.
In return for charging the fee that my performance is worth (and which covers the ‘behind the scenes’ costs that allow me to provide an exceptional end product), I have to be able to offer a professional service which includes:
- Meeting with clients when it suits them.
- Absolutely delivering on what I promise in my marketing material.
- Being able to travel to wherever the event is being hosted.
- Always arriving in good time for the event.
- Ensuring I’m appropriately well-dressed & my props are in good condition.
- Ensuring my material is fresh & funny.
- Being flexible and adaptable to the event.
- Matching & surpassing my clients’ expectations.
When I take all that into consideration, I do believe that in order for an event coordinator to meet client expectations, they would prefer the services of a professional over an amateur. From my experience, it’s very difficult for an amateur or even semi-pro, to be able to consistently meet the high standards required by clients. Being ‘the party guy’ is incredibly fun & fulfilling, but it is also a big responsibility. Even though the client may never see what’s happening backstage, being able to provide great entertainment on-stage still requires all the normal day-to-day work that most businesses require. It’s a responsibility I chose, and one I take very seriously because I want to be able to consistently offer the very best service I can.
So, when you’re next planning to book an entertainer, comedian or magician for your event, ask yourself this:
How important is it for the outcome of my event that I work with someone who offers a professional performance on-stage and, equally importantly, professional service off-stage too?
Using a professional service provider may mean that you have to spend more than you were expecting – but time & time again, the results speak for themselves. There is no doubt that choosing a professional entertainer, comedian, magician or MC for your next event will always be easier, better value for money & less stressful than hiring an amateur.