Event Design

Are Celebrity Speakers Worth It?

Celebrity on a stage

Skift Take

Jason Sudeikis, the creator of Ted Lasso, was a no-show at a recent convention he was to speak at. Business events professionals are asking if celebrity speakers are even worth it.

Which is the more effective speaker at a corporate event: A celebrity or a less-known industry insider who can share real insights?

The question emerged this week when actor Jason Sudeikis didn’t show as a featured speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference & Expo in Chicago. (Photos later showed he was at a WNBA game where Caitlin Clark was playing.)

NBC’s Al Roker stepped in for the chat with Betty Thompson, chair of the SHRM board of directors at the McCormick Place Convention Center in front of an audience of 26,000. Thompson referenced the situation, calling Roker “a leader who won’t let us down.” (Skift Meetings reached out to SHRM for comment but hasn’t heard back.)

Still, most people Skift Meetings spoke to said they’d rather hear from true experts in the field.

“I feel like we are getting further and further away from true HR professionals or experts and being enticed with actors, comedians, politicians, and athletes instead. I learned so much from these conferences years ago when the speakers were true, roll up your sleeves business entrepreneurs, passionate leaders, or excellent coaches,” said Jill Rice, a human resources professional.

According to a 2023 Freeman Trends Report, attendees are not interested in celebrities. Only 1% of survey respondents consider celebrities important.

“A thought-provoking, relevant topic will outweigh even the most prominent speaker,” the study says. Innovation and industry experts prevail as the preferred keynote topics and speaker types. “Unless they’re experts in a relevant vertical, celebrities don’t drive behavior or outweigh what really matters,” the report states.

Celebrity Speakers, not the Secret Sauce

Nicola Kastner, CEO of Event Leaders Exchange (ELX), has strong feelings about celebrity speakers. “Celebrity speakers don’t drive event registration,” she says. “And oftentimes, those in the audience aren’t even impressed by these big names. Celebrities are not the secret sauce for event success.”

Many industry experts agree that big names work as entertainment, not keynotes. 

“People forget that these actors are playing the role that they liked so much….but it isn’t a true reflection of them as a person. And I’m not a fan of politicians coming to talk either. Give me someone like Herb Kelleher and have them describe their approach to their employees and how it helps their company succeed,” says Barb Buckner, a human resources consultant.

The concept of idolizing celebrities is not new, but it doesn’t belong at conferences, meeting professionals say.

“Let’s put an end to the celebrity speaker obsession and focus on what truly drives value to our attendees, expertise, and relevance,” said Kastner. 

Another issue is cost. Celebrity Talent International, one of the booking agencies representing Sudeikis, lists $300,000 to $499,000 to book him for an event.

Sudeikis is no stranger to corporate events. At the end of May, he was the celebrity speaker at Rakuten Optimism hosted by Rakuten International. He shared his creative process of building human connections through storytelling with the audience. In addition, at the beginning of May, he appeared at the RSA Conference, a large event around cybersecurity. He shared with that crowd how the character of Ted Lasso came to be and his impact on society.