Steff Easom is a corporate booker at Avalon Corporate Entertainment, a specialist division of Avalon Management and ARG Talent Agency. Avalon provides extraordinary creative talent for all types of corporate, private, media and commercial events. Avalon exclusively manage both high profile names and emerging stars from the worlds of comedy, film and television, as well as industry and academia, and also offer presenter, speaker and entertainment solutions for almost any event, campaign or programme.
In this episode you will discover:
- The content of the email that changed Steff’s career.
- Why language and word choice is so important.
- The biggest (Olympic sized) challenge Steff has had in her career so far.
Links for this episode:
For Audio Transcript click here
Toby: But even going back to that first email, where you’re just, like, “Your company’s really interesting, can I send my CV?” You know, the way that you word that, is…
Steff: That’s mad, isn’t it? Imagine if I hadn’t send that email. My life would be completely different.
Toby: Yeah, well, yeah. But what an email to send!
Voiceover: Toby and James are involved in amazing events all over the world. You’re listening to The Planner’s Planner Podcast, where top event professionals share real world experiences, and cutting-edge ideas. Sponsored by MetropolisProductions.co.uk.
Toby Goodman: Hello, and welcome back to The Planner’s Planner Podcast. As ever, I’m here with James Eager. How are you?
James Eager: I’m really, really good, Toby. How’re you doing?
Toby: I’m fantastic, young man. Today we talk to Steff Easom, who’s one of the corporate bookers at Avalon Entertainment. They’re a big group of companies based in the UK, but also with offices in New York in Beverly Hills. They’re major players in the media sector and entertainment industry. James, how do we know Steff?
James: Yeah, we’ve known Steff for a bunch of years now. We know her from her previous job, we used to spend hours chatting on the phone. She’s super cool, super interesting, very, very chatty, and it’s really great to be able to spend a bit of time and find out more about her views and her place in the events industry.
Toby: Yeah. I took this interview, the conversation has a few threads running through it, so, please bear with it, they’re not all directly planning related, but they are interesting, and that’s why the conversation went on for quite a long time, I suppose. However, for me, really, it’s the perfect example of why podcasting is so great, and we’re both real fans of the long-form interview where you get to find out about the person behind the job. So, here’s my chat with Steff Easom from Avalon.
Toby: Thanks very much for talking to us, or me, more to the point, Steff. We’ve known each other for a while on email, and I think we worked with each other when you were at your last company.
Steff Easom: Certainly, yeah.
Toby: But you’re now at Avalon.
Toby: So, how did you get there, and what’s your career background? And let’s start from the beginning.
Steff: Well, basically, some of the people that work in the entertainment industry find this a bit frustrating, but I got into it completely by accident. I graduated from my master’s degree in 2010, I think, and found out that having two degrees doesn’t necessarily make you particularly employable, so I was bumming around for a couple of months wondering what to do with my life, because I didn’t want to become a teacher, which is pretty much the only thing that people do with my degree.
Toby: What’s your degree?
Steff: I did a Bachelor’s in English and then a Master’s in applied linguistics. So, most people go on to become teachers.
Toby: Wow, yeah.
Steff: So I was sort of bumming around, got offered lots of work in call centres, which is a bit depressing, and essentially just started – I was living in Bournemouth at the time – and I just started writing to any company that had its headquarters in Bournemouth to see if they would give me a job. And, on about the sixth page of Google, I found a company based in Bournemouth – they weren’t hiring or anything – and it was a speaker bureau, and I just sent them a one-line email in the contact form, saying, “Hi, I think your company looks really interesting, can I send you a CV?” And ended up starting working there as a sort of copywriter, editor, that sort of thing, and went on to become an account manager, which basically meant I was acting as a sort of entertainment broker, and that’s how we ended up getting in touch when I was looking for a party band for an event.
Steff: So, there I was booking a wide variety of things: motivational speakers, after dinner speakers, comedians, performers, bands, all sorts. And that involves working with people’s agents. One of the agents I spoke to quite a lot and I got on with was Avalon, and it just so happened – exactly a year ago it was, actually – the lady here said that she was going on maternity and would I like an interview. And I said, “Absolutely, I would,” because I was desperate to move to London, because Bournemouth is a bit quiet, and, yeah, I did the maternity cover and I think it worked well, and, well, they’ve kept me on, so I was obviously doing something right.
Toby: Yeah, wicked. So, what’s the kind of – the first kind of company you worked with, you said they were a speaker bureau?
Steff: Yeah, that’s right.
Toby: So, what does that mean?
Steff: Basically, it’s a bit of a strange term to use, because most of the speaker bureaus don’t actually deal exclusively with speakers, but it’s essentially a term for a company that acts as an intermediary between the event planner and either the speaker or performer, or whatever it is, directly, or their agent. So, the function of a speaker bureau is that you know your stuff, basically. If a big company ring you up and they say, “I’m doing an event in a few months’ time, I’ve got a budget of X, I’m looking for a speaker from a sports background who can give a thirty-minute motivation speech.” Then the agent in the speaker bureau will provide a list of suitable people who are available on the day, they’ll advise them about the things they’ve booked them for in the past and what they’re particularly strong at, and, yeah, that’s basically their job. So, they’re sort of like a broker, and they have a really good, broad knowledge of the industry as a whole.
Toby: Right, okay. So, then there’s some crossover, right? There’s a bit of crossover with what a speaker bureau might do and what Avalon does, right?
Steff: Yeah, certainly. Another thing, lots of speaker bureaus have a number of people that they manage exclusively. For example, in my old job, we used to manage the mountaineer, Joe Simpson, who wrote Touch of the Void, and he was our exclusive client. So, where I am now, it’s kind of the reverse situation. So, we manage a large number of artists completely exclusively. However, having said that, if somebody comes to me – which happens quite often, because a few people remember me from my previous job – if somebody comes to me and says, “You know I really want to book, I don’t know, David Baddiel, from you,” who’s one of our exclusive clients, “but I also need a band for later on in the evening, can you provide that?” Although we don’t exclusively manage any bands, I obviously still have all my old contacts, I know who to go to, I know who I trust, so I say, “Yeah, of course, I’m happy to recommend a band and you can book it through us.” So, yeah, it’s a bit of a sort of, reverse situation, I guess, between what I’m doing now and what I was doing at the bureau.
Toby: Cool. Okay, so, for those people who don’t know Avalon – I mean, I’ve had a good look around, and I’m aware of the company, but I quite surprised there was some sort of merger with a corporate arm, or, I’m not quite sure what happened, but essentially Avalon does quite a few things and have a few different branches – so, what does Avalon look like as a company from the outside?
Steff: Well, essentially – most people recognise the name Avalon because it comes up at the end of lots of TV shows – yeah, when you say Avalon, they say, “Ah, I know that name, but I can’t think why!” It’s essentially, it’s a group of companies. They do produce through the various production sides of the company, the produce lots of TV Shows, but the side we work on is the management side. So they’re an artist management agency and produce various TV shows for them and there’s obviously a press department, a marketing department, all that stuff. And so, what we do, at Avalon Corporate Entertainment, is we are the kind of corporate corner for all these artists. So we deal with the corporate work across the whole roster, and incorporated into the company is another company called ARG Talent, and whereas Avalon predominantly manage comedians, people like Russell Howard, Lee Mack, Frank Skinner, David Baddiel, ARG Talent mange actors, TV presenters, so many of them do corporate work as well, it’s just slightly different. They’re more likely to do sort of after dinner speaking, or the presenters will be doing live presenting, presenting at awards ceremonies, that kind of thing. So, yeah, there’s a really diverse range of talent, I think, since ARG came on board. There’s a real mixed bag to pull from.
Toby: Wow. So is it all now based in one location, or are you across a few different places?
Steff: No, we’re all under one big roof in ((Lapel Grove)) (10:12), everyone says our office is a bit like a rabbit warren. You think it stops, and it just keeps going, and keeps going, and keeps going. It’s quite easy to get lost when you first arrive, but yeah, we’re all here now.
Toby: So how many people?
Steff: Good question. I’ve not counted, but there must be … a couple of hundred. I’m thinking back to whenever there’s been a fire drill, and how many people are standing out on the street. Yeah, there must be a couple of hundred. And obviously, there’s – Avalon has a presence in the United States as well, so, there are offices over there too, and they’ve got a large roster of artists there, too.
Toby: Wow, okay. So then, in terms of what your day looks like – obviously we’ve been kind of talking about, well, we’ve been talking about planning, because we’re interested in learning more about the planning that goes on outside of the work that we do, but also the kind of perspective of someone who is involved in events that, perhaps a band are involved in, but they’re involved at a different stage, or they’ve got different responsibilities. So, obviously “planning” is quite vague as a concept, but it’s really interesting for us to learn about what’s happened before a job gets to us, and perhaps what happens after that, and all that, and it’s kind of… we’ve thought a lot about who we wanted to talk to, and I suppose, you know, as much as it’s great to talk to wedding planners, for example, there’s a much wider world out there, and corporate entertainment, and obviously TV, and all sorts of stuff. So, in terms of the sort of planning aspect of what you do, bringing it back to what the subject of this podcast is, how would you sort of approach an event – what happens, you get an inquiry, or you have regular events, I guess, as well? Because you’re quite big. So, there are obviously differences. Because you’ll get a one off job, or you’ll … what’s the percentage split between regular events and…
Steff: Yeah, it’s a really mixed bag. For us, the planning of the events starts with obviously that first contact with the client – and when I say “client,” I mean the event planner in this sense. It’s a little bit confusing here, because we’ve got two sets of clients in corporate. We’ve obviously got the people that are putting the events together, they are our clients, but then of course all of our artists are also our clients, so it’s a little bit confusing. When somebody comes to us about their event, or we sometimes go to them, if you know, if we’re researching something online, and we know, for example, I don’t know, say, the Pub of the Year Awards are coming up, and you know, we know Al Murray’s free, you just put two and two together, and give them a ring and say, “Hey, I’ve got the perfect person for you!”
Steff: But yeah, they’ll either come to us, or the other way around. And they will normally either say, “I’ve got this event and I just know that Lee Nelson is going to be perfect for it. Is he available and how much does he cost? And what are his rider requirements?” Or, they’ll come to us and say, “I’ve got an event coming up, I’ve got a budget of so much, it’s a bit of a conservative audience, they don’t like swearing too much, they’re from this sort of background. Who can you recommend?” And we kind of take it from there. Some of them are quite straightforward. It’s always nice when you get an inquiry fly in and it’s for a specific person, and they’re available, and the fee’s right, and you know, all done.
Toby: Yeah, easy.
Steff: They’re not all like that though.
Toby: Yeah, of course. And actually, that came up with someone else here the other day who asked me about comedians – not that I know much about comedians, but they were specifically putting out there to people that worked in events, that they were looking for someone who was non-swear-y. Is that something that happens quite a lot?
Steff: That’s really common, yeah, really common.
Toby: Does that narrow it down a lot? Or does everyone have a kind of dry corporate act that they can do?
Steff: Oh, I wouldn’t say dry.
Toby: [laughs] Okay.
Steff: It’s essentially…it’s something we’re asked all the time. But there are variations in … Like, some people will say, “Oh, they can’t swear too much,” and then the artist will turn up, and they’ll say, “Just, you know, avoid using the C-word, everything else is fine,” and you go, “Oh, okay.” And there are other times, slightly more rare, there are some occasions where people will say, “Absolutely no bad language whatsoever.” So, it doesn’t necessarily discount anyone entirely, but it does sometimes make you think that X person might not be the right fit for that client, basically, because…just because it’s all a matching exercise. I often say this job’s a little like working in recruitment, you need to just pair up the two sides as well as you can, but the guys that do corporate a lot, they’ve been doing it so long, they’re so experienced, and they’ve got an extremely acute sense reading from the audience what they can get away with, basically… but there are people – I mean, we did a corporate showcase not long ago, and one of our artists who I’ve seen previously be extremely swear-y in his own sort of stand-up comedy delivered an absolutely flawless performance with not a single swear word of any kind, and everyone was extremely impressed. It’s an excellent string to have to your bow as a corporate comedian, I think. I mean, if you can do that, then it means that you can go out to a wider breadth of clientele, I suppose.
Toby: And is that something a comedian will kind of learn the hard way, or is that a general kind of thing now, the up and coming comics who go, “Okay, I’ve got my thing where people come and see me at the Invisible Dog, or wherever, and I do my own thing… and I’ve got this thing where I don’t swear because it’s going to increase my ability to earn a living.”
Steff: I wouldn’t say they learn the hard way, because part of our job – going back to what I was saying about having two sets of clients – we obviously have a responsibility to ensure that our bookers have the positive experience, but we also have a huge responsibility to the artists to make sure that they are put in a position where they can deliver their performance to the very best of their ability, and that they’re comfortable and well prepared, and that the fit is right, that’s the key thing. So, we’re very conscious, especially if we’re dealing with somebody who perhaps hasn’t done that many corporate performances before. We’re very, very conscious to speak to them in the run up to the event, and make sure they have a good long conference call with the client beforehand to chat through everything, and just really make sure they’ve got everything they need, 100%. I mean, we often go along to these ones as well, if we can. It’s a little bit tricky, we’re not always able to go and see the guys do their thing, but when we can, especially with the sort of up and coming guys, it’s just a positive experience, for them, I guess, to have us there for the whole process from start to finish. And yeah, the swearing thing is not something that’s thrown in at the last minute at all. I mean, it’s always included from the very moment we start talking to the artist about an offer so they’ve got a real sense of who they’re committing to work for, I suppose.
Toby: Right, and you’re pulling the comics that are on the Avalon talent side where your, you know, like a David Baddiel, or a Frank Skinner, someone who’s obviously been on the books for a while, and you’re – as the corporate side, you’re going over to the entertainment side and saying, “Can we have so-and-so for this event,” or is that how that works? You have to talk to another department to get them?
Steff: No, no, no, we speak directly to all the artists. That’s one of the really great things about this job, is that in our little team, because there’s three of us working in the corporate department at the moment, we each look after a section of the roster, so that those artists know that we are the person they speak to about their corporate work, and that we’re there if they have any questions. It really helps to build up a relationship with the artist.
Toby: Right, but it would be someone else at Avalon then that would, say, book a tour for that person.
Steff: Oh yeah, absolutely, there’s a whole… The way it essentially works is each artist has one manager who manages their entire career as a whole, and then they have numerous other people responsible for their press, there’ll be someone else responsible for their marketing, someone for their live work, someone for their TV work, so they’ve got, sort of, one overall person, and then lots of other people. So we are the corporate people.
Toby: And do you know how many people are on the books in total, or is that a horrible question to ask you? Sorry.
Steff: I should think it’s over a hundred.
Steff: Including all the ARG talent as well. I should think… it’s a lot, basically.
Toby: It’s a lot. And so how often do you see new people, “Oh, we’re taking on so-and-so,” does that happen a lot?
Steff: Fairly often. It’s happened a bit – As I’ve said, I’ve only been here since … I’ve only been here coming up for a year. But there have been some new people arriving since I’ve been here, which is extremely exciting, and it’s always great sitting down with that person for the first time, especially if it’s someone you’ve seen from the TV, and you know, meeting them in real life and getting to talk to them. It’s a really exciting and fun thing to do.
Toby: So the TV guys are people that are – obviously already got some…a decent amount of exposure and a good career, and they’re people that have ended up kind of moving over to Avalon from where they were before?
Steff: It’s that kind of thing I’m not involved with so much. Where they’ve been before, is, I guess, that’s a conversation that would have to be had with their managers. Yeah, whenever someone new is signed, we sit down and chat with them, and find out what their background is and what they’d like to do going forward, and it’s really fun and exciting. I like doing it.
Toby: Cool. So then do you kind of go out… are you responsible at all for going out and looking for new people?
Steff: No, I really wish I were. Because I think that must be one of the most fun parts of the job. But it’s a discussion that can be had, I mean, if we notice or hear of somebody who looks like they would be particularly good for the sort of corporate side of things, then it’s certainly something that we’ll flag up with other members of staff.
Steff: But, yeah, it’s unfortunately not my job to go around comedy clubs and look for new talent. Which is a bit of a shame, because it’s probably extremely fun.
Toby: And yeah. And also, probably… It’s probably quite hard as well, though, trying to actively hope that you’re going to laugh at something rather than just naturally laugh at something.
Steff: Yeah, and also, I think it must be, I mean, I’m only speculating, it must be a real skill, and the reason why the managers are so successful here, it must be such a skill to be able to look at somebody who perhaps isn’t polished, and maybe does do things wrong. Right, look at them and say, “I can see the potential for that person to become extremely successful at what they’re doing,” that’s obviously the key to the whole thing, I think.
Toby: Yeah, yeah, and there’s so many parallels with music there, because you kind of go and… I’ll kind of listen to something and think, “I don’t think this is any good,” and it’ll be signed, and I’ll be like, “No way!” You know, “How’s this been signed?” And it’s because someone who’s a tiny bit detached from the technicality of music itself can see that it would appeal to, you know, a wide audience and essentially would be profitable.
Toby: Whereas when you’re a bit close to it, it’s like, “eh, I’m not… I don’t think this is great,” and that’s a really… You normally find a lot of people in the music industry that are actually responsible for signing aren’t actually musicians.
Steff: Oh, really, that’s interesting.
Toby: They’re more business focused, I suppose.
Steff: Yeah, business people.
Toby: That’s really cool. So, how… so, going back to the fact that you did a Master’s, and you did all this kind of stuff, has it actually helped you do what you do? I mean, the copywriting aspect of what you do must be relevant.
Steff: Yeah, definitely. I mean, linguistics is one of those degrees where you say you did linguistics, and people go, “Ehh, what does that mean? Does it mean you speak Italian?” No, it means something entirely different. It’s the study of language, and therefore, it’s useful in absolutely everything I do. I do like writing a lot, and in my previous job I had a huge amount of freedom. You know, if I wanted to put an advertorial together, or something, I would just do it because I thought it was the right thing to do. And, you know, I had this freedom to create things, which was… yeah, linguistics is extremely useful for… I was very lucky in my previous job, where I said that we used to manage Joe Simpson, I was very fortunate to get to publish his e-books as a sort of side-line business, which was excellent, and that obviously involves a lot of technical skill, because you have to teach yourself HTML coding – which is not as easy as it looks at all. And yeah, just generally working closely with an author, I think being a very language-y person helps. And it helps in really subtle ways when you’re trying to express yourself when you’re having a difficult conversation with somebody, I think it helps to have lots of words at your disposal, I suppose. Ironically, I said that really ineloquently.
Toby: It’s alright, you speak much better than me. So that’s, yeah, that’s amazing. And so that’s possibly the first time I’ve spoken to someone in the entertainment business or anywhere near the kind of show business, if you like, when I’ve asked that question about, “Actually was your degree worth something to you?” and you might be the first person that’s said yes.
Steff: Oh, really? Okay. Well, I can’t stick up for linguistics enough. I think it’s an excellent degree. And I think everyone should know at least a little bit about it, because language is, you know, the key way we express ourselves, so why would you not be interested in that?
Toby: Yeah, and it actually goes really hand in hand with the final serve that you’re delivering, which is people talking.
Toby: Whether they’re being informative or being funny, they’re obviously skilled at language.
Steff: Yep, absolutely. I mean, comedy and linguistics – I’m sure, there are so many people who must have done a PhD on the linguistics of comedy performances, because the nuances of the language selection are what makes things funny. And I could talk about it for hours, and I have done. There’s one of the comedians we represent, Alistair McGowan is very into his language and grammar, and we have long conversations about various grammar gripes that we have… yeah, it’s good. They’re all very, I think across the board, I can say all the comedians I’ve met, they are extremely clever and very sensitive to things like language, and it’s just such a privilege getting to speak to them and work with them.
Toby: Wow. Who are the real – I mean, other than Alistair McGowan, who’s obviously pretty big news – are there other people that you think are – obviously, they’re all brilliant – but are there people doing new things with language recently? I mean, who are the people that are, kind of, really fresh and clever with language to you?
Steff: That is a really tricky question to answer. I guess the first place my mind goes would be…to kind of deviate slightly from word choice, and just talk about accent and persona, because that sort of brings in two of the people we represent: Al Murray, the Pub Landlord, and Simon Brodkin, who plays the character Lee Nelson. And they’re both obviously character performers. And I just think it’s so brilliant and interesting. I was at a gig with Simon last night, actually, where he was delivering a short set as Lee Nelson, and to sort of…watching the change between sort of talking to somebody beforehand, and then they go on stage, and they become this character with this entirely different accent and completely set of words that they use, it’s really extraordinary actually, it’s so, so fun to watch that happen. And of course Al does the same thing. The Pub Landlord is such a well-known and well-loved character. But, you know, Al in real life is very different.
Toby: Yeah, well, he’s being ironic.
Toby: And what’s funny is some people don’t realize he is.
Steff: Do you know what? Yeah, I think that is quite… especially with him standing against Nigel Farage.
Steff: Which is just so brilliant and funny, and, do you know, I actually think he’d make an excellent MP – as the Landlord, or as himself.
Toby: Yeah, that must be really confusing to some people.
Steff: Perhaps, if they don’t really understand the character, perhaps they did look at it and go, “One p a pint? I’m not sure that’s going to work.” I guess, it maybe takes a second look for some people.
Toby: I mean, I’ve worked with people that have been in soaps and they’re stopped in the street quite a lot, and people are sort of having a go at them for they did to…
Steff: Oh, my gosh, it’s so funny you say that, because I almost very nearly did that with… One of the first people I met when I started working here was the absolutely wonderful actor Robert Bathurst, who was in Cold Feet, and he was also in Downton Abbey, playing Sir Anthony Strallan. And Robert does a really excellent cabaret performance based on the Alex the Banker character from the Telegraph, which goes down really, really well with financial audiences, so we were having bit of a chat about that, and in my head the whole time, to myself, “Don’t mention Downton, don’t mention Downton, don’t mention Downton,” because I’m a massive, massive Downton Abbey fan, and I’m sure he must get it all the time. And we got right to the end of the meeting and it went really well, really pleasant, and then, just as he got up to leave, I said to him, “You know how you just said that people sometimes recognize you in the street from Downton Abbey?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, yeah,” and I said, “Does anyone ever…” and I could hear the slight edge in my voice, “…does anyone ever say horrible things to you about what you did to Lady Edith?” And he went, “Yes…they do.” Because of course, his character jilted her at the altar, and everyone was extremely cross. It was very funny. He’s an absolutely lovely man, really, really nice chap.
Toby: Excellent. Well, it’s a testament to his acting skills, I guess, if you’re seeing it completely out of context.
Steff: Oh, I think it just means that I’m chronically daft.
Toby: I like it, it’s good. Okay, so, what else was I going to ask you? It’s all going so well. So, you obviously look after people, you make sure they’re there, you book – you talk to other suppliers, you obviously sort out the money side of things, you sort out the rider. Any interesting riders?
Steff: Do you know, I wish there were. You always hear that story about that brown M&M’s thing, or whatever it was, and people say, “Oh, he’s a diva, he’s got a really extensive rider,” and unfortunately the truth is nobody… all the riders are just basically making sure the best A/V is available, and the person has their choice of microphone, their choice of refreshments, nothing that’s going to cause them to have an allergic reaction, that kind of thing, and some peace and quiet for them to go into the zone before – that’s one of the things that we have to be quite insistent on, actually, is that they have a private space that is just for them before their performance. I mean, as I’ve said, I’ve only been working here a year, but all the comedians I’ve seen before a corporate performance, all behave in exactly the same way, and that’s that they need private, quiet head space before they go on to really work out what they’re going to do, in what order. Because it’s nothing like – I was thinking of this last night – it’s not like learning the words to a script and then delivering a performance. It’s a very organic thing, it grows and changes as the set goes on, and as the comedian reads the room and people’s reactions. They may, you know, decide to suddenly change four or five of the things they thought they were going to make a joke about based on people’s reactions. So, you know, it’s so clever, and they just need that time and space before they go on to really relax and just get into the zone and focus. So I leave them alone and let them get on with it.
Toby: Yeah, so …but yet you didn’t actually set out to work with comedians?
Steff: No, no, not at all. I mean, I like comedian, very much, always have done. But I’m not one of these people that…yeah, there are lots of people I know who it’s always been their heart’s desire to work in comedy, and that’s probably not the case with me, but having said that, if you’re going to work anywhere, working with comedians is just about one of the most fun things you can do, and I really, really enjoy it. But yeah, it was all completely accidental. It’s just me making up my life plan as I go along.
Toby: But it’s ended well, because you’re working at this amazing place.
Steff: Absolutely, yeah.
Toby: So, then if you did have someone kind of saying to you, “Listen, I’ve got a degree, or I’m going to go and study,” it sounds like you would totally endorse a qualification in language.
Steff: Yeah, certainly. I mean, it’s fine… I’m by no means saying that if someone was interested in entertainment that would be the way forward, because, as I say, it was a complete accident. But I think, generally speaking, lots of people come from a sort of English-y media-y creative background. But yeah, I mean, I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, going to university was just one of the absolute best things. And you know, I wouldn’t have grown into the person I am without having gone there, and I wouldn’t have the confidence to do a job like this. Definitely not.
Toby: But what’s really interesting, listening to everything that you’ve done, and what you’re doing now is – especially going back to the language stuff and the way that comics are so clever with it and work with it on the fly because of the nature of what they do – it kind of sounds like what you did was the absolutely perfect thing to do.
Steff: Yeah, it’s worked out so very fortuitously. Because I’ve, yeah, I love language I find it extremely interesting, and I’ve somehow managed to find myself in a career where I’m working directly with some of the most – in their own way – most skilled linguists there are. I mean, it’s pretty perfect really, isn’t it?
Toby: It’s amazing! It’s amazing. So…
Steff: Lucky girl.
Toby: Yeah! But, you know, deservedly so. So, if someone wanted to do it, if someone said, “Do you know what, actually, I really want to work in events, in planning, and I love working in, you know, theatre or comedy, or with musicians.” What are your key skills that you would say, “Listen, you’re going to have to be good at…” Obviously communicating with people, writing… How would you drill that down as skills that you must have to work in the events industry… the side of the events industry that you work in?
Steff: That’s really interesting. To be a good corporate booker you have to be confidant, even when you’re not – I know that sounds a ridiculous thing to say – but you have to be able to present yourself as confidant, even when you’re feeling terrified. You have to have a broad range of interests, especially if you work in a speaker bureau, which I mentioned previously. You have to have good knowledge of current affairs, you have to listen to the news. I’m not saying you have to watch reams and reams of telly every night, because God knows I don’t do that, but you just have to keep yourself abreast of what’s happening in the world, and you know, the world specific to your field, so I guess, for my side, it’s all the entertainment industry. If you were working in a speaker bureau you would need to listen to the news and current affairs, and politics, and need to know what’s going on. You have to be able to think quickly, you really do. You have to be able to come up with contingency plans on the hoof. Because, invariably, no matter how organised you are, because there are such long chains of communication with bookings like this – because, sometimes, you’ll get your end client who could be, I don’t know, some big retailer or something, and they might employ a PR agency, who in turn might employ an event planner, who might go to a speaker bureau, who might come to me, and the message down that chain invariably gets diluted and sometimes distorted, so things do go wrong. Things will, and do, go wrong, and you have to be able to just manage everyone you’re responsible for as calmly and effectively as possible. And it is really stressful. Really stressful, sometimes. It’s just the nature of the beast, as we say.
Toby: Yeah, and you’re kind of invested in that particular moment, and no one really realises the heartache you’ve gone through to make that moment appear like it just happened.
Steff: Well, that’s where I really take my hat off to event managers, because obviously we work closely with them, and I just could not do their job, it sounds like the hardest job on the planet. And whenever we go to one of these events, you can see, even if everything’s running on time, the slightly manic glint in the eyes, this obsessive desire to get this whole event perfect from start to finish. And, to me, there would just be too many outside elements that could go wrong that would cause me stress. I mean, I’m lucky in that I’ve only got to get the comedian there, on time, in the right place, on the right date, with all the stuff they need. That’s enough for me. I couldn’t deal with all the other suppliers as well.
Toby: But you’re still talking about contingency. So, is there been situations where you’ve kind of had to dig yourself out of a hole at the last minute in terms of organising something or planning something?
Steff: Not yet, touch words. But, you know, invariably, when the product you’re selling is a human being, not a product, things happen. People get sick, people will sometimes not be able to do what they’ve said they’re going to do – and always through no fault of their own, because all of the artists here enter into all these agreements in good faith. But these things happen, you’ll get things like rail strikes, and no matter how carefully you plan for things, every now and again you will get a phone call going, “Um…just checking…it’s 7:45 and so-and-so’s not arrived yet, and I can’t get him on his mobile…” And you go, [gasp] and that’s why the work phone stays by our sides all the time, even when you’re not in the office.
Toby: Yeah. I mean, God, I’ve been in that situation a lot.
Steff: It’s slightly terrifying when you get those kinds of phone calls, but so far, it’s always been sort of benign, small hold ups. We haven’t had anything where somebody, you know, turned up on the wrong day, or anything. Which is obviously the nightmare scenario.
Toby: Yeah, hopefully everyone’s past that. But then, you know, if there’s something going on with, you know, trains, and your comic’s in London, and the gig’s up in Manchester, or something like that… you’ve presumably got a few people up in Manchester you could say, “Listen, it’s just not going to happen, but, I do have someone.”
Steff: Yeah, I mean, that would be…
Toby: Worst case.
Steff: Fortunately I’ve not been in that position, but it is our responsibility if, for some reason, somebody is poorly, or gets stuck somewhere and they can’t do a gig, it is our responsibility to find somebody else. So, in that situation, it would be all hands on deck, frantic phone calls all around to everybody we’ve ever met trying to find somebody who is, sort of, a rough equivalent, I guess. But, as I say, thank God I’ve not been put in that position yet.
Toby: Yeah, okay. So what’s next for you then? You’re obviously really happy doing what you’re doing. Is there stuff you’re looking forward to, anything coming up particularly?
Steff: Yeah, I mean, I’m looking forward to looking at new ways we can grow what we do, I guess. I’m really into, as well as doing the booking side of things, I’m really into looking for new opportunities to let people know about our guys and how talented they are, so, for example, I’ve been doing lots of stuff with digital, trying to just, you know, fit us in, in the industry – so whether that’s writing a little article for a trade publication, or turning up to a networking event, or you know, exhibiting at a conference, you know, that kind of thing. Yeah, I’m just trying to go out there and meet people basically, because it’s invaluable, meeting people face to face, and talking to them about what they do.
Toby: And that’s encouragement, obviously, by Avalon, for you to kind of just keep on top of what the industry’s doing, and all that stuff?
Steff: Yeah, it’s great, actually. I’ve got – I wouldn’t say free reign – but I’ve definitely been encouraged to go out there and chat to as many people as possible, which is lovely, because it means I get to go to lots of meetings, go to sort of networking drinks, take people to shows, which is lovely, because, you know, if somebody in the corporate world says, “Oh, you know, I like the video of that person, but I’m not 100% sure,” because we do work directly with the talent, we’re in the privileged position to be able to say, “Well, do you know what, they’re doing a gig on Wednesday. Why don’t you come? You know, we’ll have a couple of drinks, we’ll have a chat, you can meet him afterwards, you can chat about it,” and you know, that’s really nice, and that’s…you can’t really compare videos and stuff – I mean, videos and testimonials are very powerful things when it comes to booking corporate events, but you can’t compare it to seeing the person live, because that’s when you really get a sense of what they’re about.
Toby: Yeah. And we have that, we have this all the time, with “Can I see you live?” and stuff, and our main concern with private clients is that they’re seeing us out of context.
Steff: Sure, yeah.
Toby: So, if it’s a wedding, for example, you’re turning up to someone else’s wedding, which looks very different to your vision, and we’ve booked a different singer, even though we know you don’t like that type of singing, that’s why we’ve booked a different singer, so it’s kind of like, “Ahh!” You know. It’s really challenging, and that’s why we do really increasingly rely on testimonials, and what we’ve moved to now is video testimonials.
Steff: Oh, okay. That’s cool.
Toby: Which is quite interesting. So, just to be clear, then, you don’t work a nine to five, then, do you?
Steff: No, absolutely not. I work… well, I work 9:30 ‘til 6:30, and then it depends, I mean, often there will be bits that need doing after hours, and that’s cool, but often, there are shows to go to, and people to see, and people to meet, and things to do, so…I do sometimes come back very late. But it’s, you know, it’s the best fun. It’s such a sociable job. And we get to work with all these brilliant comics, and see their new material, and what they’re doing. We were up to Edinburgh last year to take some people around to see some shows and just generally do lots of gallivanting, and it was just absolutely wonderful. Anyone that’s never been to the Edinburgh festival, you absolutely have to go, it’s just the most fun in the world.
Toby: Yeah, it’s amazing. And, actually, to be in Edinburgh and be paid is quite unique over the summer, I’ve found.
Steff: Is it?
Toby: In terms of there are loads of people up there putting on their own thing, and they’re starting, you know, obviously there’s the kind of known acts, which is great, and I guess that’s who you’re kind of working with, but there’s all that kind of … the excitement is also to do with the fact that people are going up and doing things for the first time, and I suppose the history of all the people you’re managing, I would’ve thought quite a large proportion of what they do, and how they started, may well have started up there, and kind of taken their last few quid and hired a room and gone for it.
Steff: Yeah, I think that’s… I mean, obviously… the company’s been going for, I think 25 years, so, I think, though, in the beginning, you’re right, I think that was the case. And it’s amazing, to think, you know, some of the huge names we work with started with just like all the other artists, just playing a little room in Edinburgh. It’s really, really cool, actually. And the atmosphere there is just electric. The creativity is palpable. You can just feel this brilliant buzz in the air of, sort of, opportunity. And you’ll just be walking down the street, and someone will you grab you and say, “Hey, let’s go into this free show, it’s amazing, you’ll love it,” and you end up watching things you wouldn’t normally. You know what I mean?
Toby: Yeah. Yeah, I do.
Steff: You end up seeing shows that you normally wouldn’t want to go and watch, and then you sit down and you realise they’re amazing, it’s fantastic.
Toby: Yeah, and you discover –almost new forms of comedy or theatre, or music, or sometimes all three in the same thing. And that’s, yeah, I love it. I’ve worked there quite a lot doing various different things. But yeah, always really happy to take a gig when it’s during the festival, because it’s amazing, yeah. So, I suppose, to close then, to do what you do as a corporate booker, you really have to be pretty flexible with your hours and commit to it, and it’s like a lifestyle choice, by the sounds of it.
Steff: It is, kind of, yeah. I think it is. It just draws in a certain type of person. Everybody here’s got something about them that’s quite creative, or kind of performance-based. You know, when you really get talking to people, they all come from these sorts of quite artsy backgrounds, and yeah, it is almost like a lifestyle. I often think that we spend so many hours in this building, it’s almost like we live here, but it’s great! You know. You end up developing really close relationships with your colleagues, and your managers and stuff, so yeah, it’s a lifestyle choice, but it’s an extremely nice one.
Toby: Wow, and so you’ve got…you do have a sort of a quite unusual hobby, I guess, then, that’s relatively creative and performance-based.
Steff: [laughs] Are you talking about the circus stuff?
Toby: Go on.
Steff: Yeah, I do aerial circus acrobatics, I guess you would call it. Aerial silks, aerial hoop, static trapeze, and I do hula hoop dance as well. And I used to spin fire, but since I moved to London I haven’t done any of that yet.
Toby: [laughs] That’s such an amazing aside at the end of a conversation, “And I used to um, spin fire.”
Steff: Yeah, just don’t see where I can… if you spin fire on a beach on Bournemouth, nobody cares. In fact, people come and look and they clap. I suspect if I did any fire spinning in my local park, I might get arrested or attacked with a fire extinguisher for not having public liability insurance, which actually, which is not something I should make fun of in my job. Everyone here has public liability insurance. [laughs]
Toby: Quite right! And all they’re doing is speaking.
Toby: Oh, cool. And what else I’ve got, I’ve got, like, confidence is obviously massively important, and the real interesting… Go on, sorry.
Steff: No, confidence, I just have to say, is not… Anyone who wanted to work in this particular corner of this industry who doesn’t think they’re confident enough, I would say do it anyway, because when I started I was terrified of answering the phone and speaking to people, and it’s just one of those things, if you force yourself to keep doing it you’ll eventually get used to it. And it might never feel entirely natural and comfortable. Like if you walk into a networking drinks, you still might think, “Ohhh, I hate these things.” But almost everyone there thinks that a little bit, and once you get talking to people, you realise that, you know, they’re just people, and it’s fine. Yeah, you have to fake confidence until it becomes something that you do naturally, I think.
Toby: Yeah, and that’s the part you don’t get to do necessarily when you’re studying, isn’t it? And when you’re suddenly in the actual market?
Steff: Yeah, it’s a huge, huge step going from just talking to lecturers and academics, to going out there and actually trying to sell someone something. Because, I mean, effectively – it’s a very sort of soft, friendly sell, but we are still selling things.
Toby: Yeah, of course.
Steff: Yeah, the first time you sort of make that leap and you try to sell someone something for the first time, it’s just hilarious, because you go, “Oh, I’m really sorry to bother you, and feel free to tell me to go away if you want to, but would you like this? It’s really good.” And, yeah, obviously I don’t do that anymore.
Toby: Yeah. And the other thing to say, other than those kind of contingency, being an organised person type stuff is, is the thing you said about having interests, and a broad range of interests, and that, to me, was about being a naturally inquisitive person, I guess, you must be, and a kind of, a need to work in this industry, to be relevant, you need to be inquisitive, and that’s a really interesting thing for me… being interested is interesting. There you go, how’s that for a bit of terrible language? But that’s great, that’s so useful, and when you talk about what you do, I suppose, and someone else is talking to you, you’re almost learning why you ended up where you are.
Steff: Yeah, actually, you’re right. I hadn’t really thought that much about the connection between loving language and liking comedy, but, you know, when you talk about it like that, it does seem extremely clear that there’s a very strong connection between the two.
Toby: Yeah, you’re like, “Oh yeah, of course I work here.”
Steff: Yeah. Well, you don’t always stop and take a look back, do you? You just, sort of, especially when you’re busy, you just plow on, and then, you look back at everything and you go, “Oh yeah, actually it was a little bit of a journey.”
Toby: But even going back to that first email, where you’re just like, “Your company’s really interesting, can I send you my CV?” The way that you word that…
Steff: It’s mad, isn’t it? Imagine if I hadn’t sent that email. My life would be completely different.
Toby: Yeah, well, yeah. But what an email to send, because it’s easy to read, and it’s not necessarily about you. It certainly about you, it opens about them, and that makes them feel loved, I suppose, in the most basic way, you know, “I’ve checked you out, I think you’re really interesting, and would you like to see my CV?” Rather than, “I’m going to be a great booker! Aren’t you lucky that I just sent you an email?” You probably wouldn’t have gotten a response!
Steff: To be honest, I was not expecting to have a response at all, otherwise I probably would have expressed myself a bit more… Well, it was quite succinct, put it that way. I think my previous manager phoned me, and he said something like, “I read your email, that took a bit of balls, alright, come in for an interview.”
Toby: Well, that’s it, isn’t it! But I do think that copywriting thing, which is really interesting to us and we’re learning all the time about that, is about, you know, trying to appeal to someone and do it quickly, because people are busy, and people get emails from random people all the time, and they haven’t got time. And so, just to literally say, in a couple of sentences that, it is ballsy, but it’s actually massively appropriate when you’re dealing with people who have got a business to run.
Steff: Yeah, I sort of got it right by accident.
Steff: But yeah, you’re right, people are busy, especially in this industry. People are so busy. That was one of the initial mistakes I made was translating small friendly family run company practices over to an enormous organisation like this. For example, you don’t put kisses on the email to your director [laughs] Yeah, apparently, I don’t even remember doing it, but one of my first days here, I was just so used to in my previous job to have constant direct contact with my manager and working on everything together, obviously here there were so many more people, and so many more to bother people’s time, I think, the very first question that popped into my head I just dashed off an email to one of the co-founders of the company, and just wrote, “Hi! I was just wondering, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, uh, Love, Steff, kiss, kiss, kiss.” And then, yeah, my colleague was copied in, and she saw it, and she was like, “I can’t believe you just did that.” [laughs]
Toby: [laughs] Yeah! When to draw the line of going, “You know what… I think it’s okay, and it’s not going to be misinterpreted if I put a couple of kisses on a text to a…”
Steff: I just sent it, and I thought about it afterwards, and went, “Oohh, that wasn’t appropriate,” but luckily he’s a very nice, understanding man, and I don’t think he held it against me at all.
Toby: Wow, well that’s a whole different conversation about when that kind of language of putting kisses on emails, that’s such a great conversation that would be very long, I think. So, Steff, anything else you want to add that I may have missed?
Steff: Um, let me think. One of the things I was going to quickly mention was that I noticed that you were talking about challenges in jobs, and I was thinking about this, because it was something I was asked in my interview about the biggest challenge that I had to overcome as a corporate booker, and I think it was, “In my previous job, I somehow got this very big contract with an events company to supply speakers to events that were happening all over the world in the run up to London 2012, and these speakers had to be – they were all over the world, they were Colombia, Venezuela, Qatar, Australia, Hong Kong, all over the place – and these speakers had to be a local medal winner who could deliver a speech in English.”
Steff: So, Australia, that was fine. I booked the lovely Lauren Burns, who is a tae kwon do champion, she was wonderful. For Colombia, and Venezuela, and Qatar, it was considerably more difficult. And yeah, I think that ended up being about 20 events, all help at British embassies over 2011 and 2012, and they all had to have a speaker. And we did have to compromise on some of them, because some of them there just simply wasn’t anyone that footed the bill. But I think, trying to book those when I don’t speak Spanish, or German, or Chinese, or any of those – trying to get all those all booked and managing to pull it all off was little short of a miracle. But the client was extremely happy in the end and it all went off without a hitch, but I still look back on that, and I think, “I can’t believe that worked!”
Toby: Wow. Oh, wow. Well, Steff, thank you very much.
Steff: No problem, it’s been lovely chatting.
Voiceover: You’re listening to plannerspod.com.
Toby: There you go, James. That was my chat with Steff. How do you feel?
James: I thought it was great. That was just an hour of just really interesting gold. I’m not quite sure where to start, really. I think that rang true, which was just a small kind of ditty in the middle of it, was where she was talking about trusting her suppliers, and that’s a thing at Metropolis that we’ve kind of seen across the board. Particularly in our market place, there’s so many guys doing very similar things out there, from the client perspective, how do they choose? And we’ve built our reputation I guess on trust and professionalism, and that was a real big one for me, about how to trust each other’s suppliers, and building long term relationships there. And the other one that kind of rang true was when she was talking about artists’ riders and it made me think back to a corporate we did a few years ago, one of the big hotels in central London, and she said, “We need to put the best A/V on there,” and the comedian, a guy, incredible impressionist, was on it, called Jon Culshaw, and they, the client had on this particular case, skimped on providing the best PA possible, and put it through, you know, like the speakers they have in the ceilings to sort of play elevator music, they put it through there. And the result happened that basically most of the people in the room ended up talking through this incredible impressionist doing some of the finest impressions you’ll see on the TV, just because it wasn’t properly amplified. So that was a really, really interesting one. What stood out for you, Toby?
Toby: Well, I mean, I think you can sort of hear me, all the way through, talking about why I think stuff’s great. What stood out for me? Steff’s obviously at the forefront of the digital thing as well – digital major, ability to code, that sort of stuff – just being a great people person, and understanding what both sets of clients expect, that’s quite an interesting dynamic as the corporate booker, where you’ve got two sets of clients – you’ve got the artists that you look after, and you’ve got the people who are asking for the artists, and you’ve got to manage those things, make sure everyone’s looked after, and that’s clearly something that is a real skill and that she’s really good at, otherwise she wouldn’t be working there. Just looking after people and understanding people’s needs from both sides of the fence.
James: Yeah, I think what’s clear, and what’s coming out of the interviews, which is really, really cool, think back to Chris Turner’s one, PP002, I believe, is how multi-skilled – I mean, you hear Steff talk about HTML, Chris quoted HTML as well, so that computer coding side is part of what people are kind of expected to be able to do in their job. I mean, that’s one small part of it, really. But that’s all in there. And the same goes with the people skills, about being confident when you’re not, I mean, that is such a massive part of working the events industry. I think we could go on all day here, but the last one that I kind of really want to draw on is I just love the journey of a podcast. I’ve listened to a few podcasts over the years now where a conversation ensued, and it’s kind of gone places, and the person interviewing – things have struck a chord with them. There was one point, I loved that Steff just said, “Well, I hadn’t really thought of it like that.” And, for me, that’s perfect, why this is just such a great medium to learn and discuss in. What do you reckon, Toby?
Toby: Yeah, I think that’s right, James. We start with, you know, where did it all start, and she said, “It’s by accident that I write that one-line email,” and then really, we learn that her skill as a linguistic, sort of, expert, might, you know – she’s sort of quite, “Oh, I didn’t really know what was going to happen, I didn’t – if I’d have thought they were going to read it, it would’ve been longer,” but that thing of just going, “Right, I’m going to write a short, snappy email, someone’s going to read it,” and maybe at the time what our mate John calls “unconscious competence,” you know, she wrote a very quick and accurate email to someone who just went, “Alright, come and see me.”
Toby: And her passion for language: amazing, really interesting, totally relevant to what she does. My ability to speak as soon as she tells me she’s got a master’s in linguistics, awful. So, let’s leave it there. I apologize, it was a bit waffley on my part, but it was a natural conversation. So, that’s it!
James: Yeah, so where can people find the podcast, Toby?
Toby: It’s quite simple, just go to plannerspod.com, you can find it on iTunes as well, remember the “Planner’s” got the apostrophe on “The Planner’s Planner” dot com. And we’ll have all of Steff’s contact details up, as well as Avalon and you can connect with her there, if you’d like to, as well.
James: And please leave us a review.
Toby: Quite right, please leave us a review on iTunes, don’t be too harsh. Nice one! See you next time.
James: See you next time.
Voiceover: You’re listening to The Planner’s Planner Podcast, with Toby Goodman and James Eager. Visit plannerspod.com
00:22 – Intro with Toby & James. James says ‘super’ a lot.
02:30 – Find out about Steff’s background and how she ‘fell into’ the events industry.
03:30 – Discover what Steff did to get out of a predictable career path.
03:50 – Find out the content of the email that changed Steff’s life!
04:30 – How Steff cultivated a relationship with Avalon before she worked for them.
05:28 – Discover what a ‘Speaker Bureau’ is and how it works.
06:50 – Find out other functions of a Speaker Bureau.
07:30 – Steff explains why contacts in her previous business are so important.
08:28 – Find out more about Avalon and why you might have heard the name before.
08:50 – Discover Steff’s role and what she does within the Avalon Group. ACE ARG Talent.
10:05 – Find out where Avalon are based and how Steff works out how many people work in her office! After this point, Toby asks the longest question in the world! (Sorry)!
12:30 – Steff talks about the process of planning an event and who the ‘client’ is.
13:30 – An example brief that Steff will deal get.
14:40 – Find out what happens with swearing comics and why Toby will never use the word ‘dry’ again!
15:40 – Steff likens corporate entertainment and recruitment.
16:20 – Find out a great attribute that will make comedians more employable.
17:15 – Discover the responsibility of Steff’s role to the clients.
19:30 – Find out how the corporate booking team works.
20:00 – Find out how Avalon make the lives of the artists they manage easy.
21:30 – How Steff will get to know new artists on Avalon’s roster.
22:00 – Steff talks about how Avalon finds new talent.
22:45 – The skills behind talent spotting!
24:30 – How Steff’s skills with language have helped her in her job.
25:30 – Why HTML coding is a skill Steff had to teach herself on the job.
26:30 – Steff shares her love for language.
27:10 – Find out the parallels between Steff’s passion for linguistics and comedians.
28:35 – Steff discusses Lee Nelson and Al Murrey’s accent and persona.
30:40 – Steff talks about Robert Bathurst from Cold Feet and Downton Abbey.
32:45 – Steff reveals the riders of the famous artists Avalon represents.
33:26 – Find out how performers behave prior to performing.
34:30 – Discover Steff’s life plan and how things have worked out!
37:00 – Find out Steff’s advice for people looking for a career in events.
38:30 – Find out how Steff deals with management and stress.
40:45 – Find out about the contingency plans that are in place and what can go wrong!
43:20 – Steff talks about what the future holds for her and how she is shaping her role at Avalon.
44:40 – Find out about the perks of the job!
45:00 – The benefits and challenges about seeing people live.
46:00 – Discover the hours involved in Steff’s working week.
46:50 – Why everyone needs to get to the Edinburgh festival.
49:00 – Find out more about the personalities behind successful bookers.
50:15 – Discover Steff’s rather amazing hobby and what aspect hasn’t translated well into her new life in London.
51:25 – Steff expands on her thoughts about confidence.
53:50 – Find out how perspective gives clarity! Just like a professional comic, Toby does a callback to the beginning of the chat!
56:30 – Steff reveals the differences between her old and new job and what she’ll never do again!
58:20 – Find out the biggest challenge Steff has had in her career so far!
01:05 – Closing words with Toby and James.