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Sun 12 Apr 2009 04:00 AM

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Talk ain’t cheap

Minutes cost millions when you're bidding for an after-dinner speaker. We count the cash on the cummerbund circuit.

Talk ain’t cheap
Talk ain’t cheap
Trump earns a fortune per gig.
Talk ain’t cheap
Blair earns a fortune per gig.
Talk ain’t cheap
Clinton earns a fortune per gig.
Talk ain’t cheap
Giuliani earn a fortune per gig.
Talk ain’t cheap
Bush earns a fortune per gig.
Talk ain’t cheap
U2 frontman Bono is a regular face on the after-dinner circuit.
Talk ain’t cheap
Tree hugger Al Gore demands perks and fees.
Talk ain’t cheap
Cyclist Lance Armstrong is a regular face on the after-dinner circuit.
Talk ain’t cheap
Businessman Gerald Ratner is a regular face on the after-dinner circuit.

Minutes cost millions when you're bidding for an after-dinner speaker - especially if his name is Donald Trump. Arabian Business counts the cash on the cummerbund circuit.

It's rare to speak of Donald Trump and Osama Bin Laden in the same breath, but they do have one thing in common: ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the profitable world of after-dinner speaking.

Best known as the billionaire famed for his real estate empire, Trump also moonlights as one of the world's most sought-after speakers, with an appearance fee to match. Bin Laden, before his Al Qaeda commitments took hold, doubled up as a wedding speaker.

Even the tanking economy has had little impact on the earning potential of top strata speakers. Last week Tony Blair earned $587,000 for two speeches in the Philippines.

Whether a tycoon or terrorist, clearly the lucrative lure of the speaker circuit is hard to resist. In return for hefty fees, VIPs are expected to amuse, entertain and educate - all within a half hour slot. For luminaries such as ex-presidents and A-list celebrities, speeches are a quick path to cash, and those at the top of the tree can name their price.

Leading the pack is the toupee-clad Trump who, according to his PA, commands a cool $1m for overseas gigs. For an average 90-minute speech, that's around $11,000 a minute - possibly more if the self-confessed germophobe is required to shake hands.

He scored $6m for a three-day tour in Australia last year, ostensibly for teaching delegates to ‘Think like a Billionaire'. On his home turf, Trump's prices start at $200,000, according to the All American Speakers Bureau; a snip at just $2,200 a minute.

Former US president Bill Clinton is another big hitter on the oratory A-list. Out of reach for all but the grandest of bashes, he earns up to $450,000 per gig for his gilded rhetoric. In the five years after his exit from the oval office, he pocketed $50m in speaking fees - last year he made nearly $6m. Little wonder then, that ex-president George Bush's first move after the White House was to jump onto the post-prandial gravy train.

"I'll give some speeches, to replenish the ol' coffers," he said back in September 2007. "I don't know what my dad gets - it's more than $50-75,000 [a speech], and Clinton's making a lot of money."

Bush, a man known for his ability to mangle words, has since been snapped up by the exclusive Washington Speakers Bureau (other WSB glitterati include ex-PM Tony Blair and U2 frontman Bono) where he is touted to the business world for a six-figure sum.

If celebrities are more your market, expect a little more bang for your buck. JLA, one of the UK's biggest speaker agencies, splits its clients into fee grades. The priciest, the AAs who cost upwards of $36,000, are a small group that includes include Lance Armstrong, Sir Alan Sugar and mind-magician Paul McKenna. Still too pricey? Try famed spin doctor Alistair Campbell, who has a price tag of just $15,000.

On the other side of the pond, spending upwards of $50,000 at All American Speakers Bureau buys you an audience with Whoopi Goldberg, while household names Bill Cosby and Jay Leno start at $100,000. F1 ace Michael Schumacher is also open to bids, but is a little shyer about his starting price.

So what's in it for the paying client? "Not to put it crudely, but bums on seats," says JLA boss Jeremy Lee. "A big name on the ticket is still what is going to make people turn up."

Of course, fees are only a portion of the perks laid on for star speakers. Rudy Giuliani made millions giving speeches after his term as Mayor of New York ended, but his clients forked out for more than his megabucks fee.According to a speaker contract leaked to the press, Giuliani's diva-like demands include a private jet which "MUST BE a Gulfstream IV or bigger" and a two-bedroom hotel suite flanked by rooms for his security team. He also requires a "king-sized bed, a balcony and a view". Of what, his contract doesn't say.

Politican-turned-tree hugger Al Gore's leaked contract also reveals some interesting tidbits. Any vehicle used to drive him, for instance, "will be a sedan, NOT an SUV" while his $100,000-plus fee doesn't get you out of buying first-class plane tickets and accommodation for him and his entourage.

Even the tanking economy has had little impact on the earning potential of top-strata speakers. Last week it emerged Tony Blair had earned $587,000 for two half-hour speeches in the Philippines. More than 2,000 delegates paid up to $510 a ticket to hear Blair's oratory, which included sharp one-liners such as "politics really matters, but a lot of what goes on is not great" and "religion [can be] a source of inspiration, or an excuse for evil".

A Washington insider described Blair, who has a two-year waiting list for engagements, as the "ultimate catch". "He can basically name his fee," she said. "His marketability is incredibly high."

But lesser luminaries are tightening their belts. JLA's Lee says that most of his clients are now willing to be "flexible" with their fees. The industry overall has seen a 15 percent drop in business as blue chip players - previously the biggest source of speaker bucks - rein in their budgets.

"Very few organisations want to run the risk of looking extravagant," Lee says. "The banking sector in particular does not want to be seen to be paying vast fees for speakers. A year ago, it was about impressing the audience. Now it's a less showy approach."

Unsurprisingly, corporate groups are newly keen to hear well-known people expound on the economy.

"We are selling four times as many people speaking on the economy, as we were a year ago," Lee says.

British politician Norman Lamont, who was chancellor of the exchequer in the last recession, is one such speaker enjoying a boom in bookings. Which, as Lee observes, "is very interesting, remembering how unpopular he was at the time".

Still, those for whom dinner demand falls can take comfort - any failures will make great fodder for future bookings. Part of the allure of after-dinner speaking is that career success isn't a pre-requisite. On the contrary, setbacks sell.

Gerald Ratner, former chief executive of his family jewellery firm, Ratners, is a case in point. In 1991 he unravelled three decades of corporate success in 45 minutes when, during a legendary speech to the Institute of Directors, he called his firm's stock "crap" and said a prawn sandwich would last longer than some of its earrings.

The gaffe wiped $700,000 off the firm's value, saw him fired, and led to the term ‘doing a Ratner' being immortalised as a catchphrase for corporate blunders.

Ratner has since returned to the scene of the crime, and now rakes in thousands peddling the tale of his revival to packed conference groups.

"I am in demand to make speeches, but you can take my tips with a pinch of salt," he admits.