It was in the early ‘90s when event budgets were big and the stages were filled with former heads of states and retired Olympians that Gail Davis was leading events at one of the world’s largest corporations, EDS. It’s now DXC. After watching the movie Alive, decided to search for Nando Parrado, the main subject of the movie. After research and phone calls throughout South America, Gail convinced Nando to come to speak for the first time about his experiences. The event was unbelievable. People were more than moved; they were inspired by his story. Two years later, Gail took a bold step and left a successful twenty-year career and launched Gail Davis and Associates with only one speaker on a roster, Nando Parrado. Gail shares how creating experiences that are memorable has helped her build GDA and provide service and a trusted partnership with their clients.
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Creating Experiences That Are Memorable with Gail Davis
I’m honored to meet someone that I’ve met in person. Her name is Gail Davis of the GDA Speakers Bureau. It was in the early ‘90s when event budgets were big and the stages were filled with former heads of states and retired Olympians that she was leading events at one of the world’s largest corporations, EDS. It’s now DXC. After a hugely successful event, she was sitting with the CEO. The keynote had been a former president and he said, “That’s good, but next year find somebody that no one’s ever heard of but no one would forget hearing from.” One evening she was watching the movie, Alive. She decided to search for Nando Parrado, the main subject of the movie. After calling the bureaus on her Rolodex, she was told that he was either dead or spoke no English, “Wouldn’t head of state or an Olympian, be better?” They wondered.
Fast forward through research and phone calls throughout South America, Gail convinced an Uruguayan named Nando Parrado to come to speak for the first time about his experiences. His story at the time had been made famous by the movie, Alive. The event was unbelievable. People were more than moved. They were inspired by his story. It was a home run. Then two years later, Gail took a bold step. She left a successful twenty-year career and launched Gail Davis and Associates. She only had one speaker on a roster, Nando Parrado. She wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue managing events, just manage him or grow a large company. One thing she knew for sure was her experience as a corporate event planner led her to create a new model of serving clients and selecting speakers. GDA speakers are more than a speaker’s bureau. It’s a service and a trusted partnership with their clients. After almost two decades, they built a database of world-renowned thought leaders and they vetted those speakers and curated highly qualified speakers who they trust and deliver with confidence to their clients. Gail, what a thrill to welcome you.
Thank you, John. I’m looking forward to this conversation.Clarity and simplicity are great guideposts. Click To Tweet
We always talk about the importance of branding yourself and being memorable and a sea of similarity and you have that in spades. People mention your name. It clicks energy for everybody. I love the details of this story of the origin and trying to find something a little off the beaten path. One of the qualities that I see in you is tenacity. The fact that you did go, “He doesn’t speak English.” You did what it took calling South America to find this guy. That would be some of the things that would be interesting to hear. Is that, in fact, one of the core assets that you’re bringing to the party and does that allow you to stand out?
You’re probably born with a determination or tenacity, but also it can be fostered in your environment. You mentioned that you were familiar with EDS. I know some listeners may or may not recognize that acronym, but it was a company that was founded by one of the most tenacious people, Ross Perot. The culture at EDS is if you want something done that no one else can do, just ask us to do it because that’s who we are. We know how to get things done. Working in that environment at the time that the story with Nando took place, that environment fostered tenacity. If you’re told no, there’s another way. That played into this. I’ve worked with lots of speakers and coaches who talk about vision and how important having a vision is. From the moment I saw the movie, Alive, and then subsequently saw Nando interviewed, I detected his warmth. I was brought into the story and I had the clearest vision of him on that stage. Everyone in that audience mesmerized by this incredible story which at times is a story of leadership and other times it’s a story about teamwork. Ultimately, it’s about the power of the human spirit but I always had that vision. I didn’t know how it was going to get there, but I had it so clear.
Having the vision, being born with a certain amount of tenacity and cultivating it in that EDS environment, all those things together played a big role and eventually Nando showing up in the alley and knocking it out of the ballpark. That was 1994. There was no Google. The story is dramatic when you consider that because at that time if you wanted a speaker, you were dependent. You used the word Rolodex. I remember a Rolodex. I’m calling someone who could flip through the Rolodex and have the number. The fact that none of the speaker’s bureaus have it and the fact that there was no Google made it a challenging situation, which I’m so glad it worked out. Nando, to this day, remains one of my dearest and closest friends. He is the number one go-to speaker of our almost twenty-year history. I’m so acutely aware of how many lives he has profoundly changed or encouraged. When someone has a good story that I’m able to retail in an effort to make the client aware of who they are, that’s just magic for me.
One of the benefits of great stories is it becomes a memorable and people can then pass on the story and it’s in our DNA. We used to sit around the campfire and tell stories in caveman days and now we tell stories around PowerPoint glow.
I want to add an event where I was talking to a group of people who hire speakers and I was telling them about our industry. As an icebreaker at the beginning, the organizer was playing the game two truths and a lie. They said, “Gail, we want you to play and do this quick.” I said something like, “I am from Ohio, I can do the splits, I don’t watch speaker videos.” Everyone immediately raises their hand. First, they probably think I can do the split, but it seemed too obvious that they said, “Surely, it’s the fact that you don’t watch speaker videos.” I’m like, “I rarely do.” What I have built this career off of is exactly what you just said. Listening to speakers, being inspired by their story, having it be so memorable but I get on the phone and retell the story. Nando often laughs and says, “Gail, if anything ever happens to me, I have no doubt the story will live on because you’ll start going out and tell the story.”
Our stories can become our legacy. That’s where the social impact is because you as a business owner and the risk that you took leaving this secure job to start out on your own and grow something is what a lot of the audiences are going to be inspired by. What I see as a key, one of the investors who fund startups said to me, “Please tell your clients, don’t boil the ocean.” I love that visualization of too many things at once and you have done this. Can you tell us about how you had a goal of growing your company from just Nando to now 500 and then eventually 5,000? You said, “I need to put these things into three categories.” These three categories can be helpful for any business owner or even one-person speaker or entrepreneur. Share with us how you came up with those and what those are.Get focused into high radar and low categories. Click To Tweet
I started with one speaker that my business model was a little shaky. I had one speaker and a guy that didn’t want to be on the circuit. His original direction was, “I don’t want it to be more than six times a year.” As I’ve started off, I was on fire about his story but I had an ad. On some subconscious level, I was measuring a metric that I use. A metric that I was hung up on is how many speakers do I have in my database because anything is better than one. I remember reaching out, making calls, working my network, getting 100, getting 400, I’m sure 500 was significant, I’m sure 1,000 was significant. For the early years to update the website and say, “GDA speakers have a database of over 1,500 speakers,” I started to feel I was getting some traction. I was getting some credibility and then I didn’t revisit that metric for a while. The next thing you know, it’s saying, “2,000, 2,500, 3,000, 3,500,” and the landscape of our industry was changing. I one day started to read my own press release and it said something along the lines of, “GDA speakers have access to and can help you with over 5,500 speakers.” It just stopped me in my tracks and I thought, is that a thing to be boasting about? Where’s the value add there? Can I honestly storytell with you about each of those 5,500 speakers? I don’t think so. Where’s my value?
I often compare our industry or what I do something very similar to a travel agent. There are people out there, especially younger people that probably don’t even know what a travel agent is. They are completely capable of going, searching and finding their own speakers. I also know people who wouldn’t dream of taking a trip because they value their time and they value the expertise of their travel agent partner so they wouldn’t dream of doing it without. I started to think a little bit about that and I thought, “If I’m a partner and I have a seat at the table and I’m supposed to be bringing value, I’ve got to revisit this 5,500 because I cannot bring value for 5,500 speakers.” I came in and I triaged those massive speakers. I like to keep things very simple, so clarity and simplicity are good guideposts for running a business. I said, “We’re going to first create a category called High Priority Speakers.” What are my criteria going to be? It’s going to be that we’ve booked the person, that we’ve gotten positive feedback from our clients and that they meet our economic model because as I grew as a business owner, so did my expenses. I now have real estate that I’m releasing. I’ve got employees that I’m paying for. I have health benefits that I’m paying for and 401(k) matching and profiteering.
Maybe in the early days, I could make $500 profit and it made sense, but when you do something with passion, you put the same effort into booking a $5,000 speaker as you do a $50,000. Through the help of a fabulous CPA, I realized that we had a threshold. We needed to make X or we shouldn’t be doing the deal. That helped me identify my high priority speakers and honestly if I could, I would just tell my team, “Let’s only book those.” It’s because we know them, they know us. They’re a proven commodity. We’ll probably not going to run into a hiccup and it’s a win-win for sure, but you can’t scale if you don’t constantly have something new. I realized my second category had to be radar and it’s exactly what the name implies. These are people that have been vetted through an existing client, through speaker relationship. We’ve lost business to them. They’ve got a New York Times bestselling author book on the charts. This is somebody that should be on our radar. We just haven’t yet had the chance to book them. If they’re going to meet our economic model, they’re highly recommended.
Then the truth of the reality is a whole bunch of others probably somewhere between 2020 400 speakers had to go into a category that’s called low. Low might be they don’t make the economic model. They were a dear friend back when I was booking speakers for this elementary school, kindergarten graduation but today we don’t do that. Occasionally we’ve made a conscious decision. We don’t want to work with a particular speaker. There was a bad experience with the client, they weren’t open to the feedback, they’re not willing to change. It’s small because this is the greatest industry on the planet. There might be a couple of those or maybe there’s someone that everybody wants but they’re simply not on the circuit. We try not to put our energy into that and try to keep our clarity, focus and drive on high and always looking at the radar to make sure we’re not overlooking someone that should be in that high priority category.
I’ve heard it broken out in those three categories that anybody in sales has to do, which is 20% of my clients give me 80% of my revenue. It sounds like that model is somewhat in your wheelhouse as well yet you can’t just focus on the 20% of the clients. This ability for speakers to move up from low to being on your radar, to getting into the coveted high category is very similar to the journey that everybody in sales has to go to. I talk about going from invisible to irresistible. There are all kinds of similarities to dating too. You’re invisible. Nobody knows you exist. The next rung up is only even significant and then we finally get to at least interesting. I’m willing to have a conversation with you. I’m not going out with you. I’m not hiring you as a speaker yet and then you get to intriguing and then finally irresistible. For any speakers that are listening to this, just realize that you don’t jump from low to high, you’d probably have to get on the radar first. This is the process. The other part of that, building a successful business besides this laser being focused, is your ability to have loyalty and trust built with clients like Barbara Lane. Can you tell us the importance of that and how you get those kinds of relationships?
Barbara runs a meeting planning company that supports associations in the Houston area. One of her clients is Houston HR, which does a large human resource conference, which is called the Gulf Coast Symposium. I was introduced to her by another client and we’ve only been in business and the first year there wasn’t that much of a budget. It was a smaller regional conference. I helped her in every single year since that first year. I had booked her speakers and sometimes it’s two, some years we’ve had three and it’s just such a rock, solid, loyal relationship. When we had our ten-year anniversary, she and one of her employees flew to Dallas and celebrated with us. I hope that she is also going to be here when we celebrate twenty because we would love to recognize her for all of that loyalty. She truly defines a partner. She knows her business and she trusts that we know ours and we collaborate. I would not dream to tell you that we haven’t had a misstep or two along the way, but in true partner fashion, she’ll call me and she’ll say, “We’ve got a new person in such position. You probably need to visit. I’ll
give a little bit of timing. This is what went down and I know you would want to know because I know what your values are and so that’s why I’m calling you to tell you.”
When you have that collaborative relationship with your clients and you can hear feedback without getting defensive and realize that it is a safe environment, that’s the highest compliment I can ever give or get. It’s to say, “I feel safe to be myself with you,” and vice versa. As many people as possible feel safe to be a guest on my podcast or be safe to hire me as a speaker. That’s the highest compliment. This ability to create loyalty is what you just said right there because when you have an open collaborative conversation where you can get feedback, you build up a sense of trust that allows for the bumps in the road to just be bumps and not derail you.
I remember once I was presenting to a group of people that hire speakers. One person around the table had already booked his speakers and the other people around the table were potential clients. I remember he said, “Gail, I have a question.” I thought, “What are you doing asking a question? We’ve already got your stuff booked.” He goes, “I booked everything I’m going to do next year with you. What are you going to do now? Are you done? Is it here for me to figure out? What do you do now?” I’m so glad he asked that question because that’s another way I’ve tried to distinguish myself and also set myself apart. I heard him loud and clear. I don’t want someone just to book the experience. I want someone with me all the way, from the start all the way to the standing ovation. I put a tremendous amount of energy into customer service support, the event management, navigating obstacles that pop up, all the way through following through how did it go. That’s so important. I like to say that anybody can book a speaker. We like to create an experience so getting to know that client and maybe even suggesting something to them that we’ve learned from another client. They’re getting the benefit of all the various experiences that we have.
That’s the importance of having a strong network. I’ve seen this happen time and again. One of the clients that hire me is Gensler, which is the world’s largest architecture firm. They build skyscrapers in Dubai and redo the law offices in DC and they have a wide variety of different types of clients. One of their secret sauce is to bring in a Mercedes and a Facebook that they’ve done the offices or the build for together in a place where they can share best practices that they would never be able to get access to these top decision makers. Gensler is the conduit which creates brand loyalty. It sounds like that’s what you’re doing since you’re involved with so many different events is sharing what you see worked to make another event successful. That’s an incredible value-add. You take it one step further.
One of the things I know that is a core problem that all businesses need to solve is attracting and retaining top talent. You need to attract and retain top clients. I’ve been brought in several times to help people win back a big client they’ve lost, but now you’re also taking your skill set of creating loyalty with the Barbara Lanes of the world into your employees. You’ve got someone named Julie O’Keefe that’s been with you the longest. What is it about your relationship with Julie that causes her to not jump ship and go someplace else that other people could learn from?
Loyalty is a huge thing to me and we talked about it with clients. It’s a great thing with employees too and Julie shares that. She is somebody that loyalty matters to a lot. We’re friends. We’ve been through many things together and lots of other employees who did their stent here and went on. Julie and I had the same core values. Julie also loves her clients. One time ago someone told me, “Do what you love and the money will follow,” and Julie does what she loves. She was just in town and we had lunch with a couple of her clients and we had dinner with a couple of her clients. It was so rewarding for me just to sit there and listen to the complete and total love buzz. One of them has used GDA ten years in a row, but they’ve worked with Julie for the last eight. When you try to scale a business, sometimes it’s hard to replicate the magic that you can have with the client, with another employee and the clients that they have.
Julie has certainly done that for sure. There’s a lot of loyalty there. She and I are wired the same. I spent the last two years trying to work on my leadership skills, understanding today’s employee base, understanding what they value and trying to become a better leader. Tweak some of my skills because as much as I can give you many things they taught me, it was a little bit of a command and control environment. I know that my leadership skills or lack thereof but greatly shaped by that environment. One thing in today’s world with Millennials and other generations, that command and control don’t fly. I have come a long way and the thing I appreciate about Julie is she and I call it like it is. We’re in this thing until the end, that’s for sure.
What I find fascinating is there’s that same trust factor again, whether it’s a Barbara Lane client or an employee like Julie that you can each say, “That doesn’t feel right, that doesn’t look right.” There’s that trust built up, so it works both ways. We’ve got all that energy going between clients and now we’ve got all that energy going between keeping great talent and that is your two-legged of a three-legged stool.
The speakers are the third. I love speakers that I can call and go, “I just talked to the client, we’ve got a couple of things we need to work on.” I love someone that will be like, “Thank you for calling. I had no idea. I was coming off that way. I had no idea that was an issue. What can I do to make that right?” The biggest majority of the time that I’ve ever called the speaker to say, “We’ve got a little bit we need to tweak here,” you will find on the other end that speaker that just wants to make it right and on the rare occasion are you greeted with some an inflexibility and defensiveness that they don’t want to hear.
“What can I do to make that right?” If you just had that in your toolbox ready to go at any moment as opposed to defensiveness, it would help. What you’re doing with this third leg of success that you have built is your new GDA Podcast that your son, Kyle, is the producer and cohost of. I love a podcast as much as anybody. I’ve been doing over 200 episodes now and I helped Gensler launched their podcast as a way to develop relationships with clients before they go into a pitch. It becomes a sales relationship tool as opposed to just waiting for a proposal request where they would bring me in to help them with the pitch. I’ve helped them figure out a way to get relationships with these people so it’s not a cold, “Hi, nice to meet you,” relationship. How are you using the GDA Podcast to help your own branding, help the speakers that are such a key part of your world?
We started off very aggressive. My son, Kyle, only knows one speed and that’s, “Go.” We were launching three a week and we did it for a year. We took a little hiatus and I am trying to figure out how I want to reinvent it and do that in conjunction with our twenty-year anniversary. I have some cool ideas. The benefit that I believe we got from the podcast was it’s just great to get back to basics. We did podcasts with so many of the speakers that we’ve worked with for years. For me to unplug and get away from the screen and get on the podcast and visit with these speakers that I’ve worked with for years and be reminded how they’ve changed or tweaked over the years. That was a phenomenal benefit for me as a business owner. It is also a terrific way to train internally. I would tell all of my employees, “While you’re commuting, while you’re running, listen to these because it’s different.” The podcast conversations are very different than a produced video. In listening to a podcast, you can pick up the story you’re there that you can retail. It was very helpful for that.
The storytelling becomes a sales tool for your team by listening to what the speakers saying on the podcast.
For clients on our proposals, if we had done a podcast, we just link it. They’re reading the bio, they can click here and watch the pre-produced videos or click on this. It comes up and while you’re scrolling, it’s playing in the background
There are so many different outcomes and ways to get a return on the investment for your time doing it. It also reminds me of the story of whenever a founder or CEO of a company goes into the factory and walks up down the aisles or Howard Schultz serving coffee at an actual Starbucks to get back to what their customer is saying and where they see problems. You’re reconnecting with those people in your high-end radar list and make it onto the podcast. It’s just another point of distinction. If you’re the first bureau that I’ve heard of that has her own podcast, then it becomes another staying cutting edge. Is there one thing you would like to leave the listeners with as to what you recommend in storytelling?
We talked about a great story is a memorable story. If you’ve thought a story that you can tell that people leave and retell that story, to me, that’s the magic. The connection doesn’t have to be literal. Nando Parrado survived a plane crash for 72 days in the Andes mountains. I’m sure that every single time he gives a speech, there’s no one in the audience that has survived a plane crash in cruising altitude. There might be someone that survived a plane crash, that takeoff and there might be someone who survived a plane crash on landing but there’s no one there that just survived a plane crash at cruising altitude. There’s no one that’s ever been stranded for 72 days in the Andes mountains, but every single person relates to his story. I’ve heard so many people come up to me afterward and say, “Thank you, I’m going through this. Thank you. I just had this experience.” Nando will listen and then he will write, “We all have our own Andes.” When you have a story, don’t try to make it fit. Just tell your story, be authentic. People will connect the dots. Give people credit. Inspire them and let them connect the dots.
I can’t thank you enough for your energy, enthusiasm, insights on focus and loyalty both in and outside of your company. Everyone has their own Andes. Be authentic. Terrific stuff, Gail. What a pleasure. Thanks again for being you. It makes the whole industry light up. It makes me thrilled to be part of your world, whether I’m on the radar or wherever.
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