Crew every show as if your business depends on it
Freelance Finder Resources
Last issue, this column examined the rules, regulations, challenges, and nuances facing rental and staging business owners in making staffing choices and hiring freelancers. This issue we'll continue the discussion, this time focusing on some common-sense guidelines to consider when hiring outside labor for your gigs.
What separates a staging company from a rental company is the service your technical support personnel add to your equipment. Hiring outside your company on a temporary basis is an unavoidable reality for any A/V rental and staging business. As managers, we face a daily challenge to make sure we use our resources wisely while taking care to serve the customer.
But how do some of your peers — other companies in the industry — handle juggling staff, freelancers, and labor companies? What methods minimize problems while maximizing profit? How can we control our product if we can't even control who shows up on a labor call?
Send the best people
There are many different markets within our industry, and with them come different approaches to labor and technical support. How your company chooses to approach staffing is probably going to be based on a balance of fulfilling event requirements, maximizing internal resources, and finishing with a profit. The following are some guidelines taken from hard-earned experience:
As simple as this sounds, it is often the most overlooked principle in crewing an event. Successful companies recognize that the customer spends more time with your technicians than anyone else. It will not be the equipment that makes or breaks your show — it will be the people.
Carefully considering each crew member for their skills, and making sure the crew has the right mix of leaders and personalities is probably the most important function of the staging manager's job. This may mean splitting up your favorite video team onto different shows, and filling in other crew positions with freelancers.
Know who's available
A company whose key personnel are all tied up on the same job simply cannot grow. Spread your staff and freelance leaders around so that every show can benefit. Whatever you do, don't compromise on talent. If you accept this principle, then the following guidelines will seem more practical.
I am often surprised by the lack of depth in outside labor resources that many companies deal with. The tendency is to use up staff, then turn away additional business. In order for a rental and staging company to grow, it's important to know where to find additional equipment and personnel, regardless of when or where the event takes place.
If your market is small, then you need to be well acquainted with a large portion of your A/V community. Once you know which folks you want to work with, stay in close enough contact so you know their schedules as well as their skills.
Working outside your market requires additional research. There are a number of Internet resources designed to provide access to freelancer listings, or you can use your business contacts to get referrals. If you agree that the right crew is important, then you should take the time to find the right crew members.
Your firm also needs to know where to secure general labor for crew calls. Knowing a lot of individuals to call might suffice in your home market, but managing that many individuals may be more than your internal resources can handle. Using an outside labor provider may appear to cost more money, until you factor in the time saved and the reduced risk of not carrying so many part-timers on your payroll.
In the big destination cities, it's usually not difficult to find quality labor providers who advertise via the yellow pages and Internet. In smaller markets, it pays to take the time to call around — even your competitor can be a good resource.
Treat freelancers well
Consider calling concert or theatrical venues to ask where quality folks can be hired. Ask specific questions, such as can they provide theatrical carpenters or just stagehands? If you only need a couple of folks, then tap into the freelancer network. Each freelancer you find should be able to provide phone numbers for more people. When all else fails, try the local college theater department, or even the fire station. You will have to handle the payroll, but you will get some motivated crews.
This may sound simple, but so many of us overlook the value of freelance professionals. Even veteran managers sometimes succumb to the perception that freelancers, in general, are overpaid and disloyal. Take a fresh look at how freelance professionals are viewed by your staff, especially by your technicians and operations personnel.
There is no delicate way to say this, but some of your staff will resent freelancers' pay rates, daily overtime, and freedom from the mundane aspects of a real job. They view freelancers as paid mercenaries with no company loyalty. More importantly, many freelancers are treated poorly because of this, and that reflects on your whole company. We need to educate our employees about meeting demand in peak times, and explain the true cost of an additional employee versus the true cost of a freelancer.
Respect the skills and talents of your freelancers as you do your employees, and your firm will be able to field many more teams of qualified technicians. Prompt payments, good technical support, and useful feedback on their work show professional freelancers that you value their services. When they aren't working for you and doing a great job, they will be working with someone else and telling everyone how great you are. (Indeed, if you want to know the dirt on your competitor, just ask a disgruntled freelancer.)
Treat all labor suppliers like partners
Treat freelancers well and the good ones will find you, instead of you looking for them. With great show crews in hand, you can turn your focus to improving the general work crews on show site.
Once you choose to use outside labor suppliers, you will need to work closely with them to get the most out of their services.
The complaint I most often hear from A/V managers is that labor suppliers don't send out the right people. The true problem often lies in the quality of information we provide about our needs.
In many cities there are a number of event labor suppliers who, whether they realize it or not, specialize in certain types of labor. One may be a great source for concert stagehands, while another can field A/V techs for breakouts. In order to partner successfully with your labor suppliers, you need to know what they do well and specify your labor requests accordingly.
For instance, if you need scenic carpenters, request that they come with hand tools and a screw gun. If you need help setting breakouts, then ask for A/V technicians in business-casual attire.
It sounds simple, but we get in the habit of asking for “hands” because we don't want to look too departmentalized or are afraid that being too specific will raise the cost. It may cost a few dollars more per hour for more skilled labor, but the time you will save by not having to supervise each person, or redo their work, will more than make up for it.
Unions are on your side
The key is communicating your needs and expectations clearly, and then giving your supplier the time to develop the talent pool that better meets your needs.
This one may be hard to accept for some of you, but it's true. If you approach your union supplier as a partner who wants to get you the best folks and who wants things to go smoothly, you will greatly increase your chances of these things happening. The real purpose of the union is to protect the rights and work conditions of tradesmen. You have a right to qualified help, and they have the right to work under consistent conditions of employment.
I will grant that there are some business agents out there who have dealt with so many adversarial production managers that they approach all business in a defensive fashion.
Show them that you are on their side by demonstrating flexibility. Ask about jurisdictions and what kind of workers that union local represents. Be clear and forthright about what you need and what your expectations are, but be willing to make adjustments that will not jeopardize the show.
Treat your own people better than temp help
In some cities you need to have a contract to work directly with a particular union. If that's not a good option, a better choice may be to work with a broker who has a contract. The broker understands the rules and can facilitate the payroll, and can translate your needs into the right crew. If you choose to work directly with a union, expect to generate individual payroll checks for each worker, or use a payroll company to pay each worker separately.
Of course you already do this, but as you grow, continually review your internal practices where scheduling is concerned.
Do you value your staff's time and skills as much as those of outside labor? Do you schedule staff to work the ugly hours because they are less expensive than external help? If you do, then maybe you need to make some adjustments in your practices so your staff benefits a little more from working odd hours.
Make sure you honor their vacation and personal time. Give them training opportunities and provide them with tools and show kits. In short, make a staff position attractive to the folks who want a staff job. Make the freelance gig attractive to those who want to freelance.
Today's customers have more opportunity to shop for price and quality of service. This makes the organizing of crews one of the most important tasks in staging a good show.
Finding and keeping great technicians should be a top priority for the staging manager. If we can focus on putting quality talent in the field and giving workers the tools and respect they deserve, those efforts will pay off in smoother, safer shows and happier customers.
Tom Stimson has worked professionally in the live-event industry for more than 25 years. He holds a BA in theater and a masters in business administration. Since 1991, he has directed sales and operations at Alford Media Services in Dallas. Prior to that he owned and operated a special-event labor supplier in Dallas. The ICIA Field Report is penned each issue by members of the ICIA through its Editorial Alliance, a volunteer project of the International Communications Industries Association, Inc. (ICIA), the premier trade association for the professional audiovisual communications industry. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org