With recent high-profile cases of sexual harassment and objectification of promotional staff shaking the events industry, event professionals share their thoughts on the controversial issue…

At the start of 2018, a chain of high profile events where women claimed to be sexually harassed and objectified rocked the industry. When the Presidents Club charity dinner scandal hit the national press in January – all eyes turned to the events sector, with many hailing the sordid case as a wake up call for the industry.

At a charity gala event at The Dorchester, Park Lane, a steward’s inquiry was convened after the event’s hostesses accused guests of groping them, making lewd comments and extending invitations to their hotel rooms. A furore quickly erupted over the men-only event, which was attended by 360 figures from the world of business, politics and finance. Especially as it was revealed that 130 specially-hired hostesses were allegedly told to wear skimpy black outfits, with matching underwear and high heels as their work attire for the evening. The Financial Times sent two people undercover to work as hostesses at the charity auction, and what they uncovered is not acceptable behaviour.

The hostesses reported men repeatedly putting their hands up their skirts, making extremely inappropriate comments and one guest even allegedly exposed themselves to a member of staff. The nations media followed the story, with more sordid details surrounding the behaviour of some of the guests, coming to light. Since the Presidents Club scandal erupted, the organisation has announced that it will no longer be hosting fundraising events and is set to close.This controversial issue didn’t end there however, setting off a chain of events that left the industry asking many questions.

 

Chain of events

But it doesn’t stop there. In February, the ICE Totally Gaming conference at London’s ExCeL also came under fire. Many were appalled at the fact that delegates were entertained by pole dancers and a Playboy-themed show. Women danced in high heels, fishnet stockings and lingerie, and performed in front of a screen, which featured words such as “provocative” and “sensual” – in front of a mostly male audience. Several hostesses at the gambling event also reported instances of sexual harassment, with some claiming they had been propositioned for sex.

These high profile cases of sexual harassment and objectification of women sent shockwaves throughout the events industry, prompting many to question whether there is ever a justifiable need for scantily clad women at any kind of event or brand experience. Following on from this the Professional Darts Corporation announced that it will no longer use walk-on girls to accompany players on their way to the stage, although this has since been revealed as a ruling made by TV broadcasters.

Furthermore, just days after this announcement, Formula One revealed it would also no longer be using “grid girls” at any of its events. Sean Bratches, managing director of commercial operations at Formula One, said that the use of grid girls did not resonate with its brand values and this change was enforced ahead of the new F1 season.

 

Not the first time

This is not the first time the events industry has come under fire for its choice of promotional staff and no one can say for sure that it will be the last. In 2017, one tile company exhibiting at UK Construction Week was chastised for its use of female staff dressed in revealing showgirl outfits. Many argued that this was completely inappropriate for a trade conference and highlighted the lack of diversity and equality within the construction industry itself.

In response to the uproar caused by the inappropriate showgirl outfits, UK Construction Week has recently released a code of conduct for its exhibitors, with clear guidelines on what is and is not acceptable in terms of promotional staff. Nathan Garnett, event director of UK Construction Week, believes that event organisers can do more to promote diversity and equality throughout all of their events.

He explained: “What we are looking to do, by releasing this code of conduct, is try to help companies and exhibitors avoid falling in to any pitfalls or doing the wrong thing. Last year we had an incident, and in the context of the theme of the stand there were showgirls and an Elvis impersonator, and it all seemed to make sense as a theme. However, the showgirl element in isolation, was actually quite upsetting to the people in the industry.”

Garnett continued: “The code of conduct has been brought in to help people to not make that mistake again. It isn’t us being the thought police and trying to take the fun away, it is more a case of us saying ‘just take a moment to think of all the different implications of what you are doing to your stand, and how that could potentially be perceived by all different types of people in the industry’.”

The exhibitor’s code of conduct released by UK Construction Week includes guidance on brand representation, the clothing worn by promotional staff and the mix of staff in terms of gender, age and ethnicity. If an exhibitor doesn’t promote diversity within its choice of promotional staff, it is being forewarned that it must be prepared to explain why this is the case.

“I think it is up to organisers, like we are trying to do, to give advice and guidance to exhibitors with these kinds of issues,” elaborated Garnett. “I think most of us as organisers are well aware of the potential pitfalls, but when you’ve got 650 exhibitors, and some shows have more, obviously that is a big job and you need help.”

Good business sense

Kelda Redropp, staffing director at the marketing agency Sense, believes that it is not just in the interest of morality to hire the right promotional staff, but it also makes good business sense. “It’s definitely encouraging that businesses and brands are now addressing the practice of objectifying women in marketing with a view to stamping it out,” she explained.

“Both women and men are finding it increasingly unacceptable, and are therefore likely to boycott those companies that exploit women in this way – and this is currently one of the key drivers behind a switch in strategy by the likes of UK Construction Week. After all, there’s nothing like a threat to margins to turn businesses and brands into moral guardians. However, the good news is that when one or two fall in line, there’s a domino effect on the rest.”

For many organisers, often decisions are influenced by the marketing budget available and the solution that appears to offer the most coverage and brand awareness for the best price, comes out on top. Instead of hiring promotional staff because of the way they look and the attention this could attract, many believe that in 2018 brands should instead be investing their resources in to training up true brand ambassadors.

“Today, many of the best experiential campaigns are run by true brand ambassadors,” continued Redropp. “They are handpicked not just for their promotional marketing experience, but also because they embody the brand in how they behave and what they say. “Rather than using showgirls to attract customers, it would be much more effective to train staff effectively; to give them a deep knowledge of the product and the brand. Whether they are men or women is immaterial as long as they know their stuff. It is simply a far better use of a promotional marketing budget.”

True brand ambassadors

Redropp is not alone in her thinking; that the days of “promo girls” are behind us. Tom Eatenton, CEO of Kru Live, has gone so far as to banish the term “promo staff” within his business. “For some time now staff in our sector have been referred to as brand ambassadors,” Eatenton elaborated. “This is because of the fact that they reflect the brand they represent, and importantly their values and target market. Whilst staff must be 100 per cent presentable, smart and appropriately dressed for the assignment; appearance for our clients comes secondary to their teams being authentic to the brand and being able to hold a meaningful conversation.”

James Rix, CEO of Harrix Group, the holding group for Street PR; a staffing marketing agency, among others, concurred with Eatenton – noting real change within the industry. “The industry is changing significantly, gone are the days of the promotional model. People are thinking far more in terms of enhancing the customer experience,” stated Rix.

“I’ve already started to see that it [recent controversy around promotional staff] has made clients aware that there is more to this than meets the eye. I think it is going to segregate bad agencies, which pay staff directly and do not have strong relationships with their staff or clients, making their staff far more vulnerable.

“For every great idea there’s a bad one, and the good agencies have the knowledge and the courage to push back – in fact, it is their duty to do this, not only for their staff but also for their client. Occasionally, we are asked for ‘hot’ promo girls, and our response is to ask where they last saw this kind of approach and what brand they were promoting.

“Pretty much every time the client can’t remember and we then use this as an example of this approach not working. We then encourage them to work with us to develop a more engagement-focused strategy built around appropriate, passionate, engaging and professional promotional staff that will deliver a real return on investment.”

Respect for all

With UK Construction Week recently releasing a code of conduct for its exhibitors, many are championing this idea believing that all organisers should follow suit and be proactive in the fight for diversity and equality. Not everyone believes this is the answer to all of our problems though, and Rix argues that we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

“Before things get out of hand, we should remember that promotional staff are like any other staff, be it an event organiser, bar staff or security guard,” continued Rix. “They should all be treated the same. If your code of conduct is so weak that it doesn’t cover every single person on duty during an event, and you’re having to write a specific policy for promotional staff, what does this say about how you care for other kinds of staff and employees?”

Rix isn’t the only one issuing a word of caution about releasing a code of conduct for every event. Fiona Sowell, owner of T-A-G Promotional Staff, believes that people should already know how to behave without the need for a code of conduct. “I think it is sad that a code of conduct is needed, though probably more event and exhibition organisers will issue them,” explained Sowell.

“I have no plans to include any codes of conduct with my clients, and I think it is rude to suggest that they or their clients don’t know the correct way to behave. I think that clients will now think more about the image they are portraying, as they will want to conform to the current stance in political correctness. In many ways, this will benefit the industry as the unsavoury behaviour of some will be eradicated.

“However, it should be remembered that most clients already uphold a very good, but possibly unwritten, code of conduct. To tar all clients and staff with the same brush is wrong, and possibly damaging to an industry that for many years has been a crucial part of a business’ growth strategy and promo staff’s livelihoods.”

Standard protocol

Bettina Taverner, account manager at MoorePeople Event Staffing, believes that the recent attention on events staff should be viewed as a positive, and is glad that the promotional staffing industry will now be monitored more closely. “This will ensure that we are all adhering to the same codes of conduct and protocol,” she said. “The hope is that it will cut down the number of agencies operating without the correct employment policies, such as pubic liability insurance. I think event organisers may want to start asking for copies of this, together with a company’s code of conduct and equality and diversity policies along with credentials from member associations – before they choose to do business with them.”

With all eyes on the industry, it has never been more important to ensure that diversity and equality runs through the veins of every event or exhibition. However, it is important to remember that common sense prevails, and on the whole event professionals usually get it right. Cris Cicirello, joint head of experience, EMEA at Wasserman, concurs. He commented: “There are a number of processes that can be put in to place to avoid anything like this [the Presidents Club scandal] happening again. At all events, an event management team should be present to deal with any concerns the promotional staff may have.

“In some cases, additional security may be required, which are specially allocated to the staff, even if only on the periphery. And of course, there should be a protocol in place so that if staff feel threatened, the management team on the ground can assist immediately. As a whole, in my experience, events and occurrences such as the Presidents Club are thankfully, few and far between.”

Eatenton sums up the general outlook of the events industry on what is such an important issue, placing the onus on the staffing agencies to ensure all staff are treated with the respect they deserve. He concluded: “What does it say to the people being booked for an assignment when their agency has no thought for their experience or interest in the brand they are representing? People don’t remember looks, they remember character and how you make them feel. Here’s to positive change for good.”