Ancient Rome's imperial strength relied on a talent for recruiting and retaining an army primed for territorial expansion. The importance of a well-oiled campaign staff applies as much to modern sampling, exhibitions and corporate functions as early warfare.
Staff are the torch bearers of a campaign, be it handing out free Cadbury's chocolate at Waterloo station, serving champagne and beluga to a VIP gathering or selling the virtues of a product on an exhibition stand. "They represent the brand on the frontline, they are in direct contact with consumers and the final determinant of how each consumer will perceive a brand or event," says Debra Arnold, recruitment director at promotional staff agency ID Staffing.
That doesn't just mean staff having the right look or gift of the gab. They must be pro-active, enthusiastic and totally reliable. "Staff can make a campaign or function a success or a disaster," says i2i Marketing staffing director Helen McKittrick, whose commissions include supplying hospitality teams of between four and ten to Oasis and Whistles store openings throughout last year.
Some 120 of this agency's staff were also highly visible at last year's Download Festival, distributing Snickers bars to support the brand's sponsorship of the event. "Staff need a full understanding of the importance of this role," adds McKittrick. "Just as important is having excellent event managers to act as the client's eyes and ears on the ground."
Hiring a recruitment specialist - often called experiential marketing agencies - cuts out the graft in finding and screening event staff. But just choosing from the vast selection of agencies and consultancies out there can be as daunting as finding staff in the first place. Avoiding some of the common recruitment pitfalls really pays off.
Many clients still see staffing as a basic commodity where only price matters. "You couldn't be more wrong. It involves much more than asking the rate for eight hours," says People People director Mark Meurer, whose recent commissions include supplying 150 sampling staff for a Trident chewing gum product launch in WH Smith stores. Cheap but cheerless staff can cost dear in this industry, he says. "It's scary how bad cheap staff can be," adds Meurer.
Rigorous vetting is equally vital. People People's selection process wouldn't be out of place in MI5: it kicks off with CV sifting, followed by telephone interviews, a recruitment day and robust interviews.
MoorePlus is equally scrupulous. "A candidate has to be referred, we obtain a copy of their passport, then conduct a face-to-face interview and follow up references," explains MoorePlus account manager Bettina Taverner. "We have an applications clerk whose sole duty is evaluating candidates, then monitoring and updating information on their performance."
Agency Closer conducts thorough interviews to ensure that its people are "confident, energetic, honest and trustworthy". And while i2i recruits online - in addition to national recruitment drives - all candidates endure a face-to-face grilling before approval.
When picking an agency, don't be seduced by a whopping great database of names. Size isn't everything. Choose an agency with a manageable staff bank where the candidates have been cherry picked. MoorePlus keeps around 3,350 names, i2i's is slightly higher at 3,500, while People People's list stands at a comfortable 4,200.
Sense maintains a more modest 850 names, priding itself on close ties with staff. "We have a personal relationship with our database," says managing director Nick Adams. "We place the right people for the right job." This was demonstrated last July when Sense supplied a 165-strong sampling 'hit squad' to push Nivea's 24/7 deodorant in UK rail stations and shopping centres.
A taut database is the key to loyal staff, asserts Closer boss Lucy Braybrook, who oversees a list of 2,500 nationwide staff. "Bookers have a personal rapport with their teams, which instills confidence. A concise, compact database ensures commitment to us," says Braybrook.
Treating staff mean doesn't keep them keen. Always assess agencies' employment practices. Ask what health and safety strategy is in place and whether financial bonuses, holiday and sick pay are offered as standard. "Simple incentives encourage commitment, respect and enthusiasm for the job," says Adams.
It's a hackneyed industry mantra, but first impressions really do count; staff have seconds to win over a consumer or make a splash with important dinner guests. That means wearing a smile at all times, remaining consistently upbeat, and projecting an air of confidence - but not arrogance.
Personal grooming is just as essential. Staff should appear elegant and striking, and polished from head to toe: neat hair, clean footwear, and, above all, appropriate clothing. Hygiene is paramount. There is nothing more off-putting at a banquet or promotional event than staff with a less than pleasant personal aroma.
This is where slick staff training comes into its own. "Training and briefing days are pretty much a pre-requisite for good preparation," insists MoorePlus's Taverner. "We reiterate the simplest - but fundamental - standards such as deportment and attitude."
So-called 'sniper' tactics are more effective than scatter-gun selling at exhibitions. "Representatives shouldn't sound like sales people, making sensational claims," stresses Simon Naudi, managing director at Answers Training, which specialises in schooling event staff. "They must be capable of triggering an emotion in customers by winning confidence, sounding mature and knowledgeable."
Every event requires bespoke staff. Hospitality teams, for example, need to demonstrate skills in dealing sensitively with guests who overindulge. Closer supplied staff to the Carlsberg UEFA cup final in Glasgow's Hamden Park last year, bringing in a range of staff, including 12 hospitality personnel who distributed Carlsberg to VIPs. "They must be professional, enthusiastic and accommodating," says Closer's Braybrook, "and able to handle long hours and a lot of client-facing."
Clients cannot always get to an event, so it is vital to pick an agency that spot-checks staff performance on the job. Reputable agencies will dispatch 'mystery shoppers' to events to ensure that staff turn up on time, wear appropriate clothes, smile, demonstrate politeness and are generally fit for the purpose they've been hired for.
Trite as it may sound, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Staff effectiveness - individually and collectively - can make or break an event. Ensuring the face fits is just as vital as picking the tastiest menu or creating the snappiest brand message.
DOS AND DON'TS
Bettina Taverner, account manager at MoorePlus, outlines essential tips for effective staff recruitment.
Choose a reputable staffing agency. Visit the websites of organisations such as the Association of Event Organisers (www.aeo.org.uk) to source accredited and professional temporary staffing agencies and check the credentials of all the companies you contact.
Assemble a brief for the agency, detailing the event objectives, staffing requirements, their roles and responsibilities. Include other information such as uniform requirements and preferred image.
Get involved in the selection process. Discuss with agency managers the attributes, background and skills of the candidates put forward and arrange interviews either face to face or over the phone. Little things such as checking staff sizes for uniforms are very important.
Create a comprehensive plan of action for temporary staff to follow on the day, and make this available in plenty of time prior to your event.
Monitor the performance of temporary staff from day one and immediately communicate with the agency account manager any concerns you may have.
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