The Era of the Perma-Lancer. [Or, Temporary Freelancers Are Here to Stay.]

Posted September 19, 2010

The business cycle we’ve gone through these past two years in our industry has exhibited some fairly typical traits.

Phase 1:  The economy tanks, prompting companies cut back on event spending, which in turn prompts event companies to lay off workers.

Phase 2:  The economy stabilizes (albeit at a lower level), and event spending starts coming back.  But event company owners aren’t sure for how long, so they respond to the added volume with freelancers.  After all, with so many out of work planners, the freelance market has never been so good.

Phase 3:  A year later and that stabilized level of business has continued.  This inspires event company owners with greater confidence, and they start converting those temporary freelance positions to permanent jobs.

Or not.  Someone forgot to give event company owners the memo, because freelancers are everywhere.  Still.  I call this the age of the Perma-Lancer.

And why not?  I owned an event agency for 20 years, and trying to match the staffing with the workflow was always an adventure, particularly since our events never spread out evenly over the year.  We’d always be slammed in the fall and spring, and light in the summer.  But with good freelancers, you bring them on for a specific project, at a specific rate, and when the gig is over, well, see ya.  There’s absolutely no wasted capacity.

Plus, the freelancers I hired always had a rock-solid work ethic.  They never chatted much with the permanent folks, never took long lunches.  When they were in the office, they worked.  And freelancers sure won’t ask you about career growth.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can get a far more qualified staffer if they’re freelancer.  For one, you don’t have to pay benefits.  In addition, while you might not have room to add a $100k a year person to your team full time, you might be able to bring them in at a comparable hourly rate for a limited engagement.

The big drawback, however, is there’s no guarantee that person will be available when you need them on your next project.  Still, that hasn’t seemed to make a significant dent into this new practice.  So many event firms either have enough work year-round to slot good freelancers into, one project after another.  Or, they are figuring out how to maintain a steady rolodex of freelancers, train them quickly on their internal procedures, and get them up to speed in no time.

This has truly created a new paradigm for growing an event agency, where firms are modeling their behavior after movie productions: for each project a dedicated team is assembled, after which they go their own way. Only the key principals remain.  Of course you can still build your agency the old fashioned way, by growing a bigger and bigger team.  But after the body blow the economy delivered to most business owners two years ago, this new model has a lot of appeal by enabling firms to expand as much as they need to, while keeping their fixed costs low.

Perhaps the only true impediment to this model will be when the corporate side begins hiring planners in greater numbers, drying up the pool of good freelancers.  But I sense even then this model will still be a viable alternative, given the seemingly endless flow of new bodies entering this field.

[I was going to title this post, “Temporary Freelancers Are Here to Stay”, but that sounded terribly oxymoronic, so I added the term Perma-Lancers.]

3 COMMENTS

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  1. Howard
    Andrea Figman
    September 20, 2010 at 11:47 am Permalink

    Great article. This is exactly how I operate my company right now — I assemble teams as needed based on the project’s depth and the right personality (“fit”) to get the job done well.

  2. Howard
    anne
    September 24, 2010 at 9:02 am Permalink

    Great business model-especially in this economy -but will work for the long haul

    Always perceptive, sharp and knowledgable and so interesting to read.

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