The Future of Work: How the White-Collar Gig Economy is Transforming the Event Industry

Part 1

By Michelle Bruno
August 1, 2023

This is the first in a series of articles about the event-industry workforce and the potential of outsourced skilled labor. 

More event professionals are hanging out their shingles as freelancers, contract workers, consultants and fractional executives. Maybe they’ve always dreamed of “being their own boss” or having a more flexible schedule. The pandemic and recent spate of event tech layoffs were the proverbial last straws for some who feel their chances at stability and work-life balance are better if they go out on their own.

Events have always relied on temporary workers to move meetings in and out or staff registration desks. But organizers (through service contractors) and some suppliers contract those workers on an event-by-event basis from labor unions, staffing firms or CVBs. The emerging white-collar gig economy in events is not that. There’s a shift in skilled event-industry labor and resourcing practices related to workplace policies and employee attitudes nationwide and the lower salaries (compared to other industries) paid to event-industry workers.

Nationwide, the number of independent white-collar professionals is increasing. For example, according to Fiverr’s sixth annual Freelance Economic Impact Report, the number of independents (based on tax returns for non-employer entities with at least $1,000 in yearly receipts in 2022) in creative services, skilled technical services and skilled professional services is on the rise. There are an estimated 6.7 million independent professionals in the U.S. in these categories alone as of 2022, up 2.2% from 2021. They represent 4.1% of the U.S. labor force.

There are numerous benefits associated with hiring independent workers. Contract workers can be less expensive because they aren’t eligible for insurance, retirement accounts or other benefits (which hover around 30% of a typical U.S. employee’s total compensation). It’s often easier and faster to “plug in” a contractor than it is to hire an employee. Plus, most tenured contractors are more than an extra pair of hands. They’re specialists in niche areas.

In events, says Tracy Judge, founder and CEO of agile staffing solutions firm Soundings, there are some additional benefits for firms that hire independents, including:

Diverse experiences and approaches—“Internal teams are learning so much from our freelance talent because they have specialized skills in different industries, with different types of customers. They’re essentially educating the internal team while doing the job the firm hired them for.”

Reduced employee turnover—“When firms are at capacity, everyone gets flustered. If you have talent you can turn to, it removes the fear and reduces [full-time employees’] workload. We look at it as a way to retain your current talent.” 

Stability during economic downturns—“In an unstable economy, layoffs happen. Freelancers allow companies to remain agile and cover their projects without taking on too much headcount.”

There are some relative disadvantages to using independent workers too. If managed poorly, the coming and going of contract workers can be disruptive to a company’s culture and other employees who come to rely on them. Finding independent workers can be challenging, especially during a labor shortage, and contractors can be somewhat less accountable than full-time employees.

While some terms like freelance, contractor, fractional executive and consultant are often used interchangeably, thinking about them as different labor categories can help companies understand the options available for outsourcing specific tasks or roles. For example:

Freelancers often perform ad hoc tasks like writing an article, planning an event or managing a show floor. Work is generally short-term, from a few weeks to a few months. Freelance workers may manage several jobs or clients at the same time.

Contract “employees” offer specializations, such as building proprietary software, negotiating hotel contracts or providing on-site technical expertise. They typically work for more extended periods than freelancers, and because the work is complex or time-consuming, employers may ask them to commit to one client at a time.

Fractional executives fill specific roles, such as chief marketing or technical officer. They bring part-time high-level, strategic, or managerial expertise to a company and often serve more than one company.

Consultants provide strategic advice, guidance or mentorship (usually to multiple clients at a time) from outside the firm, unlike freelancers, contract employees and fractional executives who work within the structure and culture of a company.

Except for entry-level or early-career workers who may be less experienced because “live events came back so fast,” there isn’t a huge talent gap in events, Judge says. “There’s plenty of talent out there with many of the skills we need.” The challenge is with aligning hiring organizations with workers who have “the right skills at the right time.” Talent-sharing marketplaces have become one of the ways firms like Soundings and others create alignment and impact the industry.

Like many things in business-to-business events, from digital transformation to new business and operations models, the industry workforce is evolving too. We’ll  dive further into this topic in our Future of Work series. Subscribe to El Gazette below for more.

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