These Brokers Will Get Your Favorite Celebs to Hang Out With You—for a Fee
This month, Mariah Carey becomes the latest celebrity to hang her shingle at a permanent residency in Las Vegas, commandeering Celine Dion’s erstwhile home, the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace, for her show, Mariah #1 to Infinity. She isn’t just selling conventional tickets to the concerts. The self-described Elusive Chanteuse is proving all-too-easy to track down, offering packages (aptly named after her biggest hits, such as We Belong Together) that offer an in-person experience with MC. The priciest, Fantasy, confers the chance to “share a moment on stage in the spectacular setting of her Las Vegas show” to anyone willing to pay $3,000 for the privilege.
The burgeoning business in celebrities selling themselves as much as their talent has been a boon to such companies as XM Concierge. For $20,000 to $150,000, Simon David and his team at XM have helped clients secure elite meet-and-greets with celebrities, as well as private meetings before concerts and performances at weddings and bar mitzvahs. How would you like to spend a few hours roller-coastering at Disneyland together, or grabbing a cup of coffee on your way to work, like old pals—or even taking a trip to Mister Softee with them before taking a leisurely stroll around Manhattan?
David’s most impressive feat, so far, was a daylong meet-and-greet he arranged in Las Vegas to coincide with a large number of musicians visiting the city for a radio station-sponsored concert. Picture a room service menu featuring Ed Sheeran, Madonna, and Drake. (Perhaps it's best to space out your encounters.) “We basically had them come parade. one by one, through different time spots in the day and visit a client in their hotel room,” David explains by phone from New York.
David’s firm is building a business in a growing and lucrative, niche: connecting superfans to their idols, for a price. Booking such an experience via XM is a painstaking process, not only to wrangle the appointment and coordinate schedules, but also to rehearse civilians for their encounters with stars. “We prep the client beforehand—say, perhaps, an artist’s dog died the night before; we’ll tell them not to bring up pictures of your dog.” He pauses. “That actually happened a few years ago.”
These paid meet-and-greets are becoming staples of the celebrity circuit—and for good reason, according to David. “At this point, these things are almost no longer luxuries—they’re a need for a certain type of people. High-end, high-net-worth clients all over the world want to experience unobtainable things.” Lady Gaga created a private audience program after her recent tour in Europe, where fans could pay £900 (around $1350) per person for an intimate experience with the star. “She spoke for 40 minutes, a bit like a grade school teacher,” laughs an insider who attended and helped wrangle the deal. “Then she did individual meet and greets, chatted, and took a photo that was e-mailed to you within 48 hours.” After taxes and administrative costs, he estimates, the star receives around 80 percent of the fee, earning around £50,000 of what he calls “free money” on that leg of the tour.
Earning such easy, incremental revenue appeals to even the wealthiest stars. Fan gladhanding after premieres or concerts was once a purely promotional tool. It was used as bait in radio competitions, as a thank you to crewmembers and their families, or as a reward for corporate sponsors. But now, as celebrities’ careers have become as checkered and varied as Pinterest boards, their main role—particularly if it is to record music—acts less as an income stream than as a loss leader, a marketing vehicle to fuel ancillary revenue streams. Those might involve startups, spokesperson deals or QVC segments. Lucrative private concerts are also an option, though as Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez found out first-hand, even billionaires need background checks.
Music promoter Deborah Brosseau estimates that around 60 percent of her projects have added a profit-based, ticketed meet-and-greet component in the last five years or so. “Now that label and book deals are so skewed, in-person events are a stronger income stream, and any VIP packaging is more money for everyone,” she says. “It used to be that you could get a picture with someone as a trade-off for your fandom, but now there are no freebies.”
There’s been an intriguing shift in the motives driving many fans to seek quality time with their favorite stars, too, at least according to XM’s Simon David. “Followers are the new dollars,” he says. “Social status is now measured by different things: the size of your house, the car you drive, and the number of Twitter followers you have.” Buying your daughter some quality time with her favorite singer isn’t just about fulfilling her dream on her Sweet Sixteen, but also about improving her Vine and YouTube standings.
Social media is central to an additional celebrity meet-and-greet startup, albeit one with a slightly different focus. BidKind allows celebrities to offer personalized experiences to anyone wealthy enough to afford them, in exchange for donations to that celebrity’s charity of choice, whether it's a namesake foundation or a passion project such as amfAR. They can alert and mobilize their fans effortlessly using social media.
BidKind offers events via online auction, though most of the lots also include an EBay-style BuyItNow button with a fixed price tag: car racing in the Las Vegas desert with Fast & Furious mainstay and amfAR supporter Michelle Rodriguez costs $15,000. BidKind stays in business by taking a 20 percent fee, which Chief Executive Officer Hervé Larren says is 10 percent lower than standard for most professional fundraisers. (He also claims that handling fees for a nonprofit gala event might run as high as half the money raised.)
Larren likens his firm to Christie’s. “But we’re auctioning off experiences, not merchandise. For the celebrity, it’s a way to raise money for their nonprofit, doing something that doesn’t cost them anything; and for the winners, it’s the opportunity to live a money-can’t-buy-experience.” He cites the example of a brother and sister in their early twenties who paid for the chance to meet their idol, Carrie Underwood, when she was in New York's Central Park performing in the Global Citizen concert last September. “It was amazing to see how much they almost had tears in their eyes talking about their meet and greet. They said: ‘She looked me in the eye, she wanted to stay and continue chatting.’”
Larren won’t disclose the exact amount they paid. One of BidKind’s quirks is that it discloses payments only to the celebrity and the winning buyer. Some might see that as laudably discreet, while others might assume it’s useful for face-saving if a star’s value isn’t quite as high as his or her ego might have assumed.