For advisors who work the senior seminar circuit, offering a free meal is an accepted part of doing business, a bread-and-butter maneuver, if you will. Most seminar-savvy marketing experts agree that in the senior market, holding a seminar without the promise of free breakfast, lunch or dinner is, ahem, a recipe for failure.

Indeed, a vast majority of advisors and field marketing organization executives involved in senior seminars have trouble envisioning a successful event – one that generates both a significant audience and appointment ratio – without using a meal as a magnet.

“In my opinion,” says Anil Vazirani, president and CEO of Secured Financial Solutions in Scottsdale, Ariz., “it’s very difficult without a meal. The only way to do it, I think, is to serve a meal.”

Holding a successful seminar without a main course, solely on the merits of the event’s agenda and speakers, was possible 10 or 15 years ago, says Vazirani, before professionals from all walks of the advisory community began crowding the seminar circuit in search of prospects. Nowadays, seminar experts like Clyde Cleveland, co-founder and director of marketing at Seminar Crowds in Fairfield, Iowa, say there is no room for no-meal events in the current competitive landscape.

“Are there still people out there not serving meals [at their senior seminar events]?” wonders Cleveland. “If there are, I don’t see how they survive.”

Cleveland likely hasn’t heard of Brian J. Kurtz, whose company, 2X Selling Systems of Troy, Mich., touts a seminar strategy whose hook is what’s on the event’s agenda, not on its menu. Clearly, when it comes to selling strategies, Kurtz is among a small minority who subscribes to the no-meal approach. But as a producer who has done seminars with and without meals since 1992, Kurtz says the no-meal system he developed and uses today works. “I’ve written about $6 million in business so far this year and I write an average of $750,000 in new business every time I do a set of seminars (three one-hour seminars over the course of a day).” More bang for the buck?

These days, following a series of well-publicized scams in which advisors have been caught using meal-centered events as the forum to deceive and strong-arm seniors, regulators and consumers are casting an increasingly wary eye at so-called “free lunch” senior seminars and advisors who advertise them.

“Our concern,” Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox said in a July address to the Senior Summit in Washington, “is that these events are being used by unscrupulous individuals to sell investment products unsuitable to seniors.”

While warnings from the likes of the SEC, NASD and state agencies about predatory advisor behavior at meal-oriented senior seminars don’t appear to be denting the popularity of those events, they certainly can’t hurt the cause of advisors who subscribe to the no-meal approach. However, Kurtz says his aim in dropping meals from his seminars isn’t to dodge regulatory scrutiny, having switched to a no-meal strategy long before the SEC stepped up its “free lunch” investigations. “It wasn’t my goal to be on the cutting edge,” he explains. “It was my goal to stop wasting money on food.”

Even FMO executive Matthew Rettick, who as head of Covenant Reliance Producers in Nashville, Tenn., has developed one of the industry’s most tested and successful meal-based seminar strategies, acknowledges there is a place for sans-meal events. And money usually is the primary motivation for going that route, he says. When advisors who are part of his marketing network are looking for an unconventional, stripped-down seminar approach, he suggests they partner with a senior-oriented institution such as a nursing home, assisted living facility, retirement center or even a church. In such a scenario, the advisor forges a relationship with the institution, then offers to come in to the facility, free of charge, to do a short seminar or workshop on a topic of interest to the audience, such as how to save money on taxes or how to maximize interest on savings accounts.

“It’s a low-cost way of getting in front of a pretty well qualified group,” he says. “The advisor isn’t paying $25 per head for a meal. Many times the facilities where they hold the event will serve a meal afterwards anyway, so it works out well.” And, he adds, when an organization or institution invites an advisor to hold an event there, it amounts to a silent endorsement of the advisor’s services.

Without a meal on the agenda, Kurtz and Rettick agree it’s incumbent on the advisor to craft a seminar whose subject provides a compelling hook. Unlike Rettick’s approach, however, Kurtz’s strategy doesn’t rely on support from another host organization. Kurtz says the seminar topic alone should be alluring enough to attract a strong senior crowd.

“The goal in having a seminar where the meal isn’t the focus is the same [as having a seminar where a meal is served]. You’re looking for appointments. What I have found is that if you have a unique topic, something that people genuinely want to learn about, you can do just as well not serving a meal.”

His best-drawing subject is U.S. savings bonds: how to handle them before and after maturity. “A ton of seniors have them sitting in their drawers and nobody seems to know exactly what to do with them. Uncle Sam won’t help. So what we do is offer to provide them with personalized bond statements. We’re offering to solve a problem for them. That’s our hook, instead of chicken cordon bleu.”

But having a hook means little unless the advisor knows how to market it. To ensure events are well-attended, Kurtz mails postcards and runs newspaper and radio advertisements. The ads he finds most effective are those that resemble public service announcements – educational, without a hint of self-promotion.

Rather than push attendees to provide information about their savings bonds at the event, Kurtz allows them to take the initiative. If attendees want to chat, he makes himself available after the event. His staff hands attendees a self-addressed stamped envelope in which they can send him information about their savings bonds and request a meeting to discuss their situations. The process involves no follow-up calls to attendees. What the no-pressure approach yields, says Kurtz, is a respectable appointment ratio of 40 percent to 50 percent. But more importantly, he says, it generates appointments with “generally conservative and fairly affluent prospects who have shown they are motivated to see me.”

During the appointment, it’s up to the advisor to expand the conversation beyond savings bonds (or whatever the seminar topic was).

“Ninety-nine percent of the money I move isn’t from savings bonds,” notes Kurtz, whose advisory practice, Assured Investment Planners, deals mainly in indexed and fixed annuities and single-premium life insurance.

Kurtz is proof that seminars without a multi-course meal can be palatable to seniors. But without the promise of a post-seminar feast, it’s up to the advisor to find other means to keep attendees in the room and attentive. The advisor’s knowledge and speaking skills essentially become the main course. “You have to have the ability to captivate an audience,” says Rettick.

Advisors who don’t serve a meal already are fighting an uphill battle on several fronts.

Without a meal, he says, it can be more difficult not only to attract attendees, but also to curb no-shows, keep attendees at the event for the duration and to find the opportunity after the event to speak with attendees one-on-one. For many advisors, time spent “fluttering” – working the room, conversing with seminars attendees during mealtime – is the most valuable segment of the event, points out Mike Walters, chairman and CEO of USA Financial Marketing, a Michigan-based FMO that uses only meal-based seminars across its advisor network.

“We’ve noticed that, without that time afterwards, appointment ratios tend to go down,” he says.

While that’s food for thought for advisors, it’s not likely to sway Kurtz from his devotion to the no-meal approach. “My client base is growing, I’m gaining referrals and I haven’t needed to do a set of seminars since May 2005. That tells me my approach is working.”