Ten years’ experience hosting senior seminars leads financial advisor Rosemary G. Caligiuri, CEPS, to two conclusions.
First, competition has never been stiffer among advisors to attract robust, quality crowds to seminar events and harvest enough appointments there to justify the investment. And second, even in a seemingly saturated circuit, seminars still can be prolific appointment- and client-generation tools, provided the advisor follows a formula that, in the end, makes attendees want to explore a working relationship outside the seminar room.
The odds are increasingly stacked against that happening. Not only are more advisors trying seminars to gain new inroads into the senior market, the people they are targeting generally are more skeptical about seminar invitations and more hardened to the messages they hear at the events they attend. Many come only for the free food and could care less about the subject matter.
“Seniors have been so exposed to seminars, they have learned how to say ‘no’ in that environment,” explains Tom Newell, principal at Newell Financial Services Group in Lawrenceville, Ga.
There are still plenty of good prospects out there, it just costs more to find them, says Caligiuri, president of the Harvest Group Financial Services in Langhorne, Pa. “The amount of marketing dollars per seminar has almost tripled over the last 10 years because the market is so played out. Before, you could send out 3,500 [direct mail] pieces [for a seminar] and get 50 attendees. Now it takes 9,000 pieces to get that many. That makes a seminar a lot more costly to do.”
But merely carpet-bombing a market with mailers is no guarantee of seminar success. Advisors like Anil Vazirani, CSA, LUTCF, who have extensive seminar experience, say that while the formula for success differs from market to market and advisor to advisor, the common denominator is an ability to get oneself noticed in a crowded field. “When you work in a saturated [seminar] market like I do,” says Vazirani, president and CEO of Secured Financial Solutions in Tucson, Ariz., “it becomes a chess game between you and other advisors in that market. How are you going to set yourself apart?”
Who wins and who loses on the seminar circuit usually comes down to how the advisor coordinates a complex set of variables, from up-front issues such as choosing a direct mail house and seminar subject matter, to event execution and attendee follow-up. In such a competitive environment, the advisor who’s willing to depart from the mainstream may be the one whose seminars yield the best return on investment.
“Advisors are getting more creative in how we get people together and what we tell them when we get together,” says Newell. “We’re looking for new and different ways to deliver a message. That’s true in our case. Our dinner seminars haven’t been producing as many appointments as I’d like, so we’re going to do away with them and give people something different to stir their imaginations.”
In Newell’s case, that means sponsoring a wine tasting party and a bus trip to a nearby casino. Each event will be structured such that there will be time for him to give attendees a taste of his expertise and a feel for his practice. But rather than “bombarding them with information” about the company, specific products or hot-button issues, the informal surroundings will allow him to spend more time on developing relationships. His strategy: build trust on a one-to-one level first and the rest – appointments and client relationships – will follow.
Taking an unconventional seminar route also has paid dividends for Caligiuri. Information and advice are the main course at her events; she serves snacks and drinks to attendees but never full meals. “That approach has been very successful for 10 years,” she says. “I think [not serving a meal] has set me apart from the crowd. I want people to come to an event because they want to learn. If I’m not serving a meal, they know I’m serious and I know they’re serious.”
While still an avowed practitioner of the meal-based senior seminar, Vazirani puts his own unconventional spin on the concept. He solicits feedback from a panel of existing clients about which seminar topics and approaches they believe will appeal most to their peers. “It’s a good way to take the pulse of the market,” he explains. He also gives existing clients an open invitation to attend any of his seminars, an approach that can produce pleasant surprises. “It increases the crowds we get at our workshops, and sometimes we have clients who come for more than a meal. I had one client come to a recent workshop, eat his dinner, then hand over a $5,000 check for his account. That alone covered a good chunk of the cost of the workshop.”
As helpful as creative new angles and unconventional approaches can be in getting an advisor noticed in the bustling senior seminar circuit, the success of an event still hinges largely on good, old-fashioned planning and execution.
When it comes to recruiting attendees and securing appointments, “you really have to be a master strategist,” says Newell.
Since the typical senior nowadays is inundated with seminar invitations, getting bodies into the building for an event has never been tougher. The difference between a full house and an empty one usually comes down to several key factors: