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.”

Getting noticed

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.

Generating attendance

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:

Marketing. Vazirani stresses the importance of having a highly capable direct mail house, one that that can make an invitation “pop” with an outstanding design and a strong list. Alternatively, advisors can create invitations in-house and purchase mailing lists. There are merits to both approaches. Will postcards or more formal first-class invitations yield a better response? Should I try newspaper or radio advertising in addition to or in place of direct mail? Much depends on the target market. Oftentimes the only way to find out what works best is through trial and error.

Subject matter. An event that lacks compelling subject matter is destined to be a dud. Caligiuri says she has done well enough with single-subject seminars but prefers “a broad-stroke informational workshop where I talk about a few different issues and people can identify with at least one of the topics, so maybe they come see me about that.” These days, she says, subjects such as reverse mortgages, strategies for making retirement savings last a lifetime and long-term care insurance seem to attract the most attendees. To that list Vazirani adds topics like accomplishing growth through safety of principle (equity indexed annuities), strategies for handling IRA distributions (stretch IRAs) and approaches to replace pension or social security income upon the loss of a spouse.

Seminars that address Medicare and estate planning also tend to draw good crowds, Newell says. Whatever the subject, it must fall within the advisor’s area of expertise, he adds. “You have to stick to your competencies. People can tell pretty quickly whether you know what you’re talking about.”

Brand recognition. Advisors who have a recognized name and a brand associated with their practices have a better chance of attracting good crowds to their events, says Vazirani.

Event location and logistics. Picking the right time, date and venue for an event is crucial. If a meal will be served, choose a good restaurant, says Vazirani. Target days and times that are least likely to conflict with other senior activities. Here’s where existing clients can provide valuable feedback.

Affinity access. Relationships with affinity groups – churches and community organizations where seniors tend to gravitate – can uncover new audiences and untapped segments of the senior market, says Newell. What’s more, establishing trust may be less challenging for advisors at events that are linked to an affinity group.

Earning an appointment

Where the rubber really meets the road with seminars is appointment-generation. How will you get the skeptical senior attendee to 1) meet with you to explore an ongoing working relationship; and 2) trust you with their assets and their futures?

Ultimately, earning a robust seminar ROI depends on how the event unfolds. First, the materials that attendees receive should be professional-looking, says Vazirani. “You need to take great pains to make sure everything is coordinated, consistent and in good taste. A lot of advisors cut corners on materials and they end up looking cheap.”

Among all the factors that can make or break a seminar, none is more important than the content, tone and delivery of the professionals on the agenda, says Caligiuri. Most seniors are savvy enough to spot an advisor who favors sales over substance. “I think what makes my workshops successful is that I give it to them straight,” she explains. “There’s nothing sold. I don’t come at them with a product. It’s a purely informational seminar. Hopefully the information I provide disturbs them enough to want to seek a second opinion from me.”

That information is of little value, however, unless the person delivering it keeps the crowd engaged. “It all comes down to the presenter, really – the first and lasting impressions they give the audience,” says Caligiuri. “If it’s a fun workshop, if you’re coming across as a client advocate, not a salesperson, and if they are relaxed in your presentation but disturbed by the subject matter, your results should be positive. But you have to be a good public speaker, someone who can work a room, who comes across as relaxed and who people can relate to.”

For many advisors, public speaking skills don’t come naturally, notes Newell. “If the No. 1 fear is being naked in public, public speaking is a close No. 2. It’s something that you may need to practice a lot.”

After the problems and potential solutions are all out on the table, then comes the closing, the public speaker’s most powerful weapon. Here’s where the presenter pulls everything together and incites attendees to take action based on the information they’ve just digested and the need the speaker hopefully has exposed. All the hard work and shrewd strategizing can be wasted with a weak close. “You really need a strong finish,” Caligiuri asserts. “You need to make them feel like they want to act. Don’t pressure them, give them a nice, open opportunity.”

The typical Caligiuri-hosted workshop closes with her telling attendees there are 10 appointment spots available for those who want to talk about their situations one-on-one, no strings attached.

What happens if more than 10 want to sign up? “Oh, we can usually fit them in,” Caligiuri says with a hint of humor in her voice.