“The hardest part of this business is meeting people in a favorable manner,” says Glenn Fasani. “One way to do that is by organizing small gatherings of affinity groups that help you to connect on a personal level with prospects.”

Fasani practices what he preaches. A financial professional for a Tampa, Fla.-based branch of AXA Advisors, Fasani and his team use creative marketing events narrowly tailored to individuals’ interests–a cooking class for food and wine lovers, a talk on health and fitness for seniors or a pre-parade party for children and their parents–to build relationships with prospective clients and, ultimately, to steer them to the firm’s financial planning solutions.

Fasani is not alone in leveraging such gatherings. Businesses nationwide spent an estimated $27.94 billion in 2005 on event marketing, according to Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a New York City-based private equity and mezzanine capital fund management firm. Insurance and financial services firms are increasingly joining the fray. And many, like AXA Advisors’ Tampa office, are using the events to soft-pedal their offerings.

When registering attendees at the gatherings, Fasani and his team briefly describe the firm’s services and provide a synopsis of the post-event talk. Often the focus of the discussion is the “family love letter,” an inventory of vital information needed in the event of a family member’s incapacitation or death. The list might include wills, trusts, beneficiary designations on insurance policies and individual retirement accounts, plus contact information for lawyers and accountants and other financial professionals.

“The family love letter is about getting your financial life in order,” says Fasani. “The talk has been very popular because it makes people realize they don’t have a single place where they keep all of their important documents.”

Also subscribing to the soft-selling approach is Barnum Financial Group, a Shelton, Conn.-based office of MetLife that leverages seminars as part of an agency marketing plan. Barnum Financial Marketing Director Elizabeth Buckley, who spoke on the topic at the 2007 GAMA LAMP show in Toronto in March, says the firm’s 200-plus advisors depend on the events to help meet rigorous prospecting and sales quotas: Each is required to book 15 appointments, see 10 prospects and close 3 cases per week.

To that end, Barnum Financial avails its advisors of support staff, sales literature, call centers and other lead generation tools for a range of event marketing programs. Among these are trade shows, worksite seminars, and charity and sporting events where the firm’s insurance and financial planning products and services can gain wide exposure.

Not all of the events target large numbers of people. New advisors, for example, are encouraged to organize “natural markets seminars”–welcome receptions for family and friends. At these and other Barnum Financial events, greater emphasis is given to developing professional relationships and acquainting attendees with the firm’s services than to discussing solutions in depth.

“These gatherings are very low touch,” says Buckley. “There’s no selling or presenting–just networking. Later, the advisor will make follow-up calls to attendees to try to book appointments.”

For other advisors, the way to bond with clients–and establish their credentials–is through other financial professionals with whom the clients have pre-existing relationships. The advisory team at Baystate Financial Services, Boston, Mass., regularly hosts events for mortgage brokers, CPAs, attorneys and property-casualty agents to showcase the firm’s talent and the benefits to be gained by partnering with Baystate Financial.

But for the gatherings to be successful, the principals of the allied firms have to get directly involved in the event planning, says Herb Daroff, a partner at Baystate. During a meeting held this month, the president of a community bank–1 of 9 lending institutions that Baystate Financial markets through–personally invited between 10 and 20 business-owner clients to a reception where the president was also on hand to greet the owners and introduce them to the featured speakers.

Daroff says he uses the pre-presentation networking time to acquaint himself with the owners’ firms–information he later incorporates into his talk to illustrate certain points. This knowledge, adds Daroff, aids in not only personalizing the talk, but also in engaging the owners in a conversation about business planning opportunities, which is critical to building a rapport with participants.

“I don’t worry about covering all of the PowerPoint slides,” says Daroff. “The key to giving a successful seminar is to connect with the audience by posting questions and exploring scenarios. Once I get people talking to me, the presentation’s a winner.”

He adds, however, that translating a successful presentation into appointments depends on quick follow-up. “It’s absolutely essential that we get in touch with participants soon after the event, preferably within 24 hours,” says Daroff. “That has to happen.”

Asking for an appointment is not the sole purpose of the post-meeting call. Daroff also solicits feedback on the gathering, information that can be used to enhance future meetings, and to inquire whether attendees have additional questions. He also calls those who didn’t attend to explain what they missed and to determine if they might have preferred a different topic, location or time.

Nearly as valuable as calls following the event are those that precede it. Daroff, for example, will contact registrants to ask whether they have questions they want the presenters to address while maintaining their anonymity at the meeting–a gesture, he says, that many appreciate. Fasani, too, calls to ask about special food requirements, to extend invitations to family and friends, and to confirm those who will be attending.

Potentially as rewarding as seminars for professionals and clients in the for-profit world are those events directed toward non-profits and their benefactors. Pacific Advisors, an office of Guardian Life, New York, regularly hosts seminars on behalf of charities to apprise their top donors of opportunities to make planned gifts and, in the process, minimize their estate tax liability.

Pacific Advisors President Kelly Kidwell, who joined Buckley on the marketing panel at the GAMA LAMP show, says the charitable planning arena represents a huge opportunity for advisors because so few of the nation’s 1.4 million charities are served by a financial professional–and because a still-small percentage of the entities have the requisite resources to solicit planned gifts.

“Less than 2% of charities have departments devoted to planned giving,” says Kidwell. “As advisors, we can be that marketing department, delivering on an outsourced basis the educational workshops, the expertise and the inspiration to motivate patrons to upgrade from one-time donations made during capital campaigns to lasting gifts.”

How significant is the investment in event marketing and how much of a return can one expect on that investment? The answers to these questions, sources say, will depend in part on the outlay in time and expense the advisor deems appropriate as part of an overall marketing plan. The go-to-market strategy may entail other methods of client prospecting, including cold calling, referrals obtained through centers of influence and leads exchanged with other professional firms. Also to consider are the type of events being contemplated.

AXA Advisors’ Tampa office budgets $25,000 annually for event marketing, which translates to 50% of the firm’s overall marketing activity. Results vary, but Fasani observes that advisors are meeting the firm’s objectives if they manage to see 10 people, secure follow-up appointments with 7 and do business with 4.

Daroff attributes 80% of Baystate Financial’s growth (annual revenue has spiked to $25 million from $2 million since 1996) to its professional alliances, including the marketing events it hosts on behalf of the partnering firms. Given Baystate’s target market–business owners with investable assets ranging from $2 million to $10 million–winning the business of even a single attendee will pay for the cost of the gathering, And, says Daroff, to the extent that costs can be shifted to the partnering firm, the greater will be the payback.

“One of my best friends, [Leimberg Information Services President] Steve Leimberg, counsels using other people’s money, other people’s credibility and other people’s mailing lists,” he says. “When a bank invites their business clients to one of our events, we’re doing all 3, while also providing a value-added service to the bank.”

One advisory practice that relies entirely on its own resources is Peterson and Tracey Financial Services. Based in Milwaukee, Wis., the firm allocates an estimated 90% of its marketing budget to retirement and estate planning seminars for the firm’s target demographic: pre- and post-retirement boomers with net worths ranging from $250,000 to $5 million. To reach these prospects, the firm spends on average between $8,000 and $10,000 per “seminar set,” which typically covers the cost of some 5,000 direct mail pieces and dinners that can run upwards of $3,000 each.

Michael Tracey, a principal at the firm, says the effort generally yields between $4 and $6 per dollar invested, depending on the advisor(s) hosting the program. “My yield is higher than that of others on staff–probably 50% of my prospects become clients,” he says. “But at age 61, I share a common life experience with many of the folks I’m trying do business with.”