For many advisors, the meal-based seminar remains the very bread and butter of their practices. Careful planning, well-orchestrated content and diligent follow-up with prospects can turn the events into your most effective marketing strategy.

There comes a point for many advisors where having a practice that’s “busy enough” is no longer good enough. Advisor Craig Randall had such an epiphany a few years ago, when he realized he was no longer content to settle for the 40 to 50 percent attendee-to-appointment conversion ratio he was earning from the senior seminars he hosted.

That’s when Randall, founder and president of Southern California-based Randall & Louis Wealth Management Group, decided to get serious about his seminars. Now, years later, having honed his seminar blueprint down to the finest details, Randall has emerged as a top-shelf producer (and SMA‘s 2007 Advisor of the Year) on the strength of his acumen as a speaker, event coordinator and advisor. For him, appointment ratios in the 80 to 90 percent range are now the norm. Buoyed by his seminar success, he founded Randall Marketing Group several years ago, mostly to pass on his seminar strategies to other advisors.

Done the right way, seminars are far and away the most effective means to generate leads and build a client base, says Clyde Cleveland, whose company, Seminar Crowds in Fairfield, Iowa, specializes in direct mail marketing for seminars. “It’s very, very difficult to do substantial numbers without seminars. Nothing works as effectively at producing new customers.”

Once an advisor finds a seminar formula that works – one that proves effective not only at getting fannies in the seats, but also in converting attendees into appointments and appointments into clients – he or she should stick with it. The challenge is finding tactics that work in a market flooded with advisors taking aim at seniors for whom seminar invitations are a dime a dozen.

Successful seminar-giving begins with a great attention to detail, says Matthew Rettick, founder and president of Covenant Reliance Producers, a seminar-focused marketing organization based in Nashville, Tenn. “It’s about doing a hundred little things just right,” says Rettick.

From preliminary planning to post-event follow-up, here’s a breakdown of how to go about creating a repeatable formula for a superior seminar:

To get cheeks in the chairs: Attracting well-qualified attendees is no easy task. The experts concur that direct mail remains the most effective means of doing so. Randall says he typically mails 10,000 to 15,000 postcards for each monthly seminar cycle, with the expectation of a 0.7 to 1.0 percent response rate to yield enough attendees for three seminars with 25 to 35 people each. That’s an optimal number for seminars, according to Rettick. “If you have too few people it can turn into a depression session and if you have too many, you have a circus.”

“With too many people,” adds Randall, “what happens is your appointment ratio drops and your food bill rises.”

It’s crucial for advisors to consider the target demographic for the mailer as well as the content of the piece itself, the experts say. Getting well-qualified attendees means targeting the mailing list based on factors such as home ownership and geographic proximity to the seminar venue as well as the advisor’s offices. Randall typically mails to people who reside within five miles of the restaurant where the seminar will be held – and he sticks to venues within 10 miles of his office, so driving distance isn’t an impediment. Convenience is also a consideration in the timing of the event. Seminars held mid-week – Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – in the late afternoon or early evening tend to yield the best results.

Besides having an attractive design that’s light on text, what makes a direct mail piece really resonate is the one-two punch of a good restaurant and a provocative seminar subject, such as IRA and 401(k) strategies for retirement, tips for tax minimization and the like. “You want a piece that’s general in nature, with a bit about the advisor, the free meal offer and a hook for a subject. You don’t want to put too much information on [the invitation].”

The experts vary on the value of advertising to promote a seminar. “I fully believe in advertising,” says Rettick. “I would use half-page and full-page ads in community papers and spots on radio and television. It helps saturate an area and creates a buzz.”

The finer points of planning: Once the mailings have dropped and/or the ads have run, focus can shift to the nuts and bolts of the event. To prevent attendee attrition, Rettick recommends reconnecting with people via letter or phone prior to the event to confirm reservations. Randall goes one step further, calling people three days before the seminar then again on the morning of the event. “If you don’t confirm with them,” he says, “you’re going to lose way more people.”

What makes a seminar successful is the advisor’s ability to control virtually every aspect of the event, right down to room setup and food service. Before the event starts, Randall and his staff also brief the food servers, asking that they keep interaction with attendees to a minimum so as not to compete with the advisor and the presentation. To keep the food tab reasonable, the meals Randall provides come off the less-expensive lunch menu and, in most cases, with a senior discount.

There’s a psychological advantage in having a full room for an event, so Randall requests that the room be set up such that there are a few less chairs than expected attendees. He also requires that people be seated just four to a table. “You can have a negative table,” he says, “and I’d rather lose four than eight.”

Executing the event in style: The content of the seminar itself is “where the rubber meets the road,” says Rettick, for this is the advisor’s chance to make a solid, lasting impression on attendees – one that makes them want to learn more about how the advisor can help them. That means entertaining them and earning their trust at once. “You don’t want to educate, you want to motivate,” he asserts. “You don’t want to teach them, you want to reach them.”

To set the tone, Randall has a staff member introduce him and clap as he enters, bringing applause that immediately builds his credibility. The entrance and the presentation itself are building toward a call to action, perhaps framed as an offer for a free, no-obligation follow-up consultation. That offer can even be formalized on a certificate that’s part of attendee handouts (which should be kept to a minimum, according to Randall).

It is best to get attendees to respond to the offer on the spot, the experts concur. At Randall’s seminars, the meal is served once his 50- to 60-minute presentation ends and attendees have filled out their appointment forms specifying preferred dates and times for consultations. “The point,” notes Rettick, “is to strike while the iron is hot. The excitement and interest level peaks toward the end of your presentation if you’ve done it right. That’s the time to ask for the appointment.”

To facilitate the appointment process, members of the advisor’s staff should be readily available to handle booking. The experts suggest setting appointment dates that fall soon after the seminar so the advisor and the event are still fresh on attendees’ minds, and so attendees have less time to back out.

The conversion and the close: If the seminar itself is where the action begins to happen, the follow-up and appointment processes are where things really take flight. When it comes to converting seminar attendees to clients, Randall shoots high. Not only is his goal an 80 percent appointment ratio, he also expects to turn 90 percent of the appointments scheduled via seminars into new clients.

Doing so demands following a diligent follow-up formula. The morning after an event, Randall himself calls all the people who scheduled appointments to confirm and remind them to bring items such as tax returns. “What I really want to do is make sure they wrote it in their appointment books,” he explains. Next comes an appointment confirmation letter, followed by a call from an assistant three days prior to the appointment.

That initial consultation is strictly to share information and build trust: “No stress, no checkbook, no close,” he says. “I’ll show them a couple concerns I have and ask them if they would like me to do some more research and maybe offer suggestions, again at no cost. I want to schedule a second appointment right then. I’ll ask them to leave me with the material they brought so I can review it before the next appointment. That means they will come back. If they trust me, they won’t have any problem leaving stuff with me.”

Key to turning one appointment into several, and prospect into client, is not tackling too many issues at once. “You’re asking a lot of a person to give you permission to fix lots of things at once. What I do,” says Randall, “is to identify things that are most easily fixed and most broken, and start there. The close at the second appointment is, ?Would you like me to fix this one thing for you?’ Once we fix that, we can talk about a long-term agenda.”

As effective as these approaches have proven, to have any real impact they should be used regularly, says Randall. “It can snowball into a very nice thing, but only if you’re doing seminars consistently. Some [events] might create a ton of business; others might barely cover their costs. That’s OK, because chances are, a few times a year you’re going to run into a Daddy Warbucks who could make your year.”

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