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Seminars Big and Small

There's no one-size-fits-all seminar. Find an approach that suits your personality, target market and ability to follow up.Are your seminars bringing in the qualified clients you want? Or are they just an expensive way to cold call?Here's how several brokers found a seminar style that consistently builds solid business. Some prefer working a crowd of hundreds while others like to chat with a handful

There's no one-size-fits-all seminar. Find an approach that suits your personality, target market and ability to follow up.

Are your seminars bringing in the qualified clients you want? Or are they just an expensive way to cold call?

Here's how several brokers found a seminar style that consistently builds solid business. Some prefer working a crowd of hundreds while others like to chat with a handful of prospects over a cup of tea. But all the reps have learned that success has a lot to do with matching their personalities to the size of the seminar.

Education Events Matt West and John Desenberg are young brokers five years into a partnership at Merrill Lynch in Houston. They've been bringing in $30 million to $60 million in new assets each year, mainly due to large seminars, West says.

The partners mail weekly invitations to 1,500 names in a certain ZIP code for one year, then switch to a new ZIP code. The mailings rotate among two or three timely topics. Most recently they offered women-only seminars and seminars for people overexposed in technology stocks.

The dinner seminars - held once each week - feature a half-hour of education. The partners invite a few clients who help provide examples. Attendees get copies of the presentation to take home. Only one partner speaks at a seminar and outside experts rarely share the stage. About 45 to 80 people attend each event. The cost for each gathering is about $3,000.

"At the beginning, we say the only goal is to get you to do something," West says. "If you do it with us, we're happy, but if you do anything, that's the goal."

Those who fill out an evaluation get a call the next day about setting up an appointment, West says. And those who don't complete the form get the same call.

West and Desenberg even work the no-shows. Prospects who sent back a reply card that they couldn't attend are called. "We say, `You missed a great workshop,'" West says. "'We offered a free one-hour consultation to everyone who attended. Would you like that or would you like to come to another seminar?' We try to leverage every single contact."

And the attendees themselves generate additional contacts. Desenberg added a section on the evaluation form to list names and addresses of friends who might be interested. The form also provides a spot for attendees to request the seminar be presented at their company.

In fact, the team now holds retirement and estate planning seminars for employees of two large companies as often as twice a week. That puts West and Desenberg in front of an additional 80 to 125 prospects each meeting.

Referral Machine Independent broker Richard Everett mails as many as 8,000 seminar invitations each week. He draws in 120 to 250 people for each 90-minute dinner event, but he doesn't consider the meetings direct business-building opportunities.

"I do seminars to have an ongoing presence in the community," says Everett, who's affiliated with Securities Service Network in North Haven, Conn. "It's a place I can feed in referrals. I can tell a referral to come to my seminar and see what I do before we meet."

Attendance has grown in the past year since Everett contracted with a marketing firm for invitations. People now receive what looks like an airmail package giving them a choice of two different seminars at different times. The package includes tickets and an RSVP form. A confirmation letter is sent out five days before the seminar, followed up by a phone call the day before.

"If we talk to a live person, we say we've had cancellations, and they can bring a friend," Everett says.

Everett kicks off each seminar with a video of an interview he did with the local media. After dinner, he brings on an in-house estate planning expert, then finishes with his presentation.

To add some fun, Everett conducts "mini-quizzes" along the way, complete with prizes, such as a $100,000 candy bar and a phony $1 million dollar bill.

A 16-year brokerage veteran, Everett follows up personally with only 30% of attendees who want a meeting. He turns over the rest to the financial planners among his staff of eight.

Large seminars weren't initially part of Everett's marketing plan. "It just evolved because I do a radio show and because there's been a lot of corporate restructuring in the area that's affected a lot of people," he says.

The typical seminar cost is $5,000, including the meal and promotional expenses. Everett says each gathering brings in as little as $25,000 in assets or as much as $100,000. He holds six seminars in the spring and six in the fall each year.

Targeting Retirees Larry Klein is comfortable with big seminars, but he knows his limitations. Attendance represents no more than 35 households. "I know from that I'll get about 22 appointments, which is all I can comfortably handle in the next two weeks," says Klein, a broker with TD Waterhouse Securities in Walnut Creek, Calif. "I know that if I make appointments more than 10 days after a seminar, I won't get a new client."

Klein's understanding of senior citizens' needs consistently brings in the attendance he wants. Seniors prefer Saturday morning or weekday afternoon meetings, he says. Mornings often are reserved for doctor appointments. And evenings are out because many have declining night vision and fear being on the road. The seminar location always is no more than a 15-minute drive from anyone invited.

Seniors prefer seminar invitations full of detail, Klein says. They love to read and respect what they read, he says. He mails a full-sheet flyer nine days before a seminar with the heading "Six Mistakes Retirees Make With Their Finances," including bullet points explaining each mistake. "The No. 1 emotional hot button for them is not making a financial mistake they can't recover from," Klein says.

Don't get too complicated, Klein says. "Attendees are looking at your appearance and organization, not what you say. I don't want to convince them I'm smart, but that I'm comfortable to work with."

Klein keeps the seminar low-tech. He writes on overhead sheets as he talks - giving the impression that he knows his material rather than relying on a packaged presentation.

The seminars end with Klein guiding people through a questionnaire in which they can select a date and time to meet with him. He closes by assuring them he won't try to sell anything at the meeting. "I say, `I'll show you one significant financial mistake you're making that you're not even aware of,'" Klein says. "I give them the motivator again that brought them to the seminar."

Tea Time Small-group seminars have brought in more than $30 million to Terry Cohea of D.A. Davidson in Helena, Mont., over the past two years. Perhaps it's the special flair of her private afternoon teas and dessert evenings at several nearby bed-and-breakfast inns.

Her guest list is by referral only. She asks those in her community service groups for names of friends who might be interested in meeting her. She also uses school directories to contact teachers she knows, asking them for referrals, too.

Once Cohea assembles a list of 25 names, she makes a phone invitation. Only women are invited to afternoon teas and couples to evening desserts.

At the two-hour event, Cohea saves just the final 45 minutes for a presentation. It's informal. She sits at the table with her guests explaining how stocks, bonds and mutual funds work, and shows a stock portfolio she recommends. "We usually end up talking about custodial accounts because many of them have young children," Cohea says. About 10 to 15 people attend on average. And she only follows up with those she senses during the seminar want to talk about their finances.

"It was such a comfortable way to build business," Cohea says. "Even when we had only a few people attend, no one felt uncomfortable because you were just sitting together at a table with a cup of tea." Cohea estimates 90% of attendees became clients - and 100% of the bed-and-breakfast owners. Not bad, especially considering that the seminar cost per person is about $10.

The small group meetings worked so well that Cohea can't take on any more clients. She's now training a new broker in her branch to use the same seminar approach.

Seminar Smorgasbord Legg Mason broker partners Rob Frakes and Clayton Griffin hold seminars twice a week for a wide range of target markets - women, retirees, CPAs and corporate employees planning retirement. Their marketing associate, Chris Fuller, uses a wide range of techniques to pull people in. They'll meet for lunch, dinner or at retirement homes on Saturday mornings. But one rule prevails: No more than 25 can attend.

"With a larger seminar, we can't even shake hands with everybody," says Frakes, based in Harrisonburg, Va. In fact, social time after the presentation is a key element to their success. "Clayton and I divide the room and go talk to each person," Frakes says. "They like to talk about the specifics of their finances, and we'll make notes on the questionnaire they hand back to us about what they say."

To personalize his calls, Fuller uses that information when he contacts the prospects the next day to arrange appointments.

In contrast to the friendly feel the team strives for at seminars, the gatherings are heavily marketed. Fuller will run a tri-fold invitation insert in a local newspaper, place three to four ads created by an outside marketing company two weeks before a seminar and send in a press release to get the meeting listed on the calendar of community events. Fuller also targets mailings to previous seminar attendees. He's found some come two or three times and bring friends.

The healthy rivalry at a Merrill Lynch branch raised more than $15,000 for charity.

Sometimes brokers use their determination to benefit others. In 1998, Mike Nielsen, resident vice president in Merrill Lynch's Seattle office, decided to tap into that drive by holding a contest to help a local soup kitchen, the Union Gospel Mission.

With 100 brokers on three floors, Nielsen "offered to dress up as Santa, play the piano and serve lunch" to the floor that did the best in collecting food for the mission, says Kevin Daniel, a rep in the Seattle office.

"I think people in our business are pretty competitive by nature," Daniel says. The three floors raised a stunning 1.5 tons of food, and all three were treated to lunch.

That first year, when the contest was based on the weight of the food - with the branch's compliance officer weighing it on a scale - people bought bulky items like bags of rice or flour, which wasn't necessarily what the mission wanted or needed, Daniel says.

In 1999, the branch came to the conclusion that what the mission could use most was cash to do its own buying. It has deals with vendors to "get better pricing than even Costco," Daniel says. The branch still collected 1,400 pounds of food, but it gave the mission a check for $15,300.

"When the lady from the mission came down and told us how far that check would go, we realized the magnitude of what we had done," Daniel says. "We felt really good about it."

This year, the branch will again emphasize raising money for the mission. In addition, volunteers from the office will work a week at a time in the kitchen.

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