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Throw a Client-Appreciation Bash They Won't Forget

By Sydney LeBlanc April 15, 2013

There’s a good reason more financial advisors have been hosting client-appreciation nights over the past few years. In a competitive environment, such events are a gracious way to thank affluent clients for their business and trust. And they can offer opportunities for strategic referrals.

The typical appreciation night is an intimate dinner for a select few clients, or a seminar featuring guest speakers and followed by a cocktail hour. Clients are invited to bring a friend or business associate. But with CPAs, insurance professionals, estate planning attorneys and others all competing for the same business, thinking creatively about these occasions can give a savvy advisor an edge.

“Have a good time, get to know clients better and leave business at the office — until later,” says wealth manager Gary Williams, president of Williams Asset Management in Columbia, Md. The camaraderie and shared interest between client and advisor can pay dividends in new business or referrals, he says.

For example, innovative advisors offer wealthy clients art-appreciation nights as an enjoyable social evening. According to Williams, who has $132 million under management, many affluent individuals say art is their No. 1 passion. For many, art is also an important alternative investment, both pre- and post-retirement.

To design an art event, work with a gallery, and schedule the occasion for a weekday evening or a Sunday afternoon. An advisor might invite featured gallery artists to discuss their style and techniques. An art professor from the local university might also be on hand to supply a little context for the works. Specialists at the gallery could offer their services as curators for attendees’ collections. Or an appraiser could discuss the potential of art as an investment vehicle.

Depending on whether an advisor adds extras, such as wine, food, cello players and such, the budget for such an evening can be very modest. Gallery owners, artists and appraisers won’t charge for the privilege of showcasing their gifts before a wealthy crowd. Even with printed invitations, an advisor can pull off the whole affair for $500 or less.

Movie Night

Advisors can also get plenty of bang for the buck without going upscale. Wealth manager Michael J. Lucia, president of Lucia Financial in San Diego, recently had a movie night for clients. “I wanted to offer something fun and informal, so I rented a small neighborhood movie theater featuring Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to Wall Street,” Lucia says. “It cost only $1,000, including all-you-can-eat popcorn, and I gained several clients as a result. Totally worth it.”

Creative events are limited only by an advisor’s imagination, and sometimes clients themselves can help facilitate them. Investment advisory firm HoyleCohen, which manages about $500 million for 100 clients, sponsored a theatrical event at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater through a local charity on whose board a client served. The play? Dividing the Estate, by Horton Foote.

“It was not only fun but also educational, and it allowed a segue to talking about estate planning and philanthropy efforts with clients and the new referrals we received,” says HoyleCohen CFP Janet Acheatel. “We do many of these events each year in various venues.”

Some advisors think investment and financial planning seminars are a waste of money. “Clients and prospects do not want to hear anything else about Roth conversions,” says Tony Parr, CFP and managing director of investments for Parr McKnight Wealth Management Group in Minneapolis. “The only people who attend are plate-lickers and tire-kickers.” Instead, his firm offers trips to museums, sporting events and — on a biannual basis — Seinfeld shows.

Parr and his staff invite clients for dinner in a private room at the Capitol Grill in downtown Minneapolis, then cross the street to the Orpheum Theater to see Seinfeld perform. On the off years, they might go to see Blue Man Group instead. “It’s really easy on the budget,” says Parr. “Tickets are around $65, and dinner is reasonable.”

Take Them Out to the Ball Game

Sports events are also popular with clients. Parr says the most innovative event his firm hosts is the bocce ball game at its annual summer party. The advisor rents the rooftop of a downtown building for about $5,000. “The roof has a lawn that looks like Wimbledon,” says Parr. “It’s really beautiful to enjoy the surrounding skyscrapers and the sunset with 30 clients after a nice game of lawn bowling.”

Other advisors use wine to enhance client communication. Ralph Adamo, president of Integrity Wealth Management in Newport Beach, Calif., announced his firm’s recent name change at a wine-tasting event at Adamo’s office. Invitations looked like miniature passports, customized for each client, and attendees sampled wines from around the world. They also received a checklist so they could keep track of their favorites.

Recalls Adamo, “We had a sommelier, who would talk about the wines and also how to pair food with wine. We had a violinist there, too. Small budget for a big thank-you to clients.”

When delicately organized, a special event can help an advisor launch a new phase in a client relationship. For example, the matriarch of a family that Parr McKnight serves told Parr that her 32-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with a life-threatening health condition. In the course of the emotional conversation, the woman mentioned the many relatives she wished she could see more often. Parr hatched the plan of hosting a family reunion at a Minnesota Twins game. He discouraged the woman from bringing prospects, although she offered to. “She was grateful, and we were rewarded by witnessing the happiness that resulted,” he says.

As it turned out, the event did result in referral business for the firm. But that wasn’t the initial point, says Parr. “It’s not always about the money,” he says, “and that’s why they are called client-appreciation events — not money-appreciation nights.”