Firms can spend a lot of money on events for clients, referral partners, and potential clients. As a method of marketing, this potentially expensive medium raises a lot of questions: Who to invite? Where do you hold it? What should we do to get the most bang for the buck? "It could be anything from a golf outing to an Oktoberfest, but it's primarily oriented toward client relations," says Don Scholl of the consultancy D.B. Scholl.
The Florida-based regional firm James Moore & Co. CPAs and Consultants has held a hugely successful annual Mardi Gras-type carnival. According to Joan Maxfield, marketing manager, "We've had more positive comments from our clients just on this one event than on any other event we do. It stuck in their minds so much that they'd ask the following year to be kept in mind to be invited.
"Important? Yes, for visibility and branding your firm I would rate such events as important if your firm is at that point in the marketing plan where you really want to be known in the community. It's truly a strong branding tool."
Golf is indeed a favorite for firms seeking a theme for events. Laura Snyder, director of marketing for Atlanta-based Porter Keadle Moore, says PKM has hosted an annual golf outing for clients for the past 18 years. "Every member of the firm participates," she says, "in capacities ranging from greeter and valet to beverage cart driver. While all 55 firm employees aren't able to golf due to space restrictions, a handful, including most partners, team up with clients."
PKM takes over a prominent course in the community for a full day, with others among the firm's remaining employees placed throughout the course at food and beverage stations "in an effort to offer them opportunities to mingle with and pamper the clients," Snyder says.
Marketing director Yvonne Trella says WithumSmith+Brown, in Princeton, N.J., typically hosts networking events and an annual new shareholder reception. "Last year was our firm's 30th anniversary year, however, so we held a special 'U.S. Open event' in June specifically to thank clients and friends of the firm who had referred business to us through the years." This event featured a cocktail reception at an exclusive golf club in New Jersey, she adds, and 156 referral sources were invited, with each guest being assigned the name of one of the 156 players in the real U.S. Open, Trella adds. "If the guest's player finished in the top 10 of the tournament, he or she won one of 10 prizes. In addition to the grand prize (a set of Callaway golf clubs valued at $2,500), prizes included two flat-panel TVs, Callaway drivers and putters, a Bose Wave acoustic system, a digital camera, and a DVD player.
Making It Successful
Marketing director Jill Lock of Isdaner & Company in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., maintains that "successful events are ones that meet your goals." To that end, she offers tips:
- Have realistic goals.
- Target the right audience.
- Select a venue for the event that's convenient and desirable.
- Market the event more than once and in different ways.
- Follow up once prospective attendees register, and confirm their attendance, which decreases the no-show rate.
* Have dynamic and expert speakers.
Adds Fonda Lang, marketing manager with Keiter, Stephens, Hurst, Gary & Shreaves, "Start planning ahead and make sure that all parties, if you're doing a joint event, have the same buy-in and dedication. Utilize the specific skill sets and event experience of each firm."
Says marketing director Yvonne Trella of WithumSmith+Brown, "Keep your objective in mind and be creative. Use your contacts to get referrals on new vendors you might need. You only get one shot, so don't take anything for granted when it comes to vendors: Get everything in writing and check references. The lowest bidder is not always the best choice. Although you need to keep your budget in mind, those involved won't always remember that you came in below budget, but they will remember a great event and the positive feedback they receive from guests."
"Doing something different or unusual is a better way to go," says consultant Donald Scholl. "An awful lot of people who are current or potential clients of significant accounting firms have the opportunity to participate in an awful lot of events. Doing something a little unusual may well enhance your attendance."
"A firm may sponsor a hole at a tournament, or put on an outing on their own," says Scholl, typically involving existing clients. Putting on an outing and securing an entire country club or course, he adds, offers the advantage, albeit expensive, of allowing a firm to invite a large number of attendees.
Maxfield maintains that a firm with a 30 percent market penetration can use a successful event to kick community awareness of their firm to 50 percent, "maybe 60 percent, if you're lucky," she says, stipulating that surveys are a good preliminary step to determine your firm's awareness in the market.
Connie Smith Benning, marketing director for RSM McGladrey, says her firm has hosted events like these, and that results depended quite a bit on the event. "We've had events that have been very successful in terms of showing clients our appreciation," she says. "We've had alumni events for former employees, which are also very successful in reconnecting with these individuals who can help us bring in additional business. One of our neatest events this past year was a day-long conference we offered for Iowa manufacturers and distributors. The result of this was brand positioning: letting this industry know that we're the leading firm serving this industry in the state."
A Little Different
Bob Keiter, principal in charge of marketing, and Fonda Lang, marketing manager with the Virginia-based firm Keiter, Stephens, Hurst, Gary & Shreaves, say their firm recently held a successful "top client" event that was "a bit different" than most firm-sponsored events. "We've found that most of our Baby Boomer clients have either not traveled much due to hard work building their businesses, or have focused on their travel to family destinations," they say. "They now have the time and funds to do extensive travel, but don't know where to begin or even what type of a vacation would be best. We joined with a prominent law firm, an asset management firm, and a travel agency to host 'An Evening of Wine and Travel,' focused on the different types of travel options that our clients could consider."
"It was an upscale yet relaxing environment, where five travel vignettes were presented, and the travel agency was there to answer questions," says Keiter. "Those in attendance were asked in advance to list their favorite or potential travel destination. We put that information on their name tag. It became an ice breaker as they mingled throughout the evening." The event was well received, and the first of its kind for the attendees, "he adds. "The no-pressure atmosphere was also an important factor. So many times at these types of events, someone is trying to sell something. We didn't want that to be a factor."
Kenneth Cerini, managing partner of Cerini & Associates in Islandia, N.Y., says that earlier this year his firm also held a client appreciation event, at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, which focuses on the history of flight and Long Island's involvement. "The venue is very unique," he says, "because the area where we had the event allowed our clients and friends to overlook the museums and see into the cockpits of planes. It wasn't a room that was just four walls, but it created conversation and buzz."
Jack Kolmansberger at Asher & Company in Philadelphia says that in the past few years, his firm has held several events to promote practice development and networking among staff entry-level through four to five years' experience. "We once rented a luxury suite at a Philadelphia Phantoms minor league hockey game, and this past year rented a box for a Camden Riversharks minor league baseball game," he says. "We like the theme of 'minor-league/up and coming stars,' as opposed to major league events, plus minor league events are typically half the price of comparable major league tickets. For the hockey game, we had a mix of several bankers, lawyers, and other professionals, while the baseball game was in conjunction with a local bank."
At Minnepolis-based Hansen, Jergenson, Nergaard & Co., firm administrator Arlis Esnough says the firm has run some events, "mostly parties: a retirement party for a partner; a party welcoming two new partners; a 25th Anniversary Party for the firm, and, occasionally, client seminars if there is something significant impacting many of our clients." These events have included commercial and individual clients, referral sources such as bankers, insurance people, lawyers, and others, and friends and family of the partners.
"A result of the events is interaction with the people in a social setting without the weight of business-related issues, which has helped build long-term relationships, and helped us to retain the clients that are in attendance," says Esnough.
"Our U.S. Open event was very well received and well executed event," says Trella. "Its success was measured by attendance, guest comments, and shareholder feedback. Our firm also received new referrals from several guests within a few weeks of the event. In fact, although it was initially planned as a special anniversary event and one-time only, the shareholders voted to hold it again this year."
It can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine payback for these events. James Moore & Co., for one of their recent Mardi Gras events, pulled a 20 percent attendance rate for the 1,475 invitations sent. "You can pull your hair out, and try to track everybody who mentions it, track all the referral clients you get from all the attendees," says Maxfield, "but you can't measure the payback like that. It's more a matter of brand awareness."
While the ROI was not the immediate concern of her firm's event, says Lang, "all the host firms felt that the event was successful, in that we were able to see our clients in a different environment and concentrate on relationship building. We've had several contacts since the meeting with new prospects for our firm. Being that this was a jointly hosted event, the costs were split between each of the four firms, working out to approximately $2,500 each."
"You're building goodwill," says Scholl. For example, Snyder says her firm's golf event "has become a tradition awaited year after year by both employees and clients. Each year, the firm attempts to outdo itself in everything from the creative invitations (this year the invitation was a 'little book' we wrote 'about a big golf outing'), to such giveaways as wind vests and golf watches." PKM also tries to surpass itself in locations, which change every year or two. "While we can't attribute any new business directly to the outing, as we invite clients only, we strongly believe that the goodwill we create with these events helps maintain high client satisfaction and retention," Snyder says.
Marketing director Jill Lock reports that Isdaner & Company in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., reports that her firm's post-seminar cocktail time event met all expected goals. "We showcased the expertise of three accountants in our tax department (they were the speakers), and we got the opportunity to network and enhance our relationships with many clients and referral sources." Attendees remained through the entire hour of the networking, she adds, "and other accountants from the firm also attended, and had the opportunity to network, plus we made 'matches.' That is, if one client could use the services of another or one of the referral sources could help a client, we made the match at the networking session."
"With one exception, our golf outings have gone without a hitch," says Snyder. "The one exception was that years ago nearly all attendees were the unlikely victims of food poisoning from one of the city's most exclusive golf resorts. This did not deter the golfers, and the next year, nearly all returned, though some chose to bring their own lunch." Due to the clients' "unique relationship" with PKM, says Snyder, they dubbed the outing "The Salmonella Open" for several years.
PKM spends approximately $25,000 per year on its golf outing, and we think that every penny of it is very well spent," Snyder says. "Our firm becomes king for a day for the cost of $250 for each of our best clients. Who wouldn't want to make that kind of investment?"
"Some of our smaller seminars haven't been as successful in terms of generating attendance," Smith Benning admits. "The topic has to be really good to get people there. Our Manufacturing conference was one of our most successful, drawing 100 people and also getting very good media coverage."
Locks says her firm recently hosted an educational tax seminar followed by a cocktail and hors d'oeuvres networking time. "The event was geared to our clients and referral sources," she says. "As we made plans for the event, we selected an historic mansion near the firm as our venue. We targeted our clients and referral sources. Our goals were to illustrate our expertise, give value added service, and enhance our relationships. We structured our event with an educational lecture, then a networking time."
"We focused principally on our larger clients, prospects, and referral sources," says Cerini. "These individuals were sent personal invitations. In addition, we called each to personally invite them. At the end of each year, we send a letter to all our clients updating them about the firm, and we included an invite to all of our clients in this letter, but we didn't formally pursue them."
According to Asher & Company managing director Steve Carr, "We wanted to provide an environment that was conducive to networking. It was clear to everyone that they were there to network, so there were no hidden agendas. By inviting appropriate contacts and providing some basic networking refreshers beforehand, we believe that we set our people up for success." Attendees were also hand-picked based on tenure, home (the bankers were based in New Jersey, so focus was on the firm's staff who lived in that state), practice development aptitude, and department mix.
Setting up the event was a joint effort for all four host firms, say Keiter and Lang, adding that each firm took a lead on separate parts of the event, including location, catering, invitations, RSVPs, and decorations. After the initial preliminary planning, the event required a month and a half of periodic effort on behalf of all the host firms, they add. "Invitations were limited to the top 100 clients and their spouses or guests from our firm, the law firm, and the asset management firm. Once the individual host lists were prepared, we combined the lists and eliminated any duplicates," adds Lang.
Trella says planning for her firm's U.S. Open event started six months in advance "to secure a location, carefully compile the guest list, decide on decor, select the food and beverage, and determine a system for guests to randomly select a U.S. Open player. All shareholders were asked to provide names of clients or friends of the firm who had referred business above a certain threshold. "The list was further refined with additional shareholder input, and reviewed by two shareholder contacts for the event," she says. Space at the PKM golf outing is in high demand, Snyder points out. "As the firm grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep our numbers within the constraint of the golf course maximums. We send out approximately 300 invitations to a select list of A-level clients. We can accommodate about one third of that number. A lot of planning goes into the events that includes the collaboration of the managing partner, the COO, the marketing director, and, most important, the executive/marketing assistant, who practically runs the show single-handedly."
Publicity depends on the event, says Scholl. A golf outing, for instance, means specific invitations to select individuals. An open houses might spur invitations to an entire client and referrer list, "plus, typically, partners and staff are asked to add anyone to that list that they think is a potential client," he says. "You probably won't be sending invitations to the short-form 1040 clients, so there is some degree of selectivity, but it's a much larger audience for an open-house event." Charity sponsorship or co-sponsorship typically involves having made a contribution to a given organization, which will often then have a formula for the amount of exposure and publicity your firm will receive.
Follow-Up Is Key
"Follow-up is probably where the greatest number of firms fall down," Scholl says. "A lot of firms will do an annual open house. They'll spiff up the place, they'll have various games on the computers, partners and everyone there, they throw open the door and invite hundreds of people to come. And firms have a fairly good turnout for those kinds of events. What some firms have done is say to each one of the individuals, 'Your job during this time besides showing them the firm and saying good things about us, is to identify two people that you're going to make contact with within two weeks after the event: take them to lunch, go to a movie together, whatever. But something to reinforce that connection.'"
Cerini says his firm had about 125 attendees. "While this was lower than the 150 to 200 we were hoping for, this was our first such event, so it gives us plenty to build on for next year. We sent out thank you's to everyone who attended. The overwhelming response we got from those who attended was about how it was a great event, and how they hoped we'd consider making it an annual event."
Smith Benning says that follow-up on the alumni event involves an alumni newsletter and ongoing annual events. "The manufacturing conference follow-up involved getting participants on our mailing lists who will be invited to another event this year." She adds that this event helped secure a new manufacturing client her firm had been pursuing.
Lock reports that those who registered but didn't attend her firm's event were sent a "sorry we missed you" letter, with the event materials.
"In our firm networking and introduction to practice development training, we stress the importance of follow-up," Kolmansberger notes. "After the baseball game, we asked each attendee to identify the person they best connected with, and call that person within two weeks to set up a lunch or breakfast to keep the momentum going. From there, we've encouraged follow-up contacts."
One of Asher's baseball game attendees, Justine McGinley, says, "Having met someone at the same stage of their career was enlightening. Bankers deal with many of the same client issues, and I've been able to refer my contact to several clients who needed assistance with loans, for which they've been grateful. I feel like it's the start of a good referral relationship."
Even the simplest events can take a surprising amount of work, both in terms of setting up the event, and in terms of the levels of participation from one's firm. Notes Kolmansberger, "Some people never appeared overtly interested in participating in networking events, but nobody we asked to attend the 'hand-picked' events ever declined. By making it clear that the other attendees were beginning their professional careers, much of the apprehension faded."
Cerini says he was surprised by the level of follow-up necessary to get people to attend, and by how people would respond yes to the RSVP, then never show. Smith Benning was also initially surprised by how "time consuming" planning these events can be, involving "a lot of detail. Allow enough planning and preparation time. It's also important that events fit into an integrated marketing plan. An event on its own is not an effective marketing strategy."
"Just getting a consensus for a good date and location can take quite a lot of effort, and should be done at a minimum of six months out, longer if possible," notes Esnough. "Our process involved setting a date, determining the potential number of attendees, finding a location that would accommodate that number, deciding menu items and if entertainment is appropriate, designing invitations (including map or directions to the facility), and setting the date for mailing invitations, including a date for RSVPs to be returned." The firm set up a dedicated voicemail box for RSVPs, so the phone lines wouldn't be tied up.
With Planning Comes Success
Events can work to build great relationships, but, as with building a niche, success takes time, care, and patience. "Pick an awe-inspiring venue," Cerini says. "Be different. Make the evening unique. We did the event in January because we didn't want to compete with all of the holiday parties. January is usually cheaper, and it really functioned as a kick-off to tax season."
"Our clients definitely enjoyed themselves, and it strengthened our relationships with our clients and contacts," Cerini adds. "We even invited several prospects to the event. Not only did they have a good time, but they also had the ability to interact with our clients and learn more about the way we do business and the depth of the services we provide. Next year, they'll be attending the event as clients."