Editor’s note: If you’re looking to develop a 2024 financial educator marketing plan, Horsesmouth’s next Liftoff! Financial Educator Marketing Coaching Program starts September 27th.
In this edition of What’s Working Now, an AdvisorRADIO feature in which Horsesmouth members tell us about recent success they have had running and growing their businesses, we hear from James McLoughlin, a veteran advisor who finds the classic dinner seminar is still a great way to bring in assets. You can read the highlights in the article below or listen to the full interview with James in the video.
Guest: James McLoughlin
East Setauket, N.Y.
Years in business: 27+
Firm: Girard Wealth Management Group
What’s working now: Perfecting his dinner seminar presentations and consistently offering them two times a month
For most financial advisors, acquiring new clients is a constant challenge. With increased competition, advisors must take action if they want to grow their business.
James McLoughlin has cracked the code. As an advisor with over 15 years of experience, he has built a successful practice by leveraging the time-tested marketing channel of dinner seminars. While some advisors prefer other business-building approaches, McLoughlin sees tremendous value in educating people at a nice restaurant.
By consistently hosting seminars every month, McLoughlin has developed a proven formula for conversion. The dinner events allow him to establish authority, credibility, and forge personal connections in a relaxed setting. In an era where steady, organic referrals are hard to come by, seminars provide a replicable framework for meeting prospects and converting them to clients.
Direct mail invitations drive registration
McLoughlin relies on direct mail as the engine to drive registrations for his seminars. He has partnered with the direct marketing firm Leading Response to design and mail dinner seminar invites each month. The tri-fold mailers feature the prospect’s name and tease a variety of retirement topics to be covered, including Social Security strategies, tax minimization and health care concerns.
Every month, around 7,000 mail invitations go out within a defined radius around McLoughlin’ suburban Long Island office location. He has homed in on zip codes filled with mass affluent pre-retirees, the ideal target for his retirement-focused events. The cost per mailer runs about $5,000 including postage, which McLoughlin gladly budgets as part of his proven customer acquisition strategy.
McLoughlin gets sufficient, consistent interest in his invitations to make the dinner seminars worthwhile. He gets approximately 25–30 registrants per event, down slightly from a year ago when people were extra eager to socialize as covid restrictions relaxed. But, the audiences are still large enough that he is able to establish the beginnings of a good relationship with those who attend.
Mastering the presentation: balancing education with stories
The seminar format gives McLoughlin an opportunity to showcase his expertise around a spectrum of planning issues that pre-retirees worry about. Unlike events that advisors sometimes outsource to wholesalers with prepared slide decks, McLoughlin takes full ownership of his presentations, developing and delivering the dinner talk himself based on the materials he is able to access through his Horsesmouth Master Membership.
While his seminars focus on retirement preparedness, he weaves his discussions around hot topics like optimizing Social Security, unraveling the complexity of Medicare, and understanding taxes in retirement. He feels this approach avoids the mistake some advisors make of promoting generic retirement planning sessions that fail to establish urgency.
McLoughlin punctuates the 45-minute presentation with real-life stories and examples, so attendees see he understands the challenges they face. He covers issues like coordinating pension decisions with Social Security claiming strategies to maximize lifetime income.
“You really need to work on a presentation so that you’re really talking to the audience, and you’re filling that presentation with personal stories or war stories that you’ve encountered along the way on each of those topics, whether it’s Medicare or taxes or things like that,” says McLoughlin.
Rather than diving into the weeds on any single topic, McLoughlin excels at providing just enough education during the seminar to motivate follow-up. He sprinkles in mentions of the complimentary consultation at least eight to ten times throughout the presentation, so it feels like a natural next step for prospects.
The right atmosphere sets the stage
While the content and presentation style are critical, McLoughlin pays close attention to optimizing the experience surrounding the actual educational piece itself. He chooses an upscale local steakhouse near his office that pre-retirees recognize and appreciate.
To allow time for socializing while keeping the presentation punctual, McLoughlin advises attendees to arrive 30 minutes early, between 6:30–6:45 p.m. This enables the restaurant staff to deliver salads or other starters prior to the program kickoff.
He waits until 7:15 p.m. for a decisive start. No one is allowed into the room at that point. McLoughlin even requests attendees silence mobile phones and refrain from casual side chatter that could make it difficult for others to hear the presentation. This attention to detail allows prospects to settle in and focus on the presentation.
Relentless follow-up converts intrigue into appointments
McLoughlin understands that follow-up is the key to driving appointments, so he calls everyone who attended. He gathers feedback forms so he can customize his outreach based on the retirees’ stated needs and concerns. This powers his communication in the crucial few weeks post-seminar, when excitement remains high for those who attended.
McLoughlin calls and emails methodically to reach out to seminar attendees. He even handles reservation confirmation calls before the dinner so that he is sometimes able to secure appointments upfront.
Following the seminar, he dedicates hours after the market closes to making follow-up calls. It is critical to be timely with your outreach. “I can’t stress that enough,” he says.
“Imagine you have spent quite a bit of money on a presentation and dinners, only to not follow up with the people right away—and then when you finally do follow up with them, they say, ‘Oh, we didn’t hear from you, so we went in a different direction, or we hired someone else.’ That’s the worst thing that you can hear, and unfortunately, we’ve all heard that.”
Rather than worrying about “annoying” prospects with his calls, McLoughlin persists through multiple attempts over two to three weeks. Being on a first-name basis and referencing their situation has helped him convert 60%–70% of seminar attendees into one-on-one appointments.
Overcoming objections and perfection through practice
Like any successful initiative, it took time for McLoughlin to perfect his dinner seminar approach. He advises others to start slow with smaller events for existing clients, where you can build confidence and refine your skills.
McLoughlin emphasizes the importance of tireless practice and repetition when it comes to his presentation. Even today, he continues to practice. He also records himself and solicits feedback from staff and family members on areas he feels need some polishing up.
“Rehearse quite a bit, in front of the dog, your kids, your wife or your husband, and get some good honest feedback,” McLoughlin advises. “Maybe even some of your close friends over Zoom. Get them to give you an honest answer on what’s happening.”
The takeaway: why seminars should be part of your growth plan
With the financial advice business becoming increasingly competitive, many successful financial advisors are leaning into educational marketing.
While dinner seminars require an investment of time and money, McLoughlin thinks the generous ROI he gets makes it worth the effort. Like most advisors, he gauges success based on assets gathered, and these days his dinner seminars generate around $20 million–$25 million per year in new assets. He finds it an easy way to grow, and for him, it’s better than purchasing a retiring advisor’s practice.
Keys to replicating dinner seminar success
McLoughlin offers this advice to fellow advisors:
- Choose topics that grab attention rather than generic retirement themes. Social Security, taxes and Medicare work well.
- Send direct mail invites to a targeted geographic radius around your office location.
- Set expectations upfront on arrival time so attendees are settled for program start.
- Don’t skip preparation work—practice repeatedly even once you gain experience.
- Get extensive feedback on your presentation style and content before going live.
- Use engaging slides but avoid cookie-cutter wholesaler presentations. Customize it.
- Weave in real-life stories and examples to showcase your familiarity with client dilemmas.
- Promote the free consultation throughout your presentation.
- Take questions at the end rather than interrupting your presentation flow.
- Follow up quickly and with personalized messages referencing their needs.