How to Hold a Winning Seminar

Plan every detail with confidence. Learn how to choose a topic that attracts a crowd, orchestrate an energetic event, and build a reputation as an expert.

September 1, 2007

Finding new clients is one of the most critical, yet challenging, aspects of the real estate business — especially during a slowdown. You can’t rely on buyers and sellers to come knocking on your door as they may have when the market was red hot.

Instead, you must do an ever-efficient job of tracking down customers in your niche and convincing them that you’re the one they should choose for their real estate needs. One successful way to do this: Hold a seminar.

“It positions you as an expert and increases your credibility,” says Dan Forbes, CRS®, GRI, broker-owner of Premier Team Inc. in Bradenton, Fla. “You go belly-to-belly with the consumer, and that’s where your business comes from.”

Forbes holds real estate investment seminars, but you can choose pretty much any topic that would appeal to your targeted customer base. Then, you need equal doses of creativity and business finesse to locate a venue, publicize the event, and pull together a compelling program that leaves a lasting impression on attendees.

Sound overwhelming? Forbes says the role of event coordinator may sound daunting at first, but the hard work pays off with new clients and an enhanced reputation as the real estate expert in your market. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

Why Do a Seminar?

First impressions are invaluable, says Bernice Ross, a real estate coach based in Austin, Texas. Your initial contact with potential clients is a chance to make a personal connection and establish your credibility. But you can’t do that very easily with a postcard or newspaper ad.

“You need to do something that distinguishes you from your competitors,” Ross says.

A seminar is usually an in-person event that brings together a room of prospects and lets you showcase your expertise — whether you specialize in waterfront condos or pet-friendly homes.

Lorayne McKelvy-Morris, a broker with LoMaxx Group in Fresno, Calif., says she’s been holding seminars since 2003 for first-time home buyers. The seminars are designed to relieve the apprehension renters may feel as they get ready to jump into the marketplace for the first time. McKelvy-Morris uses a pressure-free setting to educate attendees on every step of the buying process, start to finish.

The result: She generates 25 to 30 percent of her business directly from the seminars, which on average draw 15 to 20 people. Some clients are recommended to her from friends and relatives who attended the seminars, she says.

“If you’re looking to build a business relationship with the community, holding a seminar is worth it,” McKelvy-Morris says.

Pick a Topic

The first step in planning your seminar is selecting a topic that will attract an audience. Where to start? Make a list of the buying and selling concerns felt by the prospects in your niche, says Lanise Dee, a broker-associate and managing partner with EXIT Real Estate Professionals in Orlando, Fla. Don’t hesitate to call customers for ideas.

Some real-life examples:

  • Do-it-herself. Leticia Chand, GRI, an associate with Premier Real Estate in Visalia, Calif., hosts an annual “do-it-herself” seminar that teaches women how to do common home repairs. It’s been so popular that it’s been written up in local newspapers. She expects this year’s event, planned for the fall, to draw about 50 women. She decided to hold it at one of her vacant listings to generate leads for the house. “For me, the whole idea is to gain visibility in the community,” Chand says. “The first-time home buyer seminars are typical, so I wanted to do something that was a little bit different from everybody else.”
  • How to buy a business. Shawn Bradley, director of commercial property management with Whitney-Wallace Commercial Real Estate Services in Salisbury, Md., holds seminars for people who want to buy a business. The topic attracts attendees who are looking for commercial space, he says.
  • When to downsize. Debbie Miller, an associate broker in the Arlington, Va., office of McEnearney Associates, draws hundreds of seniors to her seminars on downsizing. “I probably get 85 percent of my business from the seminars,” the listing agent says.
  • Where to find a hot investment property. Forbes, of Premier Team in Bradenton, Fla., holds quarterly seminars that teach people how to invest in real estate. “It positions you as an expert in the mind of the consumer and increases your credibility,” Forbes says.

Choose a Venue

Once you’ve got the topic pinned down, you must figure out where to hold your event. How large of a venue will you need? Do your best to estimate attendance, based on how widely you will market the event. Dee says it’s typical for 10 to 20 percent of the prospects who receive her postcard invitation to show up. If you run a newspaper advertisement, turnout tends to be harder to predict, she says.

It’s best to hold the seminar someplace other than your office, experts say. “Otherwise, people will think it’s just a sales pitch,” Forbes says.

If you’re looking to keep costs down, pick a low-cost venue in a central area that’s easy for your prospects to find. Many cities have community centers or libraries with conference rooms available for free. Ross suggests contacting your local board of REALTORS®, which also may have free or inexpensive meeting spaces at their headquarters. Don’t forget to check into the spaces available at churches, synagogues, and schools.

If you want to spend more money on the venue, consider a hotel conference room or space at a local restaurant, theater, or yacht club. A high-class venue can be a good match for a high-end clientele.

Timing is Everything

The day, date, and time of the event may affect where you decide to hold it. As with all other elements of planning a seminar, think carefully about what would be most convenient for your prospects. Weekend mornings and weekday evenings are two popular times.

Then consider what time of year is the best for your seminar, and how frequently you’ll hold it. An investment seminar once a year around tax time? A winterizing seminar every fall?

Bradley, who recently relocated from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Salisbury, Md., decided to do monthly seminars as part of his marketing plan to boost his name recognition in his new market. “I’m making a conscientious effort to get my name out there,” he says.

The time of day will determine what kind of food or refreshments to provide. Since her five-hour seminars for first-time buyers start at 10 a.m., McKelvy-Morris offers muffins, fruit, juice, and coffee in the morning, and sandwiches and a salad during a one-hour lunch break at noon. To hold down costs, she purchased coffee machines and uses paper plates and reusable bowls.

She gets further discounts by purchasing food and supplies in bulk from a Costco wholesale store. In case prospects bring their kids for the long seminar, she always brings a supply of complementary coloring books and crayons.

The time and place won’t be an issue if you decide to take your seminar to the Web. Cris Loiz, the customer service manager for Iowa-based Ruhl & Ruhl, REALTORS®, says Web-based seminars are a good fit for some buyers and sellers. Practitioners who choose the Internet route will not benefit from face-to-face contact, but can still build a solid reputation with the Web-savvy prospects who tune in from their computers.

“There are a lot of people who now go to a Web site for education about the buying process,” Loiz says. “It’s much simpler if they could learn while sitting on their couch.”

A Program That Draws a Crowd

Now comes the tough part: Crafting a program that will excite your prospects. Think about what format will be most appealing to your prospects, and who will do the best job of covering the topic in an entertaining yet authoritative way.

Here are some of the questions you’ll want to consider:

  • Will you be the expert, and speak to the crowd in a lecture-style format? Or will you bring in guest speakers and act as the moderator?
  • What audio-visual elements will you use? What handouts will you provide?
  • Will you reserve a portion of the seminar for questions from the audience?
  • What seating arrangement will best suit your seminar format?

“You can simply be the host, and that can be very effective,” Forbes says. That’s the approach taken by Miller during her seminars on downsizing. Even though she has the credentials to speak knowledgeably about the topic, she invites other experts as a way to boost the seminar’s credibility.

Dee says she does her own PowerPoint presentation but always includes a broker and credit specialist at her events, as well as testimonials from clients she has helped in the past. She suggests coming up with a theme that will inspire potential clients. One of her seminars was called “Yes, you truly can buy a home.”

Dee also provides information about government-sponsored and private programs that offer home buying assistance. “Most places have something or someone who will support first-time home buyers,” such as programs offering special interest rates to nurses, teachers, firefighters, and police, Dee says.

Miller says it’s important to keep the focus of the seminar on the topic — not on you. If you spend too much time touting your achievements and asking for business, prospects will simply leave or dismiss your credibility.

Forbes agrees. “I don’t do any high-pressure selling,” he says. “The format of the seminar is pure education. I take the approach I am there to help people learn. If the business comes back to me, that’s great.”

Get the Word Out

You have the topic, the speakers, the time, and the place. Now you must do your best to make sure that your prospects know about the fantastic event you’re planning.

Explore all of your options for free publicity. Many local newspapers will run news briefs announcing the event; just contact the newspaper and find out how to submit information. McKelvy-Morris asks large businesses to post fliers on their company bulletin boards. Also, don’t forget to mention the event in your newsletter, Web site, and blog.

If you plan to pay for advertising, focus on publications and Web sites that are popular with people in your niche. Dee, who targets first-time buyers, puts ads in apartment-finder publications and sends direct mail to apartment complexes. It’s helpful to follow up with a phone call to anyone who’s not on the do-not-call list, she says.

To get an accurate head count, give attendees an easy way to RSVP. Forbes requires people to register online. That also serves as a way to capture prospects’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses for follow-up. To encourage early registration at his investment seminars, he offers the event for free to those who sign up in advance but charges $20 at the door.

After the Event: Following Up

When the seminar is over, your follow-up efforts begin. Make sure that attendees leave with a high-quality handout that summarizes the main points of the session and includes your contact information and other resources you mentioned during the event.

If you don’t get phone calls right away, don’t fret. Many practitioners say that the real payoff comes months or even years after the event, when attendees are finally ready to make a move. That’s why it’s so important to make sure attendees don’t forget about you in the meantime. Using registration data from attendees, you can follow up with regular e-mails, newsletters, mailings, and phone calls.

Forbes started a club for people who attend his investment seminars. The Bradenton Real Estate Club has weekly lunch meetings featuring guest speakers who discuss current happenings in the marketplace, whether it’s rising property taxes or insurance issues.

The club has grown to 80 members, and it consistently generates new listings, buyers, and referrals, he says.

Reflect on Your Success

As with anything, practice makes perfect. If your first seminar didn’t go as smoothly as you would have liked, or didn’t draw a very big audience, don’t be discouraged. Bradley says only one person attended his first event, but that didn’t stop him from trying again.

Instead of giving up, analyze what factors may have affected turnout, such as the date, time, or topic. Did your seminar conflict with other local events?

“I’ve learned to never do it on a Wednesday night, which is a church night for a lot of people, or on a Friday night,” Dee says. The best turnouts for Dee come on Tuesday and Thursday nights and on Saturday mornings – but not too early.

Brian Rodgers, a real estate trainer and a broker with Realty Executives in Hutchinson, Kan., says it’s a good idea to capture your seminars on video. Not only can the recording help you analyze what could be improved, but it also can serve as a marketing tool. He suggests holding a seminar series, covering a range of topics within your specialty, and providing the videos as a resource to clients.

Seminars may take a lot of planning, but they get easier with experience. The biggest mistake, Rodgers says, is to think that seminars are not worth the effort. “You’d be missing a huge opportunity,” he says. “When done correctly, they can be very successful over the long term.”

Buck Wargo is a real estate reporter and writer based in Las Vegas.

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