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Annual client appreciation events can build relationships and lead to new referrals. But wining and dining alone won't cut it.

Every autumn during Oktoberfest, Chris Annett chooses thirty of his clients, rents a limo, and heads out to Concordia Club in Waterloo, Ontario for an evening of food and fun.

"They usually aren't expecting it," he says, since he brings a different set of clients each year.

Annett is the vice president of Century Group Financial Solutions, in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. His clients are medical professionals, and for most of the 14 years he's been an advisor, he's found clients unenthusiastic about traditional appreciation events.

"Doctors are used to going to a golf club, listening to a pitch, and having a steak dinner," he says.

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So Annett is changing the approach, adding the industry is moving away from the golf course and toward new events like outdoor parties and live music. Doing this places less emphasis on presentations and sales and more on simply having a good time.

Clients are encouraged to mingle and share stories, and once they've opened up to their peers, they approach the advisor directly, says Annett. "Rather than spend an hour talking about a product, I'll have clients come talk to me about their experiences."

At one doctor-filled garden party, Annett asked a relatively new client to speak about his specialization in critical illness–the theme of the evening.

"He may have been caught off guard," admits Annett. But the doctor's stories turned out to be a highlight of the event. Annett's gamble proved more effective than a cold call: he not only had a chance to learn more about his new client in a comfortable setting, but also to make him feel respected by his peers at the party.

And, that experience turned the doctor into a dedicated client.  "[We got] to know each other before we got to the point of [sales]," Annett says. "It really worked out."

Annett's colleagues still hold many product-specific events. "If a seminar is geared toward marketing, the information still gets out there," Annett says. But clients don't want to feel like advisors are selling. "[An appreciation event] is 100% about having that connection with somebody, and that has to come before we can get to the product," he says.

Client-focused events not only result in happier clients, but also put less pressure on the advisor to make trade-offs. "[For most,] it comes down to entertainment or appreciation building," Annett says. "But if we can do both," that's optimal.

Go local

Robert-Yves Mazerolle is an independent advisor in Halifax. A former Canadian Forces Naval Signaller who served on three warships, Mazerolle enjoys connecting his past with his events. Last year, he took several dozen clients on the Tall Ship Silva, a 73-year-old, 130-foot schooner.

"It had a very relaxed ambiance," Mazerolle says. "We had food catered, and tickets for drinks, and for three hours we relaxed and talked amongst ourselves."

Not every advisor can access a restored ship, but a community-focused event can be as simple as a garden party. "One of our clients was a local doctor with a nice backyard," Annett says.

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Annett was able to convince him to share his home by agreeing to cover the cost of the event, which he shared with industry sponsors. "It was more relaxed and easy-going," he says.

Be inclusive

So how do you decide whom to invite?

Exclusivity is out. Crystal Wong, Senior Regional Manager for TD Waterhouse in Calgary, says her bank sponsors local public events such as fireworks displays, science centre openings, and equestrian competitions at Spruce Meadows.

Community events can foster goodwill and build relationships, says Wong. "Clients will ask us more questions in a casual, comfortable environment." Plus, a single sporting event can reach hundreds of clients.

"It's not a substantial cost for us, but the client can take [his or her] whole family," Wong says.

Invite as many clients as you can afford, while still maintaining a sense of intimacy. (You might have to split your client base to do so.)

"I can do most of my events for less than $4,000, and I would say about eighty clients will show up," Mazerolle says.

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And relationships trump assets: "I invite about 80% of my clients," he adds. "The 20% I don't [could be] in a transition process, or just don't fit in." Clients who are easy to get along with are high on the guest list, because not only are they good conversationalists, but they also bring friends.

Annett offers this advice. "Look at what everyone is doing and try something different," he says.

Wong agrees. "It's not just wine and dine anymore. We've evolved. We need to make clients feel we're listening. If we don't, they don't come back."

Originally published on Advisor.ca

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