I’m a financial nerd who loves freebies. Not the “fill out an online survey and get travel sizes of shampoo and toothpaste” kind of thing. Give me something more substantial for my time.
I’ve gotten $50 to $150 to switch long distance carriers, a $100 voucher to a nice restaurant in Key West, Fla., for attending a timeshare presentation, and $75 to $100 for opening a new credit card.
I’m not eligible for senior discounts yet, but maturation has its privileges. My partner and I recently got free three-course meals at Borough in Minneapolis just for test driving a Lincoln. If the Lincoln people have me in their database, it’s proof that marketers have my number — over 50. This year, I accepted three mail offers for free dinners for me and a guest if I attended seminars about retirement, investments and Social Security and Medicare.
These incentives aren’t new, according to Hal Stinchfield, CEO of Promotional Marketing Insights in Orono. “There is intense competition for investment dollars,” he said. “The more people they can put in front of them, the more money they can potentially make.”
Was I worried about putting my nest egg at risk for the price of a free dinner? No. My rationale is that I still have a lot to learn about investing. Give me a free meal at a nice restaurant, and I’ll nod politely even if the speaker talks about hedge funds, derivatives and other options I’ll never understand.
Here’s what attendees can expect. A small group of about 20 people are seated in a restaurant side room or banquet room. It could be the restaurant’s regular menu, a prix fixe menu or preselected family style. Alcoholic drinks are usually extra but not always. The presentation may be done while people eat or before they eat. Some presenters encourage questions and others hold them until the end. The pitch is an informational soft sell, and no one is contacted afterward unless they request it. Sessions last 90 minutes to two hours.
If you’re worried that the seminars are filled with freeloaders taking advantage of hardworking financial planners, think again. Financial adviser Troy Lorenz of Intentional Finance Solutions in Bloomington, who pays for a number of dinner/seminars every year, said the free meal attracts people who are already motivated and want an environment to slow down. “People are so busy that a free meal is a way to be respectful of their time while giving them a chance to relax,” he said.
Lorenz offers free seminars on annuities and Social Security as another method to market his business. “I hate cold calling,” he said. “My goal after a presentation is to have one-third of the audience want to meet with me.”
Brad Albertson of Minneapolis has attended five financial seminars with free dinners in the past few months. He said the freebie makes him take the information being presented more seriously. “I feel as if I have an obligation to put down my fork and pay attention if they’re paying for my dinner,” he said.
But Albertson draws the line at feeling obligated to schedule a follow-up meeting with a financial adviser. Out of five dinners, he’s scheduled one meeting but chosen not to invest any assets.
Mike Miller of Minneapolis attended a dinner seminar put on by Wells Fargo about Social Security and Medicare because, at age 63, he’s nearing retirement. He has a financial planner he’s satisfied with but went out of curiosity. “Two things stuck out in my mind that the speaker told us — that the government won’t let Social Security fail and that couples have to be married 10 years before they’re eligible for spousal benefits,” Miller said.
I learned that financial planners go to interesting lengths to earn trust in 90 minutes. Rather than listing their investment qualifications, we heard that adviser X is a die-hard Gophers basketball fan and has an autistic son, that adviser Y is a former minister, and that adviser Z is the proud father of four kids.
So how was the food? There’s that beggars/choosers thing going on, but Ruth’s Chris, Amore Victoria and Vescio’s each served up a satisfying multicourse meal. Wells Fargo Wealth Management Group offered a prix fixe menu at Ruth’s Chris steakhouse in Minneapolis with rib-eye, filet mignon, salmon and chicken entrees. Alcoholic drinks were extra. The presentation was informative, concise and low pressure.
No one was sure how Wells Fargo got our names but most assumed it was because they have an account there.
Evergreen Financial Group of Minneapolis offered a free dinner off the menu (including wine) at Amore Victoria in Minneapolis with the topic “Are you ready to run the retirement marathon?”
Intentional Financial Solutions of Bloomington treated us to a family-style meal at Vescio’s Cucina in St. Louis Park but only after Lorenz talked about annuities. To minimize the wait for food, he asked for all questions to be held until the food was served.
I recommend the free meal seminars if you’re searching for an adviser or if you want a venue to ask a few questions. The pressure is low, the atmosphere is pleasant, and no one gets a follow-up unless it’s requested. Even so, someone who’s easily led or feels guilt at accepting a free meal may want to bring along a skeptical friend or skip such seminars.
Do I ever regret taking precious time for a freebie? Only with timeshare presentations. Seeing people plunk down thousands of dollars for an investment with little or no chance of recouping makes me sick to my stomach. There goes the free meal.