Caroline Kennedy stood demurely one recent evening in a short black-and-white cocktail dress, a smudge of gray still on her forehead from earlier Ash Wednesday observations. Surrounding her were about 50 clients and friends of planners Derek Holman and Brian Parker, co-founders of EP Wealth Advisors in Torrance, Calif.
"If you'd like to ask questions ... " one of Kennedy's handlers offered. The guests smiled awkwardly at getting the opportunity to speak directly to JFK's daughter. Then they dove in.
"What advice do you give to your daughters?" one woman wanted to know.
"What do you have on your iPhone?" another woman asked. (Everything from Mary Poppins to Jay-Z, Kennedy told her - mostly downloaded by her daughters. "Sometimes it's really raunchy," she said, drawing knowing laughter from the parents in the crowd.)
The event, held in an upstairs ballroom at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, was the fifth major client appreciation session that EP Wealth had held. Past speakers who've gotten up close and personal with the firm's guests - mostly clients and strategic partners - have included Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Robert Redford and Suze Orman.
These client appreciation events provide a memorable way for firms like EP Wealth to build relationships with clients and strengthen ties with strategic partners.
"They are providing a different service from what [clients] normally look to them for," says Calvin Hedman, founder of a CPA firm that often partners with EP Wealth.
The two firms frequently provide client referrals for each other, the principals say. And at EP Wealth's urging, Hedman had invited 15 people to the Kennedy event - including bankers, attorneys, existing clients and three prospects.
Despite the cost (which they declined to disclose), Holman and Parker say the firm has found the gatherings to be so successful that they will continue holding them.
Holman, Parker and other planners offered several pieces of specific advice for advisors interested in holding effective client events.
1. THINK ABOUT HEADCOUNT
Many firms prefer relatively small events, usually up to 50. But remember that you also want to encourage clients to bring guests.
Reston, Va., planner Miye Wire regularly invites clients and their family and friends to a cherry blossom viewing and picnic in nearby Washington. The first time they went, the group took a chartered bus and everyone received Japanese bento boxes for lunch.
"We had no idea if anyone was going to register for the event and were overwhelmed when almost 90 people tried to sign up," Wire says. "We had to close off registration once the bus was full, and pledged to charter two buses for the next year."
Speaking of headcount: To enhance turnout, be sure to send reminder emails beforehand to ensure everyone who RSVP'd shows up.
2. TARGET SPECIFIC GROUPS
Seattle-based planning firm Brighton Jones held a sit-down dinner specifically for Microsoft alumni, pouring local wines and featuring food prepared by a famous Seattle chef.
Los Angeles-based Aspiriant decided to host a reunion dinner for a group of clients who had all worked together at a single technology firm several years earlier - and who had, along the way, become the firm's best referral network.
"The event was a huge success," Aspiriant CEO Rob Francais says. "It was an opportunity for the founder to say thanks to the management team."
3. PROVIDE INTERACTION
A shared activity helps clients and guests get to know each other better. RegentAtlantic in Morristown, N.J., has taken groups of clients on community service outings. Other firms have invited clients to spend an evening at a cooking school, learning how to make pasta or ethnic dishes.
4. PARTNER UP
Brighton Jones partnered with the Microsoft Alumni Foundation to bring together former employees for its dinner event.
EP Wealth, meanwhile, works with the Distinguished Speakers Series in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The series finds big-name speakers and secures sponsorships from multiple organizations, which take turns hosting the intimate gatherings before the main talk. (After rubbing shoulders with EP Wealth's guests, Kennedy headed downstairs to the auditorium's main stage to speak before 2,000 people.)
5. BRING CELEBRITY GUESTS
Brighton Jones has also held a wine- tasting event with Drew Bledsoe, the former New England Patriots quarterback who now owns the Doubleback Winery in Walla Walla, Wash.
6. CONSIDER GIFT BAGS
Give guests something to take home. While clients at the Bledsoe event could buy Doubleback wines, other firms have given away bottles of wine or other trinkets to guests.
7. LOCATION, LOCATION
Hold the event somewhere upscale and comfortable. Brighton Jones held the Bledsoe event at the home of the planning firm's founder, Charles Brighton.
"We wanted to bring our clients and their guests together and provide them with a comfortable way to meet one another," says the firm's marketing manager, Christina Sylvester.
8. GET FEEDBACK
Events can be pricey, so you want to make sure your guests enjoy them. Survey clients before organizing an event to find out what would interest them. Afterward, send out surveys to attendees to gauge an event's success.
Sometimes you can make an event do double duty. In January, RegentAtlantic invited guests to a talk by Washington analyst Greg Valliere, chief political strategist of the Potomac Research Group.
The large gathering, attended by 300 clients, also gave the firm an opportunity to unveil its new logo and website redesign.
Mainly, the firm wants clients to know "we care about them and appreciate them," says one of RegentAtlantic's partners, Brian Kazanchy, "but also that we are a first-class organization."
Ann Marsh is a senior editor and the West Coast bureau chief of Financial Planning.
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