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Should You Go to Free-Meal Seminars?

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Introduction

A delicious sandwich wrap, a bag of potato chips, a gourmet chocolate cookie, a bottle of water, and some mint candies. That’s what my wife and I each had for lunch at the Hilton hotel a few days ago. Our cost? Nothing but our willingness to sit through a 90-minute seminar on how to flip houses for big profits.

At some point you’ve probably received an invitation to a free financial seminar where they give you a free lunch or free dinner. Some are about real estate, some propose systems for investing in stocks and options, and some cover other financial subjects and schemes.

Maybe you haven’t yet registered for or attended one of these events. But should you?

Well, first let’s look at question that may be on your mind…

Are They All Scams?

In a 2013 Forbes article Armando Montelongo, previously the star of A&E’s “Flip This House” said he would make $100 million ($50 million net profit) that year from the 350,000 people attending his real estate seminars. His company (he was the only owner) followed the same general scheme as other financial seminar businesses. It started with a free 90-minute seminar or, more accurately, “seminar preview.”

That free event was designed to get people to sign up for the real seminar, which cost about $1,500 per couple. But apparently for just $1,500 Montelongo (or his associates — the sponsors of this type of financial seminar rarely make an appearance) couldn’t teach people how to successfully flip houses, because at that seminar attendees were encouraged to sign up for training that costs $40,000 per couple.

Not surprisingly, there were complaints from dissatisfied attendees. The attorney general’s office in Texas investigated and Montelongo settled without any admission of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, his company was rated “F” by the Better Business Bureau.

This is a common story. For example…

  • CNN says Trump University, which brought people in using the free 90-minute seminar model, has agreed to a $25 million settlement for their misleading practices. So far more than 37,000 people have filed claims. Trump’s educational programs cost up to $35,000.
  • The seminar company Yancey Events, run by Scott Yancey, star of “Flipping Vegas” gets an “F” rating from the Utah BBB. Customers have asked for refunds of up to $30,000, alleging “deceptive and misleading marketing and sales practices.”
  • CBS reported that Rich Dad, Poor Dad seminars brought in $438 million in sales before Rich Global LLC, the seminar company owned by author Robert Kiyosaki, went bankrupt. Again we see the same pattern; a free seminar was used to get people into a $495 seminar, which was used to sell training that cost up to $45,000.
  • The Street reported that when FINRA (the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) looked at more than a hundred free-meal seminars, “it found half of the invitations and advertisements contained exaggerated or misleading claims, and 12% appeared to involve fraud.” That’s just the ads and invitations!

Are they all scams? Well, Merriam-Webster defines “scam” as “a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation.” By that definition, in this writer’s opinion (I’ve been to at least a dozen of these seminars), all of them are “scammy,” but only most of them are true scams.

To Go or Not to Go

So should you go to free-meal seminars? Heck yes! You get a free meal, sometimes a great show, some true insight into how people are manipulated into making expensive decisions, and you might even learn one or two useful things about investing (although useful information seems to be getting scarcer at these events).

But let’s slow down and backtrack a little here. If you’re susceptible to a good sales pitch, you may want to skip these events. It’s amazing how well these guys can motivate you to pull out your wallet and plop down a credit card.

Really, you will feel like pulling out that credit card at some point. Consider Earl Bronsteen’s story. He went to free lunch seminars for a year, with a goal to do 50 or more — just to get free food. He wrote a book about his experience; “The Adventures Of A Free Lunch Junkie.”

Bronsteen says there’s, “nothing cheaper than a free lunch.” Now there’s a true frugalist. But even he succumbed to one of the sales pitches: At an insurance seminar he was convinced to buy a long-term care policy for his wife (and who knows — it might have been a good buy).

Maybe you can withstand the sales pitch. But just to be safe, leave all of your credit cards and money home. Really, I’m not kidding; leave it all home. Then go and have a good time…

Here’s What to Expect at a Free-Meal Seminar

Here’s what you can expect based on my experience and investigations…

Some free-seminar companies, like Visionary Events, have a website where you can search for the next event in your area, but most of the time you have to watch for advertising or a mailing. We got our most recent invitation by mail.

You’ll be asked to call to register promptly, because “seating is limited.” Yeah, sure. If you forget to register, you can still show up at the event, with or without your invitation, and as long as you look like you might own a credit card, they’ll welcome you.

Besides a free meal the invitation will typically promise other freebies. Our recent invitation said “All attendees receive FREE Resource Discs and an MP3 player.” We did not get these, and we were not surprised. Sometimes you’ll get your freebies by mail later, like the worthless tablet computer we once received two months after an event.

Other free stuff is typically — and deceptively — promised for those who respond quickly. For example, our invitation said, “Free Laptop Computer First 50 People.” You might reasonably think that means the first 50 to register or to show up at the event. But there were no laptops given away at the event.

My magnifying glass later revealed this at the bottom of the invitation: “As part of the quarterly giveaway 50 laptop computers are given quarterly to randomly selected registrants of the event.” So every three months they give away 50 laptops to some of the thousands of people who attend their events, and it has nothing to do with who was first at anything — nor do we have any way to verify that any laptops are actually given away.

I did once get a free hardcover copy of “The Millionaire Next Door” at one of these events. And I’ve received other gifts that I’ve actually appreciated — more reason to attend these things.

The seminar description on the invitation may be unrelated to the material presented at the event. Ours said, in large type, “Real Estate Income Event” and “Making Money With Income Properties” on it. But the entire presentation was about wholesale flipping of houses, with a couple casual comments about how you could put your profits into rental homes.

Really… Continuing…

When you arrive you’ll get a name tag, because all good salespeople know the power of using your name.

Every event my wife and I have been to starts with questions designed to get the audience involved. Our presenter asked, “By a show of hands, who is here to learn about making money with real estate?” Inevitably, a joke follows; in this case, “I see half of you didn’t raise your hand — so I’m thinking you might be in the wrong place.”

These opening questions and jokes are meant to loosen you up, but more importantly to train you to raise your hand or to get you used to saying “yes.” You’ll be expected to do both often. A well-trained audience is good for sales.

Thirty minutes into the presentation you’ll realise that very little of what you’re hearing is actually educational or useful. Instead you’ll hear a series of hypothetical examples and stories of how people’s lives have been changed by whatever program is being offered. Oh, and questions designed to elicit and encourage your desires — all of which can be satisfied if you pull out that credit card.

It’s really quite a show, part stand-up routine, part motivational speech, and part demonstration of how to manipulate human behavior. Of course you’re not supposed to appreciate the latter part, but it is fascinating. Some events are better than others, but in any case it’s worth seeing these guys in action if you haven’t seen it yet. And most of the time you really can learn something useful about the subject if you pay attention.

More than that, just by virtue of getting people motivated I suspect there are a few success stories. Hey, even without being tempted into paying for the real seminars, I have to give a little credit to these free seminars for some of my motivation for real estate and other investments on which we’ve turned a profit.

The meal is usually eaten in your lap, sometimes while a second paid seminar is pitched. Our most recent free lunch was delicious, in part because the Hilton hotel that prepared it has high standards. The quality may vary at other venues.

Much of the “seminar” will be a pep-talk, with an explanation of how you need to overcome your negative attitudes to succeed in real estate, stock options, or whatever. Paying a few thousand dollars for the real seminar is a sure sign of your personal growth, by the way.

The speaker will tell you the price of the real seminar, and later, at just the right moment, will announce that there are a limited number of slots available, right now, at the back of the room. You’ll be amazed by the rush to the signup tables, and you’ll probably be in that crowd if you brought your credit cards.

The seminar we were pitched was just $1,147 per couple. That’s cheaper than many, so I suspect it’s just the price we would pay for two days of lessons on how important it is that we get the more expensive “premium training.”

If you’re not back there signing a contract and paying the fee, you’ll hear the speaker explaining to those who say they can’t afford it that they’re the ones who need this seminar the most. This line has been used at almost every seminar we’ve been to.

It’s absolutely crucial that these people go further into debt to salvage their financial future. So the speaker will then personally take these poor souls back to the signup tables to figure out how they can max out their credit cards and/or make payments.

Oh, and at every single seminar we’ve ever been to the deal can only be had right then and right there. You can’t “think about it” overnight. After all, that would just be your negativity getting in the way of the future you deserve.

For extra entertainment tell one of the closers you really want to sign up, but you need to check with your wife the next day. Then sit back and watch the fun. You’ll hear why you have to take advantage of this now now now! You might even be told you can cancel the contract if your wife says no.

You won’t be told that the free seminar will be in the next city over next week, promoting the paid real seminar at the same price that’s only available right here right now.

Keep hesitating for maximum effect. Then ask, “Do you really think it’s unreasonable to wait one day before making such a large financial decision?”

It isn’t. And if you left your credit cards home, you have no choice but to just enjoy the show and free meal.

If you’ve been to a free lunch or free dinner seminar, tell us about your experience below, and keep on frugaling!

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