Vacationing with clients may not be for you if you want to leave work behind during your off hours. But if building business relationships is your ceaseless pursuit and if you have shared interests with clients, mixing business and pleasure can be a big plus.
Ron Carson, president of Carson Feltz Retirement Planning in Omaha, Neb., got his idea for a client cruise from--of all people--a travel agent. He knew it would appeal to his mostly retired client base. The travel agent helped promote the trip with brochures and mailings.
The result: 27 clients and guests cruised the Panama Canal in 1997. Carson's partner went for the first half of the cruise and Carson joined the group in Jamaica for the second half.
"It was a chance to spend quality time with clients," Carson says. "The more involved you are, the more you're at the top of their minds." An unexpected benefit was the word-of-mouth publicity that created greater awareness of the firm.
His mistake was thinking he could repeat this success and forgetting that some elements of travel are unpredictable.
In 1998, clients enthusiastically signed up for an Alaska cruise only to have it canceled by the cruise line. "People were very disappointed. It had a negative impact although it hadn't been our fault," Carson says. "We heard about it for some time to come."
Unwilling to give up on the idea of helping clients travel, Carson plans to have a travel agent in his office and set up a Web site for clients' comments about travel. The travel agency will have its own name and DBA but will be part of his financial firm. "I'm a big believer in trying something that hasn't been done before," he says.
Overseas Excursions While some brokers bring together large groups for trips, others enjoy more intimate journeys with clients they consider friends.
Fred Bellero, a vice president of investments at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray in San Francisco, says his dealings with a few clients evolved into friendships. "When you have an avocation, you tend to meet people with similar interests," the 37-year brokerage veteran says. "They end up being clients and sometimes you have long-term friendships as well."
That's just what happened between one couple and Bellero and his wife. In 1999, the four took a memorable trip to Ireland and Italy for almost three weeks. They stayed in quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in Ireland. And in Italy, they visited Rome, Cinque Terra and Florence. At Vingemaggio, a working vineyard in Tuscany, they even met up with another of Bellero's clients.
"The trip was fabulous," he says, enthusiastically.
Did they talk about business? Not deliberately, although the subject did come up. "It's not like when you're focusing on a plan for the client," he says.
Travel is an ongoing passion for Judy Rubino, a CFP with American Express Financial Advisors in Portland, Ore. Since her office is filled with photos from her trips, she makes no secret of it.
Rubino took an unforgettable overseas adventure with a client of French decent she considers a close friend. The two flew to Paris and took a train to Normandy. Then they traveled through the Pyrenees to Spain. The final leg of the journey was to the French Alps and Geneva. Along the way, they visited many of the client's friends and family.
"I didn't hear English for three weeks," Rubino says. Although she understands some French, her client became her interpreter.
France was also the destination for reps David Harris and Lewis Metzger of Salomon Smith Barney in Houston, their wives and two of their clients. Harris knows the country well since he studied in Strasbourgand speaks French. Two years ago, the six spent several days in Paris, then traveled through the south of France.
Vacationing abroad is not something Harris does with anyone. "I don't travel with clients unless there's already a relationship," he says. "The experience can take the relationship to a whole new level."
Harris doesn't encourage clients to discuss investments when they're supposed to be at leisure. "They talk about their lives, about retirement and other life changes," he says.
Domestic travel can be fun as well, Harris says. He and clients have traveled together to sporting events, including the Super Bowl.
Sporty Adventures Short outdoor excursions have appeal for reps and clients, too, especially if the fish are biting. Several reps say fishing trips with clients are great.
An avid fly fisherman, Bellero introduces others to his passion by taking small groups to the Lower Sacramento River, a three-hour road trip from San Francisco. They drive out the night before and start fishing early the next morning--two to a boat, with a guide demonstrating which flies to use.
Bellero has also taken groups to British Columbia to fish for steelhead trout and to the Florida Keys for tarpon and bonefish. It's always a good time, he says. "The worst that can happen is bad weather," he says. He's always careful to avoid Florida during hurricane season.
Another fly fisherman, John Schneider, a CFP and partner at Bill Few Associates in Pittsburgh, first took three clients fishing in 1993. Now he's organizing overnight trips for 30 clients to the Yellow Creek Trout Club, about two hours away in Indiana, Pa. Any client may attend, and their advisers, such as attorneys, are welcome, too.
The atmosphere is relaxed. An instructor teaches those who want to learn about fly-fishing. But some prefer to take walks or just enjoy the meals. One client likes to grouse hunt when it's in season. Guests bring their own cars, so they can come and go as they please. Since the firm has a club membership, there is no cost to clients.
Fishing is a favorite activity for David Garfinkel of First Montauk Securities Corp. in New York. He arranged an intense two-day fishing trip off Miami for an another rep and two clients. "In two nights, we fished 21 hours and slept 10," he says.
The result: One client caught an 8-foot shark and the other client caught an equally big sailfish. "Mine got away," Garfinkel says. That suits him fine. His tip: Let clients catch the first fish.
Garfinkel has taken clients to Puerto Rico for wahoo, San Diego for tuna and the Bahamas for marlin. He doesn't take prospects on these small, men-only fishing trips, just clients who know each other or he encourages the client to invite a friend.
"The client feels good because this gives him a chance to look good," Garfinkel says. And it goes without saying that the rep who puts a client in this position looks good, too.
Indeed, brokers who mix business and pleasure are often rewarded with more business. But those who have done it advise you to choose the right clients and the right place. Faking the fun can harm your relationships instead of improve them.
Here are sage words for the road from reps who have been out and about with their clients.
"Don't assume your clients will think something is beneath them. Millionaires like to have fun, too."--David Garfinkel, First Montauk Securities Corp.
"Be yourself. Plan what you're interested in doing. Make sure that the clients are compatible with each other. Then, look at them as friends first and clients second."--David Harris, Salomon Smith Barney
"Think outside of the box. Don't be afraid to try anything once."--Ron Carson, Carson Feltz Retirement Planning
"Don't [travel with clients] just for business. If you do something just for business, it can be boring. Yet this is one of the best things I do for business."--John Schneider, Bill Few Associates
"A professional relationship doesn't mean you have to stay at arm's length. If you are responsible for someone's financial well-being that person wants to know who you are. That's how you build the trust and the confidence."--Judy Rubino, American Express Financial Advisors