Fifteen years ago, a group of celebrity speakers spent a day in Kansas City, sharing their secrets to success and happiness. The lineup included Joe Montana, Christopher Reeve, Margaret Thatcher and the televangelist Robert Schuller.
The cheapest seats at Kemper Arena went for $49 apiece, a price that seemed like a steal for a 10-star lineup that also included Larry King (in between marriages Nos. 7 and 8) and former Cabinet secretary William Bennett (before the discovery that he liked to play $500-a-pull slot machines). A story in The Kansas City Star, in advance of that heavily publicized event, indicated puzzlement at the apparent sweetness of the offer: "Reasonable readers are wondering how it can be done."
On Tuesday, May 31, Montana and Schuller return to Kansas City, along with Laura Bush, Bill Cosby, Rudolph Giuliani, Colin Powell and others. The attractions are as big as ever — Giuliani reputedly commands $100,000 for a speech. But the ticket price is lower than it was in 1996. Much lower. Admission to the Sprint Center costs only $1.95, through a "special" offer from the promoters of Tuesday's cavalcade of retired generals, television personalities and corporate executives.
There has to be a catch, right?
Yes. A Canadian-born, Florida-based evangelizing entrepreneur wants to put a recurring charge on your Visa card.
The upcoming "Get Motivated! Business Seminar" is the latest iteration of a live-action infomercial developed by Peter Lowe. A missionary's son who went into sales, Lowe began putting together seminars when he was in his early 20s. He tied success and spirituality into a knot, with lessons on sales techniques that end with an "optional" talk about his personal relationship with Jesus. "For me, one of the fundamental aspects of success is eternal life," Lowe told Christianity Today in 1994. "Ultimately, if you don't have Christ, you don't have anything."
After a series of what Lowe has termed "spectacular failures," he hit upon the winning seminar strategy: Use big-name speakers to fill the tent, then upsell the captive audience on books, tapes and $249 lunch packages. Incorporated in 1990, Peter Lowe International took in nearly $15 million in its third full year of operation.
Lowe set up Peter Lowe International as a nonprofit corporation. "I don't want people to think we're getting rich from this," Lowe told The New York Times in 1996. But public welfare did not appear to be his only concern. In 1997, Peter Lowe International and a related for-profit company were sued in Utah for sending so-called junk faxes to Chamber of Commerce members in Ogden. (The case was settled out of court "without an admission of guilt because Peter Lowe International did nothing wrong," according to Rick Nash, a vice president of development at Get Motivated Seminars Inc., the sponsor of Tuesday's event.)
In 2000, Lowe agreed to join the Success Companies, which had been organized to purchase the assets of Success magazine in a bankruptcy sale. The idea was to cross-promote a rebooted Success franchise with Lowe's live events.
The venture ended in disaster. Former President Bill Clinton, Montel Williams and other stars were no-shows at one of Lowe's "Success 2001" events in Chicago. Vendors complained about unpaid bills. The Better Business Bureau of West Florida received dozens of complaints about Lowe's businesses "from customers seeking refunds for arena events and motivational tapes they say weren't worth the cost," according to USA Today.
Lowe tried to put the blame on his partners, telling the newspaper, "That's something the Success Companies is going to have to answer to."
Like a hermit crab discarding an uncomfortable shell, Lowe simply started a new company, Get Motivated, and resumed staging arena-sized seminars. He entered into another partnership, allowing Investools, an online investor-advisory service, to pitch its wares to his success-hungry audiences.
If history is a guide, at some point on Tuesday — in between the brand-name speakers — a man will take the Sprint Center stage and describe the riches to be made in self-directed investing. An offer to enroll in a special, two-day workshop will be extended. A $1,929 value will be marked down to the low, low price of $99. Act now!
Investools, the service being peddled, is real enough — TD Ameritrade acquired its parent company in 2009. But the service has not always operated aboveboard.
A few months after the TD Ameritrade purchase, Investools agreed to pay a $3 million penalty to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC alleged that two former salesmen, in appearances at stock-trading workshops from 2004 to 2007, "misleadingly portrayed themselves as expert investors who made their living trading securities." In fact, one of the "expert" salesmen had "tens of thousands of dollars in net trading losses," while the other had "hundreds of thousands of dollars in net trading losses," according to the SEC.
SEC enforcement actions are unlikely to come up at Tuesday's seminar. Instead, the audience may hear the vague success story of Bob Kittell, who touted Investools' wealth-building properties at a recent Get Motivated seminar in St. Louis. Bounding onto the stage after the midmorning pee break, Kittell sweetened the $99 workshop offer by dangling a free lunch and a Q&A with none other than Bob Kittell.
Audience members, swayed by Kittell's pitch (and the turkey sandwich), leave their credit cards susceptible to a $39 monthly charge for an Investools subscription, according to Sarah Fenske, a Riverfront Times editor who endured the Get Motivated event and took the time to read the fine print. Also, cancellations of the $99 workshop must be made in writing — within three days of the event.
A typical Get Motivated seminar also features advice on real-estate investing with, of course, a special, one-time opportunity to sign up for a course. At the St. Louis event, a real-estate pro from Utah named James Smith knocked down the cost of his seminars from $1,495 to the can-you-believe-it price of $49.
One of Smith's strategies apparently involves the developmentally disabled. Noting in St. Louis that there are a lot of "retarded children" in the United States, Smith talked about the monthly room rates that the government pays operators of group homes, according to Fenske's eye-rolling dispatch.
Will the ginger-haired Peter Lowe finish off the session with his road- and time-tested message? Unlikely. He keeps a lower profile these days. His wife, Tamara, also a speaker and consultant, is the new public face of Get Motivated Seminars Inc., which she co-founded. There are videos on YouTube of her rapping about God's grace.
Regardless of whether one of the Lowes attends Tuesday's seminar, Montana, Giuliani, Powell and a popular former first lady, among others, will actually take the stage. Cosby will tell actual jokes. For motivation seekers, the trick is enjoying the dignitaries with the knowledge that their private jets are fueled by the offers made by the day's "skills speakers," not by the admission price.
Fans of irony will receive a bonus when Steve Forbes, the fiscally conservative former presidential candidate, makes his Sprint Center entrance. His family's eponymous magazine once featured Peter Lowe in an article about professional motivators. The story's title: "The happiness hucksters."