Sparing no expense to woo clients

As my guest and I fight our way through a throng of people heading in the general direction of the Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP private beer tent, Roger Hodgson, former guitarist and singer for the band Supertramp, belts out a medley of tunes on stage at Fort Calgary.

It’s the site of the first settlement in Calgary on the banks where the Bow and Elbow rivers meet, and on this warm summer evening the venue has been transformed into an outdoor concert hall for 10,000 people. In an hour or so, the Canadian country rock band Blue Rodeo, a cult favourite at Stampede time, will follow Hodgson.

Yes, Stampede time. The annual July ritual where the beer flows like water and law firms spare no expense in entertaining clients and staff. On this night, Blakes is one of the four signature sponsors of the event, and the only law firm, joining companies such as Sleeman Breweries Ltd. to host the event. For a six-figure sum, Blake’s has a large beer tent located just off to the side of the stage and tickets for 3,000 or so of their closest clients and friends, not to mention staff, who are easily identifiable in their bright red, snazzy Blake’s western-styled shirts.

A week before, Canadian Lawyer columnist Ezra Levant and I hit the Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP bash held at the exotic African pavilion at the Calgary Zoo, where about 1,000 folks braved a major, but short-lived, hail storm to scarf down canapés, sides of beef and ribs, and quaff beer with members of that firm.

As I write, I’ll soon be at the Burnet Duckworth Palmer bash, one of Stampede’s coveted tickets. It’s an annual event that features a few thousand people dining, drinking, and dancing. It keeps getting bigger each year and this year it’s being held at the Hyatt, one of the city’s top hotels and one of the few that can accommodate such a large contingent.

Local, federal and provincial politicians can be spotted at these events hobnobbing with the likes of CEOs, oil barons, and local celebrities.

By the end of the week my liver hurts and I’ve eaten a year’s worth of pancakes at Stampede breakfasts around the city, which pick up where the evening parties leave off. It’s a good thing I grew up in this city and knew what I was in for.

Alas, one’s social calendar can only take so much and there’s a ton of parties I miss, but the theme is the same — ply them with booze, feed and entertain ’em.

But it’s not just in Calgary where law firms have been spending bags of money on entertaining clients of late.

Toronto was the scene of some major events in the spring that opened the doors for client development. There was the annual general meeting of the 4,000-member International Law Association, which provided ample opportunity for Toronto firms to network and cozy up to the who’s who of the international legal community.

A few weeks prior, the International Trademark Association returned to Toronto for its annual meeting, bringing 7,000 of the world’s leading intellectual property lawyers and keeping local IP boutiques in town hopping throwing shindigs of their own.

While all the free booze, food, and entertainment works wonders for attracting freeloading journalists, what does the kibitzing mean from a business perspective? Aside from taking a bite out of the bottom line, does it actually add to revenues?

Not really. It’s a form of soft-dollar marketing, and more of a client appreciation statement that the people throwing the parties say is a must. Little business gets done, but lots of business development takes place and a law firm’s tentacles develop a stronger attachment to the client. That’s important in an era when loyalty can turn on the flip of a coin.

Bernadette Alexander, director of client relations and marketing for the Calgary office of Blake Cassels, says, “Throughout the 10 days of Stampede, there is an enormous amount of business development. Our big party is really a big thank you and a way to keep in touch with many clients. We also do many smaller and more intimate events. Any time you can sit down with your best clients and talk, you are likely to exchange useful information. It is also a great way to introduce clients to each other, which they always appreciate.”

Dan Bereskin, partner at the IP firm Bereskin Parr, which rented Toronto’s historic Casa Loma to draw 1,000 guests from the International Trademark Association meeting, acknowledges that little to no business gets done at such events.

But, Bereskin notes, IP firms survive on referrals. “Large-scale receptions increase our firm’s visibility and may make a difference when a referral is made, but it is seldom the case that worthwhile new clients result merely from such an event.

“Such events, though, have other purposes, such as a ‘thank you’ to existing clients. The large number of guests reinforces the conviction that we hope our clients have — that they are dealing with a successful firm that is well regarded by others.”

The challenge is putting on an event that can attract hundreds of people, especially in an environment like Calgary, where on any given night you might have two or more options on what to attend.

Bereskin says, “We are careful to select venues that are attractive to both clients and their accompanying persons, to make the event fun, and to give them the opportunity to network.”

Blake’s Alexander adds, “We know that our clients are invited to many events, and so any event we hold needs to be done well. That means we spend a great deal of time thinking about what our target is for each of our events during Stampede, and making sure that what we have planned will be most appreciated by that audience.”

Wining and dining more than 1,000 guests doesn’t come cheap and Alexander notes that the amount law firms spend on Stampede varies widely.

“Really, it is a case of compressing into 10 days what would, in any other city, be a part of the business development budget spent over a much longer period of time.”

Success itself can also be a form of damnation as each year the pressure builds to outperform the previous year.

“Our big party always features music,” says Alexander. “We start thinking about who to have for the next year almost as soon as our party is done. The challenge for us is finding music which will appeal to the audience we are hoping to entertain. Believe me, that can be a challenge.

Firms that are looking to throw a bash that generates buzz might want to hire a local event planner to help pull it off. That’s especially so if you are dealing with a market like Calgary, where law firms vie for attention like a high school senior at a prom.

Like the practice of law, when it comes to party planning, Alexander says, “Newcomers to the schedule need to be good to compete.”

Jim Middlemiss is the editor of Canadian Lawyer magazine. His  e-mail is [email protected]

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