By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
When the Get Motivated Seminar takes over the Target Center on May 26, it will bring with it a star-studded lineup of politicians and sports giants. For weeks, full-page advertisements in the Star Tribune have heralded the arrival of the national tour and its celebrity speakers: Sarah Palin, Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Steve Forbes, Brett Favre, and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.
But the famous names are really there to lure the desperate and the unsuspecting into a hothouse of sales pitches for overpriced and questionable products, critics say. Get Motivated survives by fleecing fools, and the money Favre, Gardenhire, and the Strib are taking from the seminar comes out of the pockets of suckers.
For the better part of a decade, Get Motivated seminars have offered their unique mixture of self-help pablum and celebrity razzle-dazzle. The organization's public face and executive vice president, Tamara Lowe, is most famous for her best-selling Get Motivated! book and YouTube clips of the Christian rap she delivers at the seminars. Her husband, Peter, ran a similar seminar series for years, but let his wife take the foreground after his venture collapsed amid complaints of fraud, leaving investors out millions of dollars.
The Lowes' new venture bills itself as an inexpensive day of inspiration and self-improvement, but it doesn't take a Timothy Geithner to see that the numbers don't add up.
As with any event, the promoters have to rent the stadium and foot the costs of production. The celebrities on the marquee command huge speaking fees—a financial disclosure by Giuliani reveals he earns $100,000 per event. Add in the other speakers, some who are also likely earning six figures per appearance, and the tab adds up fast.
Favre, whose speaking fees start at $50,000, couldn't be reached for comment on his involvement with Get Motivated. Neither could Gardenhire, but Twins spokesman Dustin Morse says the coach's participation is no big deal.
"Gardy doesn't have anything to say about this," Morse says. "They approached him to do a Q&A. He does speaking engagements all the time. This one's no different. I don't think he knows that much about them, honestly."
Beginning in April, Get Motivated has been running full-page ads several times a week in the front section of the Star Tribune. The paper's advertising department won't discuss the terms of the ad buy, but say a single full-page ad typically sells for more than $21,000.
At its maximum capacity, the Target Center can seat 20,500 people. At $5 a head, ticket revenue barely covers the speaking fee for just one of the top-dollar celebrity speakers. So how does the company make up the difference?
Though you wouldn't know it from the newspaper advertisements or the website, the celebrity speakers aren't the only ones who will take the stage. After the star power has whipped the crowd into a motivational frenzy, slick hucksters follow up with seemingly spectacular, one-of-a-kind offers.
Steven Garner, a 36-year-old real estate professional from Arizona, attended a Get Motivated seminar in Phoenix, and was appalled when a salesman started pitching an incredible new strategy to pay off your mortgage in half the time.
"To a lot of people there, it might have sounded too good to be true," Garner says. "I'm in real estate: I knew it was too good to be true."
Another Get Motivated speaker is Phil Town, "America's #1 investing trainer," who pitches a stock-trading computer program called Investools. At the seminars, Town invites audience members up on stage to show them just how easy it is to make money with Investools. If the arrow on screen shows red, they're supposed to sell. If green, they buy. It's just that easy, Town says, before mentioning that while the software usually sells for thousands of dollars, today you can buy it for as little as $99.
When Ted Canto, a 40-year-old Phoenix salesman, fell for the pitch, the price was steeper. "It was $500 or $600 dollars, which was a lot of money for me at the time, because I wasn't really bringing anything in," Canto says. "But they were preying on my desire to make a change in my life, and I fell for it. I was hoping that it would get me out of the hole."
The next day at work, Canto mentioned his new purchase to some professional traders who worked in his office building. They laughed at him.
"They said the software I'd bought wasn't that good," he says.
When buyers realize that successful stock trading actually requires some expertise, Town is ready to sell that to them, too. Investools offers two-day workshops on how to make the most of the software for $2,000.
Last December, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against Investools, alleging that members of its seminar sales force had lied to their audiences for years. The SEC's suit was settled when Investools paid a fine and promised to adhere to the rules.
The Target Center and the Star Tribune say it's not their business what happens at Get Motivated seminars. Both organizations say they have guidelines on accepting clients, and Get Motivated evidently qualifies.
For her part, Get Motivated's Tamara Lowe denies the seminar series is a racket.
"We're about inspiring our audience," she says. "This isn't some giant infomercial."
Lowe says it's true that her company loses money on the seminars and makes it back by "introducing people to other parts of our business." But she denies that Phil Town and the other unlisted "skills speakers" are selling products.
"What the skills speakers do is make our audience aware of opportunities for their continuing education and improvement," she says. "And everything offered at the Get Motivated seminars is backed by a 100 percent money-back guarantee."