IN TOM HALL'S MIND, the conversation on the fairway might go something like this:

“I'm going down to Ocean Reef this
weekend with my bank.”
“Oh, who's your bank?”
“First National.”
“That's great. How do you get to do that?
“You've got to be part of its private
banking program. …”

Actually, you need to have at least $300,000 invested with the bank and all but pay for the trip yourself, but those are details.

Hall, senior vice president, regional manager at First National Bank and Trust Co. in Stuart, Fla., is the architect behind Passport, an event marketing program that is helping the regional bank to grow its private banking services in Florida's Indian River, Martin, and Palm Beach counties, three of the wealthiest markets in the state.

Strictly speaking, the program has been around for about 18 years. “Traditionally, it catered to retired women,” says Hall. “They would do teas, a fashion show, museum trips, investment programs for women.” But when Hall was brought in to re-engineer private banking six years ago, he had a broader audience in mind. He wanted a program to reward and build relationships with both the 50-plus, retired, affluent demographic as well as those Hall calls the “emerging affluent,” 30- to 50-year-old doctors, lawyers, business owners, and professionals.

What would appeal to both? High-end travel.

Value-Added Luxury

First National's revamped Passport program kicked off in 1997, offering investors two trips: a Mississippi cruise and a weekend at the Ritz-Carlton, Naples (Fla.). Clients paid their own way, but the bank added value by negotiating a group hotel rate, sponsoring a cocktail party and dinner, and leaving an in-room amenity, among other extras.

That first year, about 35 people came to the summer program (to which families are invited) at the Ritz; the next year, twice that many signed on. This year, 200 participants came to the summer event, which was held at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo in June.

Over six years, the program has grown not only in the size of the groups, but also in the scope of the trips. The company now organizes five annual travel events. About 1,000 investors (all with the minimum $300,000 banking relationship) are invited to join the company on three trips each year. Programs in March and October are adults-only, and a June weekend is focused on family travel. In 2003, First National's groups took a Panama Canal Cruise in March, checked in at Ocean Reef in June, and had a getaway at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga., in October.

This year, Hall expanded the program for a select group of clients — those with $1 million-plus assets invested with the bank. He added two trips — still on a pay-your-own-way basis — to two exclusive resorts: Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, near Vail, Colo., and Rosewood Hotels' Caneel Bay on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Eight to 10 couples traveled with the company. “It's a much more intimate, targeted, focused approach,” Hall says.

Cocktail Marketing

Passport, says Hall, “is a way that we attempt to add value to our very best clients' relationships. And for many people who are very wealthy, they don't like to deal with all the details. They like the fact that they can just show up and enjoy the program without having to give it too much thought.”

Using high-end resorts, he adds, “compliments our culture in terms of quality. When I was assigned to re-engineer private banking, we started by using Ritz-Carlton's orientation program as a way to introduce quality standards to the company. We used their location in Palm Beach County and sent many of our key employees and department managers through a customized version of their quality-standards program, and we adopted our own. First National has a huge commitment to working smart and quality service. You won't see us doing events at lower-end properties. That's not what we're about.”

Besides creating client loyalty, Passport has generated new business, says Hall. “We have countless examples of new relationships we have gained from referrals from the people participating in the program,” he says. But the new business isn't any accident. “We ‘plant,’ for lack of a better word, key executives from the company on the trips. When we did Caneel Bay, for example, our chairman and his wife traveled with me. There aren't many companies — at least banks — where clients have the ability to travel and network with the chairman of the board. For Ocean Reef, we brought 12 corporate people, including our president, our chief banking officer, and the head of our commercial division.” But it's low-key relationship marketing, Hall says. There are no meetings, seminars, or long speeches during the events.

“Typically we have a pre-event planning meeting where we review the clients and prospects who are coming, and outline a plan to put those people in touch with the right line of business person. We might pair them up for golf, or make sure that during the cocktail party we make certain introductions.”

Ego Stroking

When First National's private banking area began to see production numbers increase as a result of the events, it started getting attention from the rest of the company. Now, says Hall, “It's a tool everybody at the bank can use. It doesn't matter where they work. It's under the umbrella of private banking, but it's really a program that we use for retention and expansion of existing relationships and attraction of new relationships. If you're a commercial lender in Vero Beach and you're courting a new medical practice for its business, this is a way you can say, ‘Oh by the way, as a result of your relationship with us, you'll also be invited to these functions.’”

“It's definitely snowballed in terms of popularity,” says Hall, who manages the programs without the aide of a meeting planner. “I take ownership of programs and destinations. Our director of marketing and I work together to consider details. She and her staff help with all the administrative pieces in terms of mailings, reminders, tracking reservations, name badges, ordering amenities, and so on. … I like hanging on to the details of it and ensuring that we're going to have a quality experience for these folks.” Nevertheless, the events are a small fraction of Hall's responsibilities. “I'm a banker. I have a region of retail offices that report to me. This just happens to be a piece of my job.”

What if First National didn't do this? Would it lose these clients? “Probably not,” says Hall. “On the other hand, when you look at the expenses associated with this program and then look at other marketing expenses the bank has, it's really a drop in the bucket. And to me, when you're touching the client directly, that's more valuable than other kinds of advertising.” With event-based selling, Hall says, people feel that they are special. “They brag about the fact that they're going to Ocean Reef with their bank, or that they played golf with the chairman of the board. It strokes their egos; there's no denying it.”

Bank Assets: Male Models!

While first-class travel is now the heart of First National's Passport program, the company's traditional client marketing events — luncheons and a holiday fashion show — have not gone out of style. The bank did, however, “take it up 10 notches,” says Tom Hall, senior vice president, regional manager. For the annual fashion show, Hall put a charity spin on the event, started working with just a couple of high-end designers each year, and moved it to The Breakers in Palm Beach, where First National takes over the main ballroom.

After adding men's and children's fashions, the bank now draws a wider crowd, but the real kicker, the change that has generated the most buzz, is the show's male models. “The models for the guys' fashions are officers from the bank,” says Hall, who makes the stroll down the runway himself. “It's the hit of the show every year now. We have fun.”