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How to Start a Seminar Production Business It's time to take your show on the road. Create and market your own seminars for public or corporate clients.

The seminar business is big these days, in demand by individual consumers, organizations, associations, small businesses and giant corporations alike. And although it's a fairly young industry, having only come into its own within the last two decades, it's primed for continued growth and success.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people pay to attend meetings, seminars, workshops and training programs where professional presenters encourage, enlighten and enliven them. Some of these folks are sent by their companies to learn new skills--everything from time management to basic math smarts to super sales techniques. Others attend on their own, seeking personal growth--how to communicate better with spouses, significant others and kids; manage stress; assert themselves; or invest for the future. Still others sign up for seminars and workshops as part of a professional or social association to learn everything from quilting to romance writing to tax preparation.

Operating Modes

As a seminar professional, you can choose from among three different operating modes. You can:

1. act as a speaker, trainer or presenter, working directly with your audiences and booking your programs on your own or through a speakers bureau (which is sort of like a talent agency)

2. act as a promoter, seminar company or training firm, setting up programs and engaging other people to do the speaking, training or presenting

3. do both, setting up programs at which you present and at which you also bring others on board to share the speaking or training chores

Most seminar professionals choose the first option, but you can go with any one that feels comfortable to you.

Do You Have What It Takes?

Not everybody is cut out to be a seminar production professional. This is not, for example, a career for the creativity-challenged. It takes lots of foresight to figure out what will be a winning program, to design and construct it so it sells, and to promote it effectively. If you're one of those folks who'd rather undergo a root canal than have to come up with peppy advertising copy, then you don't want to be in the seminar business.

This is also not a career for the time-management-deficient. Seminars must be planned and organized months in advance, with everything from the topic and speaker to the dining reservations nailed down early on.

And if you plan on presenting your own programs, this isn't--obviously--a career for the terminally shy or the terminally boring. You must be able to keep an audience interested and entertained for the length of your seminar and beyond. This doesn't mean you need to be trained by both the Royal Shakespeare Academy and the Ringling Brothers Circus school, just that you need to have a natural enthusiasm for your subjects and be able to communicate it.

Target Market

Who attends seminars? All sorts of people who hope to gain all sorts of insights.

Businesses are big customers on the seminar scene. Large corporations, having gone through the economic and emotional trauma of downsizing, often decide that hiring out training and motivational seminars is more cost-effective than developing them in-house. Sometimes they send their employees off-site to attend these events; sometimes they invite the seminar presenter into their own facilities. Smaller companies are good seminar customers for similar reasons. They don't have the in-house means to develop training and motivational programs, so they rely on outside sources.

The most popular training topics include customer service and creative problem-solving, but they can also encompass internal communications and even math or reading 101. Leadership, self-motivation and sales motivation are also perennially popular topics.

Professional and civic associations are always on the lookout for keynote speakers to set off their annual conventions as well as to conduct workshops and conferences. Business networking groups are prime candidates for programs on motivation, time management, organization, positive thinking and goal-achievement. Medical societies want to hear about insurance issues, new surgical techniques and office management.

Don't underestimate the benefits of targeting small, local groups that have nothing to do with business. Churches and temples, senior centers, and men's and women's clubs can make terrific audiences along with singles clubs, single parents' groups, local sports clubs, civic organizations, networking groups, writers' groups, book clubs and garden clubs. Their budgets are likely to be smaller than those of corporate America or national associations, but you can gain invaluable experience, both in working with an audience and in market research. You can also gain prime exposure from these gigs. You never know what contacts you'll make that will lead to more lucrative engagements down the line.

Another valuable--and voluminous--market is the mass market--the public at large--which has a voracious appetite for self-help programs of every description. Take a look at the magazines on display at your local supermarket and at the bestselling books on view in your local bookstore. You'll get a quick idea of what people want: how to make money or save money, afford a home, find true love or save a marriage, raise successful kids, be successful, deal with stress, get healthy, lose weight, gain self-confidence, and again--the real key to all the rest--how to get and remain motivated.

Choosing Your Seminar Topic

The best way to start is by thinking about what you know, what you enjoy and what your potential customers need or want. Then test your ideas against the following:

  • Your topics must be things you or your presenters are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about.
  • You must have a large customer base from which to draw.
  • You must have a well-defined topic.
  • Your topics must address your audiences' wants and needs.

The most popular presentation topic for National Speakers Association (NSA) members is motivation (43 percent), followed by communication (35 percent) and business (30 percent). Rounding out the top 10 topic areas are leadership, change, customer service, management, inspiration, team-building and presentation skills.

Startup Costs

One of the Catch-22s of being in business for yourself is that you need money to make money--in other words, you need startup funds. For the seminar business, these costs range from $5,000 to $25,000.

One of the many nifty things about the seminar business is that its startup costs are comparatively low. You've got the advantage of homebased-ability, which cuts office lease expenses down to nothing. Except for any back-of-the-room (or BOR) products you may choose to develop, you've got no inventory. And even if you've got inventory, you won't need fancy display cabinets or kicky d�cor. Your major financial outlay will go toward office equipment, marketing and promotion, and--if you're doing public seminars--your site facilities. And if you're like many, you've already got the most expensive piece of office equipment: a computer system.

But let's take it from the top. The following is a breakdown of everything--from heavy investment pieces to flyweight items--you'll need to get up and running:

  • computer system with modem and printer
  • fax machine
  • internet/e-mail service
  • website design and marketing
  • software
  • electronic credit card processing
  • bulk mail permit
  • market research
  • phone
  • voice mail, answering machine or answering service
  • stationery and office supplies
  • shipping and packaging supplies
  • postage
  • initial inventory

You can add all kinds of goodies of varying degrees of necessity to this list. For example, a copier is a plus. It's also nice to have bona fide office furniture: a swiveling, rolling, tweedy upholstered chair with lumbar support, gleaming file cabinets that really lock and real oak bookshelves.

But let's consider that you're starting from absolute scratch. You can always set up your computer on your kitchen table or on a card table in a corner of the bedroom. You can stash files in cardboard boxes. It's not glamorous, but it'll suffice until you get your business steaming ahead.


Like baking cookies, hosting a sit-down dinner for 12 or adding a new bathroom to your house, when you produce a seminar, you need to plan ahead. It's wise to start planning as early as possible--ideally four to six months before your program. But it all depends on a lot of variables. Take a look at the seminar countdown.

Countdown Item 1: Get With the Program
One of your most important tasks as a seminar professional will be to design your program--if you haven't got a seminar, you're not going to get very far! You did a lot of the design work when you did your market research, choosing your target market and whittling down your niche to the one that best suits both your audience and you. Now it's time to get down to specifics, like who will present your programs, how long they'll last and where you'll hold them.

  • Now presenting. Will you present the seminars yourself or hire speakers? If you choose the latter, you'll need to decide whether you'll turn them loose to do their own thing or design a curriculum that everybody follows. This is an important consideration. If you choose your speakers based on their special stories, insights and personalities, there's no point in tampering with success.
  • Work on those workbooks. Decide on any workbooks or other handouts you'll want to include with your seminar and start writing and designing them.
  • Packaging time. You'll also need to decide how long your program will run. Do you have enough material to keep your participants interested over the course of a two-day workshop? Or will a two-hour seminar be enough?
  • Choose your dream dates. We don't mean Julia Roberts or Antonio Banderas. Dream dates are days that your prospective audience will perceive as swell times for attending a seminar. You might schedule a beauty makeover program for women during Super Bowl weekend, but a dress-for-success seminar for men during the same weekend would bomb. Make sure you take the following into consideration: holidays, other events that might interfere with your plans and big conventions targeting your audience.
  • A different crowd. After you've decided what time of year you'll have your seminar, don't forget the all-important decision: where to host it. Your choices can range from a city park community center to a ballroom at the Ritz. Naturally, one's going to be pricier than the other, but one will also draw a different crowd than the other.

First, realize that your site price will be built into your ticket price, so you're not actually "paying" for the hotel or conference site all on your own, although you will have to pay an upfront deposit before you've garnered all your ticket sales. But even if you build your hotel facility into the cost of your tickets, you've still got a lot of decisions to make. Be sure to consider compatibility (choose a site that's a good match with your participants and your subject matter) and location (if you have lots of out-of-town participants, you'll want a site that's easily accessible from airports and interstates).

Countdown Item 2: Sales Products
Decide what food freebies you'll offer and then finalize your ticket or enrollment price. Double-check it against your market research. Is it an appropriate fee for the benefits you're offering? How does it compare with competitors' prices?

Now that you've got your enrollment price down, you can start to work on your sales products--brochures, letters and advertisements. Design your sales materials, and then negotiate prices with printers, choose the best one, and place your print order. Once your materials are printed and ready to go, put together press kits for magazines and send them out.

Countdown Item 3: Place Your Orders
Finalize the writing and design of any workbooks and place orders for signs and audiovisual equipment, either from the hotel or from private suppliers. Order your back-of-room sales products from vendors, audio and video duplicating services, and book sources. Order workbooks, evaluation forms, agendas or other handouts based on your anticipated head count. Make travel arrangements for yourself or your speakers--whoever will be hitting the road on your company's behalf. Send press kits to local and regional newspapers.

Countdown Item 4: One Week Ahead
Contact the hotel's sales or catering people to give them an approximate attendance count and make sure they've got everything squared away. Think of this as being a friendly nag--if they're not sure about any item or if they're not available, keep after them until you know it's done, and done properly.

Countdown Item 5: Two Days Ahead
Call the sales or catering people again and give them your final head count. You can also take this opportunity to check once more that everything's been taken care of and will be ready for you on arrival.

Countdown Item 6: The Day Before the Seminar
If you're traveling to an out-of-town site, today's the day you want to arrive. Give yourself plenty of time to recover from jet lag. Familiarize yourself with the layout of the room you'll work, and where the restrooms, pay phones, copiers, restaurants, lobbies and other facilities are located. Go over things like meals and snacks with hotel staff. Make sure all site-provided equipment--things like microphones, projectors, video players and monitors--are present, accounted for, and in good working order. Don't forget phone and electrical outlets for your electronic card terminal. Check seating arrangements and room temperature. If something isn't right, complain now instead of having your participants complain tomorrow.

Countdown Item 7: The Big Day
You and any assistants should arrive an hour or even two hours early to check the room setup and equipment one more time. Set up tables for registration, handouts and products. Get your credit terminal up and running. Remove ashtrays and set out no-smoking signs. Then greet your participants, get going and have fun!

Finding Presenters

If you plan to act as a promoter rather than a presenter, or if you want to put on programs that feature other speakers in addition to yourself, you'll need to locate and negotiate with your talent. So how do you go about finding speakers? You could audition friends and neighbors, put an ad in the paper or launch a safari to track down speakers at every convention in the civilized world. Or--you could contact speakers bureaus, which act as matchmakers of sorts between presenters and promoters or potential clients. Since there are an estimated 450 bureaus around the world, with 80 to 85 percent of them in the United States, you've got plenty to choose from.

Some bureaus specialize in representing speakers on a single topic, like genealogy, family dynamics, business management, international affairs or empowerment. Others represent only celebrities or politicians. Most represent a wide variety of professionals.

As a seminar promoter, using a speakers bureau can save you valuable hours. You tell the bureau the topics you plan to present, your guidelines (whether speakers should use your script or their own material, for instance), your budget and when and where the program will take place. The bureau then provides you with a list of potential candidates, sends demo tapes and references and provides you with the means to contact your chosen few.

And to make a good thing even better, it won't cost you any more to hire a speaker through a bureau than it would to hire the speaker directly, because the bureau gets its commission (generally 25 percent) from the speaker and not from you.

The downside of speakers bureaus is that they tend to represent people in the higher echelons--those who command the big, big bucks and who are usually booked a year or more in advance. As a newbie, or as the head of a training company who will use the same presenters over and over again, you might do as well or better to find your own speakers.

Denise D. finds no shortage of applicants for her Mission, Kansas-based company. In fact, she says, they always have more trainer hopefuls than they have jobs to fill, a delightful state of affairs she attributes to her company's reputation in the industry.

Unless they've been "pre-approved" by having worked for a reputable competitor, Denise asks hopeful presenters to send a video and a resume. The resume is then screened to see if there's a match between the candidate's experience and the slot to be filled. If the candidate has been a secretary for 15 years, for instance, she's a better match as a secretarial skills seminar trainer than someone who's been a professor of chemical engineering.

Income & Billing

What can you expect to make as a seminar professional? The amount's up to you, depending only on how serious you are and how hard you want to work. One of the entrepreneurs we interviewed for this book brings in annual gross revenues of over $200,000; another brings in more than $130 million. Average annual gross revenues for the industry range from $30,000 to $100,000.

"The business can be very lucrative," advises Gail H. of Fredericksburg, Virginia, "depending upon how good you are on the platform to entertain, motivate, inspire and market yourself to the right clients. It can bring in up to seven figures if you're very good--and certainly in the six figures. I'm in the mid-five figures after two and a half years in the business."

As a newbie, you shouldn't expect to earn big bucks immediately. "Test-drive your talent and your topic area of expertise while you still have your day job," Gail says, "to ensure there's a market for your message and cash flow in your bank account."

Seminar professionals generate income by doing more than just giving speeches and supervising workshops. They also earn tidy sums of money from back-of-the-room sales. These are all the peripheral goodies that participants can buy to take home with them. Rock concert promoters display T-shirts, posters and souvenir programs for enthusiastic audience members to snap up. And savvy seminar professionals display books, audiotapes and videos relating to the program, seminar transcripts, and even--especially in the case of motivational programs--buzzword-emblazoned products like bookmarks, calendars, and yes, even T-shirts.

Public Seminar Pricing

To determine how much you'll make, you have to figure out how much to charge for your programs, and the best way to do that is to first figure out how much each seminar will cost you. Let's give you yet another incarnation and say you're going to do a workshop on "Living The Good Life With Your Own Bed-And-Breakfast Business." This will be a public program at a swanky downtown hotel and, based on your market research, you're expecting about 100 attendees.

For our example, we've come up with a cost per seminar of $3,700. Now let's figure out how much your tickets will have to go for in order to make the seminar pay for itself. That's easy: Divide your cost of $3,700 by the 100 people you expect to attend. You get a ticket price of $37. But keep in mind that this is your break-even price. If you sell tickets for $37 each, you won't make a dime.

If you double your ticket price and make it $74, you'll make a gross profit of $7,400, which sounds pretty good! If your prospective customers will pay this much for your seminar and if they all show up. Your market research should cue you in to whether or not this is a viable price.

If it's not, you'll have to go back to the drawing board and rework your calculations. Either lower your ticket price, say to $50, which will give you a gross profit per seminar of $1,300 (your $3,700 costs subtracted from your $5,000 ticket sales), or figure out how to lower your costs, for example, by negotiating a better site rental rate, cutting down on the refreshments, or going with less expensive workbooks.

Now let's say you've got it down to $50 per ticket, 100 people per seminar, and a gross profit of $1,300, plus that extra $500 in back-of-the-room sales, which means you're grossing $1,800 per seminar. If you do 24 of these seminars a year, or two a month, you'll gross $43,200.

You'll also need to consider whether there's a market for your bed-and-breakfast seminars within reasonable driving distance of your home base 50 weeks a year. If not, you'll either have to add travel costs for taking your show on the road--which will put a major dent in your bottom line--or you'll have to design a series of programs (like starting your own bed-and-breakfast, starting your own coffee bar, starting your own personal concierge service, your own wax museum, etc.). This way you don't exhaust your customer base.


No matter how thrilling, informative, life-affirming or business-rescuing your seminars are, nobody's going to know about them unless you advertise. As a seminar professional, a great deal of your resources will go into designing and implementing advertising campaigns to take your sales to the limits and beyond.

Unless your featured presenter is somebody really big like Elvis ("direct from the Other Side!"), you can't rely on a marquee blazing with neon and arc lights, so you'll need to devise other methods of getting the word out. Your best bets are direct mail, personal contact and word-of-mouth. Venues like radio, television, magazines and newspapers--which can work wonders for other types of entrepreneurs--don't make much of a dent on the psyches of potential seminar participants.

Direct Mail

Most seminar professionals agree that direct mail is the method of choice for advertising to unsolicited sources. What exactly is direct mail? It's another way of saying mail order and it can take the form of sales letters, brochures, postcards, or any other printed material you send to potential seminar customers.

Direct-mail advertising can be extremely effective, but it's also expensive. By the time you pay for the paper, envelopes, printing and postage for a major campaign, you've spent thousands of dollars. So before you pop those 50,000 sales pieces in the mail, make sure you've thoroughly considered what it is that your niche market wants or needs and how your seminars will satisfy that desire or need.

The first thing to do when you start your advertising campaign is to take a figurative step back. Revisit your market research. It should include the following:

  • Who are my potential customers?
  • How many are there?
  • Where are they located?
  • Where do they now find the information I want to provide?
  • What can I offer that they're not already getting from this other source?
  • How can I persuade them to attend my seminars?

Look over the answers to these questions; then ask yourself some more:

  • What knowledge and skills do I offer?
  • What image do I want to project?
  • How do I compare with my competition and how can I be better?

Once you've answered these critical questions and you know exactly who you're targeting, with what, and why, it's time to devise your direct-mail piece.

You can use any direct-mail format that works for you, from a letter introducing yourself and describing your seminars to a one-page flier to a multipage brochure. Denise D.'s company sends brochures to potential new customers and letters to past participants; Larry S. in Omaha, Nebraska, relies exclusively on brochures; and Jerry O. in Arkansas City, Kansas, sends fliers for his occasional direct-mail forays.

Experimentation, testing and--always, always--market research will tell you which format is the best for your company.

Promotional Kits

Although unsolicited brochures or letters can work wonders, they're not the only way to go. Some seminar professionals--particularly those who do private corporate seminars rather than public seminars--never use unsolicited material at all, relying on referrals from past participants, speakers bureaus and other sundry sources to garner initial interest. Then, when potential clients request information, they swing into promotional mode.

"I hardly send any prospecting letters/contact sheets out," says Gail H., the leisure specialist in Fredericksburg, Virginia, who does only private seminars. "I prefer to send quarterly newsletters and some postcards in between with a handwritten note (the effective Chinese water torture method). Postcards are quick and easy and get your attention without having to be opened, and with an attention-grabbing photo, they really work."

Free Advertising

Yes! While, in the words of the old clich�, there's no such thing as a free lunch, there are some terrific things you can do to get free advertising. Of course, you have to put forth effort, intelligence and creativity, so it's not "free" as in you-don't-have-to-lift-a-finger, but that's OK. The rewards are worth it.

So what are these free advertising opportunities? One, as you know, is word-of-mouth. Another is print media. Take advantage of the thousands of magazines and journals out there by writing articles for publication.

That's what Gail H. does. "People won't look at ads," she says, "but they will read articles." Your credibility as an expert soars--if you're in a magazine, you must be a pro, people reason--and as your credibility takes wing, so does your desirability as a speaker. And the benefits don't stop with the reader. People won't tear out an ad, but they'll tear out an article and pass it along to friends and relatives, so you get the word-of-mouth effect even in print.

PR is another terrific source of free advertising. There are all sorts of low-cost techniques you can use. Try some of the following:

  • Local groups are always looking for guest speakers. Offer yourself on a free, or pro bono, basis to local associations or clubs that match your target audience. Remember that word-of-mouth is a powerful advertising tool and get creative!
  • Join any organizations that match your target audience and volunteer for things that will get you and your company recognized--and appreciated. Most people respect volunteers within an organization and consider them experts in the organization's area of interest, which heightens your credibility.
  • How about going live on the air? Volunteer yourself for a local radio station's chat show. You can discuss your niche and listeners can call in with questions. When they talk to you--on the air!--they'll be interested in enrolling in your seminars. And remember word-of-mouth. They'll tell their friends and relatives.
  • Offer free enrollment in your seminar or pricier (therefore splashier) BOR products as prizes for charity events.




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