If you've walked the concourse at Lindbergh Field, on the way to baggage claim you may have noticed the wall-mounted advertisement, "Welcome to San Diego — Home of 7 of the nation's top professional speakers": Tony Alessandra, Rick Barrera, Ken Blanchard, Scott McKain, Brian Tracy, Jim Cathcart, and Denis Waitley (McKain now lives elsewhere).These are motivational speakers, and more than 100 live in San Diego. Though they are based locally, most have peripatetic lives: they fly in and out constantly to address corporate audiences in America and around the world. They maintain websites, publish books (some, business best sellers), and offer programs; the last are notorious for their quasi-scientific design and ecstatic promise: Rancho Santa Fe's Denis Waitley runs the Waitley Institute's "Seeds of Greatness System"; Carlsbad's Jim Cathcart oversees "The Grandma Factor — Lifetime Customer Loyalty." Del Mar's Tony Robbins, who has been the longest-running San Diego-based motivator, hosts TV spots that, according to his website, "have continuously aired on average every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day somewhere in North America" since 1989.
These gurus of success are hired to fire up the legions of underperforming and unmotivated workers, weary frontline soldiers who toil in the service industry, in corporations, in manufacturing, and more. Motivators and their programs are central to the $27 billion-a-year incentives industry. As "productivity consultants" they can be found carting pallet-loads of books and software to convention centers, where with rhetorical fervency they rouse the moribund. The up-and-coming speaker usually averages between $3000 and $5000 per keynote address and $2000 per day for workshops. Elite presenters like Jim Cathcart get $15,000 for a 90-minute presentation, $20,000 for three hours, and "call for quote" for an all-day gig. Costs for retreats and seminars, for one-on-one "executive" coaching sessions, are significantly higher.
What do they speak on? Usually the message is the same: through motivation and inspiration one can achieve success in one's personal and professional life. But the means of delivering that message are as different as the presenters. On his website, magician Khevin Barnes of Carlsbad promotes his keynote address as "empowering themes of imagination, creativity, and 'astonishmentality' [that] translate into success and productivity in the corporate world." He's joined onstage by Socrates, an animatronic bird who is Barnes's "alter ego and sassy side kick." Former news anchor, exerciser ("Keep Fit With Phoebe"), and "community affairs expert" from Channel 10 Phoebe Chongchua has written If the Trash Stinks, Take It Out!: 14 Worriless Principles for Your Success. Part of her keynote pitch, taken from her website, reads, "Attracting success starts with taking the trash out before it rots. Whether you're an executive, entrepreneur, employee or hardworking homemaker, veteran newscaster, Phoebe Chongchua takes you on an entertaining, informative and inspirational journey that will have you laughing, connecting with her and wanting to clean your own mental house."
Onstage, many motivators prowl the boards with evangelical fervor, lacking only the Good Book cradled in hand. They like to circle-thrust their fists into the air and shout "Yee-hah," but unlike Howard Dean the exclamation is never ruinous. They trademark their products and services, their logos and phrases. They saturate their infomercials with life-improvement testimonials. They are the go-to guys whose programs, complete with online surveys, video training manuals, and sales chops, companies in need of get-up-and-go energy get up and buy. They exude waves of lacquered affirmation (as do their minions) to anyone who'll listen, not because it's free advertising, but because it's their nature.
Easily the biggest newcomer in the galaxy of the mega-motivators is the 40-year-old Irish immigrant Brian Buffini. Buffini runs Buffini and Company, the largest business training and coaching company in America, whose 17,000 clients are predominantly real estate agents and brokers. Buffini's office sits above the fabled flower fields in Carlsbad. The 80,000-square-foot building houses 270 workers on two floors. The place is quiet and orderly -- with a full-service fitness room and yoga studio and health-oriented snack bar -- but in some corners it's abuzz with activity. On a tour, one can hear some of the 200 "Buffini-certified coaches" who phone their 85 clients with advice, sort of like business therapists. Buffini sells two products: himself as a motivation speaker and the services of his motivational coaches. The idea, Buffini says in a newsletter article, is to "instruct, direct, and encourage people to achieve at their highest level possible."
Buffini came to San Diego in 1986 and began selling real estate for ReMax, the nation's largest broker. Buffini hated the usual system of finding clients -- cold-calling and knocking on doors -- so he tried his own: he asked those with whom he'd already worked for referrals. Buffini began sending clients tokens of appreciation each month as well as personal notes. Or he made a home visit -- a pop-by, as he calls it -- bringing along a gift -- an item of value, as he calls it -- like a dish towel or a bag of nuts or a screwdriver with a note, "Don't get screwed by another realtor. Oh, By the Way" (a phrase he's trademarked), "I'm never too busy for your referrals." One Buffini-coached agent, Angelina Feichko, hosts a "team pop-by" at Easter. According to Buffini's "Coaching Guide," published monthly in RISMedia's RealEstate magazine, she and her four female employees dress in white and "show up at a client's house in a minivan and jump out with our Easter bunny ears, delivering an Easter egg hunt directly to the client." Buffini hoped that such active reminders to his clients would mean they'd remember to refer their friends and family to him.
They did, by the truckload, and he became ReMax's biggest salesman. Next, Buffini decided to systemize his referral method and sell it to real estate agents. At first he sold the referral system as a program. Each month an agent pays for a gift package that contains items of value and Hallmark cards. Each month the agent delivers the gifts and cards, on which a personal note is inscribed, to the client. While gifts and notes may keep the agent in the client's thoughts, Buffini soon discovered that this would not, of itself, boost an agent's sales. Buffini needed a better sense of how the real estate agents he was helping were wired, perhaps to rewire them to be as positive and as dedicated as he was. So he and one of his brothers (all four have relocated to San Diego from Dublin and work at the company) developed the "heritage profile." According to Buffini's website, this "personality assessment" tool profiles an individual's "natural gifts and abilities"; it's used to "reveal how [agents] communicate, work, learn, and focus" and to target "the areas that can naturally trip you up."