When Elbert Ray showed up at the Get Motivated seminar in Rupp Arena on Wednesday, he expected his ticket to cost $1.95, the number he saw on the numerous ads leading up to the big event.
But that $1.95 was for advance sale tickets only; as the smaller print said on those ads, it was $225 at the door.
The seminar — which featured such speakers as University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari and former First Lady Laura Bush — is a huge draw for people looking to improve their businesses, improve their finances, and, in the end, improve their lives. The event also drew large crowds to Rupp in 2008, when it last took place in Lexington.
But Ray, who paid the stiff fee, was disappointed in what he saw from his first seminar. "I've just seen a speaker, I don't know his name, I'd never heard of him," he said. "But I've heard a number of carnival barkers in my time and I've just heard another one. I've heard better at carnivals selling popcorn."
Ray called the seminar a "con," and a "classic bait and switch," a theme that has been explored in other cities where Get Motivated has taken place.
Brian Forte, a senior vice president at Get Motivated, said ticket prices used to be higher, but the company recognized that most people could not afford hundreds of dollars to get in.
"The only way for us to make this work economically is to produce an event that is so excellent that attendees and their companies will want to continue to do business with us," Forte said in an email statement.
"We are committed to ensuring that the speakers, content and production of the Get Motivated Business Seminar will vastly exceed their expectations, and we trust that when their company needs in-house training, speakers for conventions, or business consulting that they will allow us to meet those needs."
Roughly 13,000 people, presumably having paid just $1.95, showed up at Rupp for the first 8:30 a.m. speaker. Everyone arriving at once caused massive traffic jams downtown for regular morning commuters.
(The traffic was so bad Lexington police created a new traffic pattern for the afternoon commute, sending the Get Motivated attendees out Versailles Road to exit. Attendees also complained about distant parking and a disorganized bus system to transport them from parking lots to seminars.)
The draw, according to Get Motivated's promotional materials, is all about learning from people like Bush and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, about traits such as perseverance and leadership that can translate to everyone's lives.
Philip Webb, for example, works as a team trainer at a restaurant, but hopes to start a carpet cleaning company. He attended Wednesday's seminar with a group from his church.
"We've learned a little bit about re-creating ourselves, trying to make a difference and believing that we are the best," he said.
In between the main speakers, other presenters try to sell more seminars or systems on anything from picking stocks to real estate. Those cost money, which they have to, because 13,000 people paying $1.95 would barely cover the rent for Rupp. According to Lexington Center Corp. officials, that fee was $27,500 for the arena and other services.
According to press reports, Giuliani's speaking fee alone is $100,000. Not to mention the cost of transport for VIPs such as Laura Bush, Colin Powell and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, who also spoke.
That's where the other pitches and programs come in.
John Collins, for example, attended hoping to find job opportunities but described it as "just fluff," such as pitches for Web monitoring companies and a site called "Wealth" that tells you when to sell your stocks. The class, which promised insider trading tips, cost $100.
According to the Riverfront Times of St. Louis, which published a lengthy investigative story on Get Motivated in May, for $99 on your credit card, you can sign up for a two-day class of the Wealth Times Magazine Investor Education program and a three-month trial use of an investor tool Web site. However, if you fail to cancel the Web site subscription once the trial ends, your credit card will automatically be billed $39 per month, the story said.
Wealth Magazine, the story said, is owned by Peter Lowe, who with his wife, motivational speaker Tamara Lowe, also owns Get Motivated.
Many attendees declined to talk or give their names about why they were there.
Gloria Johnson stopped one of her friends from Consolidated Baptist Church from signing up for the Wealth program.
"Once they say credit card, especially in a setting like this, it just means you're indebted to someone with a contract," she said. "I saw a lot of people with their credit cards out."
Johnson went to the seminar hoping to get some financial wizardry to impart to her family. She enjoyed it, and found the speakers worthwhile, but she said attendees needed a buyer-beware attitude.
UK marketing professor Scott Kelley said the overflow of people "speaks to the power of marketing.
"It's an amazing price, and it speaks to these hard economic times," he said.
For advance tickets, a business could bring all of its employees for $9.95.
"In some ways, it's a perk that businesses can offer employees," Kelley said. "But I would guess people don't always read the fine print."