October 23, 2014

Why You’ll Shout, Scream Cry—and Pay

Party starter: Charity auctioneer Scott Robertson, above, is part ringmaster, part salesman and all about the party.When people are around Scott Robertson, they throw their arms in the air. They stand up, shout and scream.

Sometimes, they even start to cry.

But it’s all right, because it means that Robertson has done what he came to do. As Southwest Florida’s most in-demand charity auctioneer, it’s Robertson’s responsibility to excite and engage auction audiences, keeping them captivated and —most importantly—keeping their bidding paddles held high in the air.

It’s a task anyone can try, but few can accomplish, Robertson explains.

“Your biggest adversary at an auction is the clock,” he says. “People get tired, they want to go home. My job is to keep them entertained and in their seats. And I take my job very seriously.”

 

A ringmaster at heart

Robertson’s interest in what would eventually become his occupation began when he was a child growing up in Kentucky. There, farmers brought everything from cattle to tobacco to auction. The auctioneers fascinated him, especially how they could skillfully work and manage a big and unruly crowd.

Then, 18 years ago, Robertson was working at Cape Coral High School as a teacher and coach. As he looked for an opportunity to make a little extra income, he considered ways to use his existing skill set, which included an ability to work and manage a big audience, something he says he learned from watching those earlier auctioneers.

“But there’s only, like, three circus ringmaster jobs in the world,” he jokes. “So I thought auctioneering was the next best thing.”

Robertson attended an auctioneering class, and was lucky to find the “auction chant”—the fast-paced, rhythmic speech associated with auctioneers—came naturally to him. That, paired with his ability to understand an audience, set him on his way to his charity auctioneering future. In 2010, he plunged full time into the charity auctioneering business, making him one of an estimated 80 people in the United States who work exclusively as professional charity benefit auctioneers.

Robertson’s focus is primarily on South Florida, with about 60 percent of his work in Southwest Florida. This year, he auctioneered 50 events, including the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest.

Steve Machiz, chairman of the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest’s organizing charity, SWFL Children’s Charities Inc., credits Robertson with helping to raise the festival’s fundraising auction total from $750,000 in 2009 to $1.6 million in 2011. Money from the event benefits The Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida.

“He knows when to fold things and he knows when to take them to the next level,” Machiz says. “We couldn’t be more pleased to have him as our auctioneer.”

Robertson says he immerses himself in the world of the charity for which he is fundraising, doing all he can to discover what makes it special. If it’s a school, he goes to the campus and talks to teachers, students and parents to find out why they love it. Their candid answers are revealing, he says, and help him when it’s time to lead the auction, bringing a sense of authenticity.

“I’m better able to convey to the crowd the mission of why we’re there to raise money for the cause,” he says.

He’s a ringmaster at heart. But to lead a lucrative auction, Robertson admits there are times when he must be a bit of a magician, acrobat and clown, too.

 

Auction dos and don’ts

Two of the most important elements in a profitable charity auction are maintaining a high level of excitement and a good, solid momentum throughout the event, Robertson says.

As an auctioneer, he works to begin the auction with a rush of energy and keep it going throughout the event. He also makes an effort to get the audience involved from the first minutes of the event, weaving throughout the crowd to give someone a hearty pat on the back or say a hello. That gets them engaged and, hopefully, keeps them with him as he dives into the bidding.

“Energy is contagious,” Robertson says. “And it’s paramount that I begin the auction with a lot of enthusiasm and positive energy.”

Audience energy levels rise and fall continuously through the evening, and being able to read where the level is at a certain time is key to being able to manage it. It’s a myth that alcohol will encourage bidders to open their pocketbooks, Robertson notes. A few drinks may lead them to lower their inhibitions, but too much merriment can make them tired and lower the overall energy of the event.

Plus, there’s nothing worse than a bidder who has overindulged and acted rashly, only to wake up the following morning with a negative impression of the event.

“You want people making good decisions,” Robertson says, “and not having buyer’s remorse the next day. You want them to get carried away in the spirit of giving, not just get carried away.”

Music helps amp the energy level higher, he says, as it can create a feeling of fun, especially when a bidder has just won his or her bid. A little splash of color never hurts, either. A ringmaster relies on his top hat and tails; Robertson is known for his brilliant and often outrageous tuxedo and vest combinations. At last count, Robertson owned 24 tuxedo vests.

“You don’t ‘buy’ something at a Scott Robertson auction,” says the auctioneer. “You win it. And we want the music to help them celebrate the win.”

Throughout the event, Robertson says it’s essential to watch the audience’s body language. Bidders may want to be recognized in a big way, or not at all as they bid. Through the years, his abilities have grown so acute that he often knows if a person is going to bid again before they do.

He also counsels organizations that he works with not to stop the auction for any reason once it begins. It may be tempting to pause for a moment and allow the chair of the event to say a few words of thanks or even hold a quick raffle, but all that does is cause the auction action to stagger.

“Once you lose momentum,” Robertson says, “you lose the crowd.”

Also bad for the overall auction atmosphere is any attempt to scold the crowd for its behavior. Robertson recalls one Southwest Florida charity event he attended where there was a celebrity auctioneer. This Hollywood star seemed to feel the audience was too noisy to hear her calling out the bids and stopped to hush the crowd.

Robertson cringes at the memory.

“You paid money to attend the event. You don’t want be shushed. You want to feel good about the charity. You want to feel good about your involvement,” he says.

And while he knows only about 20 percent ever wave a paddle, he makes it his goal to have 100 percent audience participation. It’s like watching a basketball game, Robertson says: There may only be 10 people who are actually handling the ball, but everyone in the arena is participating.

“Participation can be cheering, congratulating, dancing in their seats, feeling like they’re involved in the event,” he says.

Robertson is always on the move. He doesn’t stay at the podium to call out the bids, but circulates around the room to keep the audience connection alive, giving high fives and handshakes to winners. In the cozy environs of the Beach Clubhouse at Miromar Lakes Beach & Golf Club where the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest is held, such an approach can leave its mark—literally. Machiz likens Robertson to a marathon runner for his ability to keep going, never showing signs of fatigue.

It’s not easy, though, the auctioneer admits. 

“I go home with bruises,” Robertson says.

 

Raising bids: At the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest, Robertson’s energy has helped the organization go from raising $750,000 in 2009 to $1.6 million in 2011.True tales from the auction block

Once, it was easy to get people to bid at charity auctions, Robertson recalls. People bid merely to support the organization. Often, they bid on items that they weren’t particularly desperate to own. It’s different now.

“I’ve observed a lot more of strategic bidding, where people only bid on items where they have interest,” Robertson says.

He encourages auction committees to look beyond the traditional auction block fare to find and secure auction lots that can give bidders a long-lasting bang for their buck, especially exceptional experiences. Think once-in-a-lifetime vacations, culinary extravaganzas, celebrity encounters and wonderful wines.

“What they want is experiences that are not normally available,” he says. “And that’s just it in a nutshell.”

At last year’s Southwest Florida Wine & Food Festival, bidders discovered just how much excitement a unique auction lot can generate when a Halloween weekend trip to the Playboy mansion came up to the block. Two bidders, Fort Myers resident Harry Silverglide and Fort Myers resident and AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams, soon squared off. Williams wanted to win the lot as a gift for his son’s 25thbirthday.

“They’re bidding back and forth with the crowd at a frenzy,” he says. “The bidding reached $100,000. And I had done my pre-auction homework and knew there were two packages available. Bang, bang.”

Robertson sold Silverglide and Williams each the weekend for $100,000. “And the crowd went wild,” Robertson recalled.

But it’s not always what’s on the block that brings out the bidders; it’s how they want to bid. This year, festival trustee Elaine Hawkins approached Robertson shortly before the auction. The previous year, Hawkins, her husband Fred and another couple bid $20,000 and won a piece of artwork; the artwork was then donated to The Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida.

A piece of artwork was again on the auction block. As in 2010, it would eventually be donated to The Children’s Hospital after it was won. Hawkins quietly informed Robertson that she did not plan on bidding on the artwork, but she would “contribute” $5,000 to it. Robertson confesses he was puzzled. He began the bidding on the artwork, only to have it stall out at $7,500.

Then, a light bulb went off. Hawkins had said she would “contribute” $5,000. The other bidder would pitch in another $7,500. Now, he just needed to find out who else would put up their paddle. Robertson asked the audience if anyone would add another $5,000, and that’s then the auction caught fire, eventually raising $65,000 for the artwork lot.

It may not have been the traditional way to bid, but it was certainly a savvy way to turn $5,000 into $65,000, garnering three times more than the lot had brought the year before. And the Hawkinses went home happy; in fact, they report they plan to repeat the same bidding strategy next year.

Robertson smiles. 

“All’s fair in love, war and charity auctions,” he says.

 

WHEN AND WHERE

The 2012 Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest will be held on Feb. 24 and 25 at the Miromar Lakes Beach and Golf Club. This year’s festival features top local chefs and wines from around the world, including Benovia Winery, the event’s signature vintner. For more information go to swflwinefest.org.

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