Portland’s Tony Robbins Event Uncovered an Infinity Loop of Self-Help Schlock
“In today’s world nobody pays attention to you unless you make a big promise.”
Jessica McCollum could sense the woman following her and her husband as they were leaving the convention center in Portland, OR in March. It turned out she was. The woman told Jessica she liked her coat — the back was emblazoned with the message, “Work hard. Dream big.”
“Why aren’t you at the Tony Robbins event?” asked the woman. Jessica told her that, actually, they were just leaving the event which the couple had paid around $225 all together to attend, but decided to leave hours before it ended.
Wide-eyed, the stranger told McCollum she really should return and wait to hear Robbins speak. “He can work on your heart, your mind, your spirit…. He’s so amazing,” she marveled. She proceeded to relay her personal redemption story to McCollum, claiming that she’d been “stuck” before meeting Robbins, a larger-than-life motivational speaker who’s attracted praise from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Kim Kardashian, and written books like “Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement” and most recently, “Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook.”
Telling the tale of the Robbins believer a week or so later, McCollum concluded, “She was really drinking the Kool-Aid hardcore.”
The giant billboard hovering over NE Portland promised an all-day self-improvement awakening featuring perhaps the biggest name in the world of self-help, Tony Robbins. The boldly-named “National Achievers Congress” would feature two other speakers, marketing guru-turned-motivational speaker Gary Vaynerchuk and Robert Herjavec, entrepreneur and cast member of ABC’s cutthroat startup investing show Shark Tank. By the end of the day, however, this immersion in would-be-empowerment would spiral from self-help to just plain self-serving, with plenty of weirdness along the way.
Not Your Everyday Kool-Aid Drinkers
As expected, some “Kool-Aid drinkers” were at the March 2 event, but if you’re picturing a room full of delusional cult follower types, think again. Most attendees seemed, well, just like everyday people.
Then there were the unabashed skeptics like Sarah Centrella. “Ninety percent of it was so clearly a scam to me — to anyone who is rational,” she said about a week after the event.
The Robbins show is loud. He emerges on the stage, pumping his arms like he’s Paul Bunyan hoisting a log over his head. There’s deafening dance music that seems like it must be the same canned stuff he’s used for decades.
He’s moving from stage left to right, pumping his arms for what feels like minutes. He bellows inspirational anecdotes about his early days as a challenged entrepreneur and another about an octogenarian nun who participates in ironman competitions, peppering his tales with a healthy dose of shits and fuckins. He says the spicy language is intended to “stimulate” his audience.
He commands people to “raise their hands if they ever…” about three times every twenty minutes or so. He makes a lewd remark about the difference between penis and cock that seems oddly placed, and someone cues “Talk Dirty to Me.” The audience whoops and claps and whoas.
But the real drama and strangeness that day emerged hours before Robbins appeared. People with tickets were turned away. There was a stream of unknown speakers hawking house-flipping and get-rich-quick seminars. There was even a visit from the fire marshal.
Centrella later described the event as “slimy, fake, cheesy, dishonest, dirty — that’s how I felt sitting in the room.”
So why did she stick around?
Well… it turns out she herself is a motivational speaker. And she wasn’t the only aspiring self-help coach who went to see Robbins and a cast of un-advertised sales-pitchmen that day in Portland and the day prior in Seattle.
“They were there for the exact reason that I went — he’s the biggest name in the game,” said Centrella about Robbins about a month after the event.
McCollum became distracted and began poking around on her phone. The event “started to suck,” she said.
She began reading reviews from the National Achievers Congress show held in Seattle the day before. She couldn’t believe it. It turned out the guy she’d come to see in the first place, Gary Vaynerchuk, wouldn’t be there in-person as she and most of the audience expected. He’d be appearing as a hologram. Or, to be precise, Vaynerchuk’s image would manifest in HumaGram form — the same branded holographic technology used to transform Notorious B.I.G. into a rhyming tower of pixels.
“It was so weird,” said Hannah B., a social media marketing exec who went to the Portland show with her husband. “The guy introduced him like he was ready to come out, and you could just hear the audience go, ‘Wait…what?” Hannah and her husband are “big into self-development,” she said. They plunked down $130 each for premium seating close to the stage.
“What he said as a hologram was great,” added Hannah, who did not want her full last name to be used in this story. “It’s just unfortunate that it wasn’t him in person.”
To be fair, Vaynerchuk — known to the more than 600,000 people who subscribe to his DailyVee and #AskGaryVee YouTube videos as Gary Vee — probably had little to do with how his appearance had been promoted by the event company, Success Resources. “I’m always trying new things and this was a fun experiment,” stated Vaynerchuk in an emailed statement. “I am collecting feedback, which has been pretty good, but yes, I want it clearer in all promos that I am in hologram form.”
McCollum decided to ditch the Achievers Congress when she found out about the Vayner-gram and left before his virtual image took the stage. “Time is money,” said the longtime real estate broker.
She and her husband had left Vancouver, Washington around 7:00 that morning to attend. She’d looked forward to seeing Vaynerchuk speak. She’d hoped to improve her business, her lifestyle, her outlook, she said.
They’d been ushered in by women pushing Mary Kay sales opportunities. They’d sat through a stage presentation by the virtually unknown Wayne Gray, a house-flipper with zero online presence and a too-good-to-be-true promise about passive income generation who’d convinced hundreds of people to crowd the stage and give him their credit card information to pay for future seminar.
And to make matters worse, the proceedings had been interrupted by the appearance of the fire marshal who showed up because there weren’t enough chairs in the exhibit hall room to accommodate the seemingly over-capacity crowd, despite the fact they’d all paid for seats.
Devin Von D bought her $153.49 ticket the day prior.
“We oversold the event,” the will-call guy told her, handing her a piece of paper with a number to call for a refund. She’d learned about the National Achievers Congress after noticing that a fellow seller of skincare products from Rodan and Fields — a multi-level marketing firm that pays consultants a commission for their own sales and those of the people they recruit — had posted about Robbins.
“That’s actually why I bought the ticket,” Von D recalled around two weeks after the event. The other Rodan and Fields saleswoman and the network of sellers she leads had just hit $125,000 in revenue, qualifying her for a Lexus. Maybe Von D could learn something from Robbins, she thought.
“No apology, nothing. Extremely expensive & unorganized tour you’re running Tony Robbins,” wrote Von D on her Facebook page after being turned away from the event. She had yet to receive a refund despite contacting the event organizer again in early April.
“It’s very scammy. I don’t know how people can get away with it,” she said.
It Rains, Your Team Loses
The National Achievers Congress was not handled by Robbins Research International, the firm that manages Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within events like the one in LA attended recently by Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Those are intensive three-and-a-half day experiences which include the self-help star’s signature fear-conquering fire-walking challenges that have been praised by the likes of Oprah and lamented by others, such as 30 attendees of a 2016 Unleash event in Dallas who were treated for burns after walking on hot coals.
“It’s about pushing through any and all limitations to become a better version of yourself,” states the Unleash the Power Within website, regarding fire-walking. “It is not about positive thinking, it’s about finding the tools you need to dig up everything it requires inside of you to take your life to the next level — so that you can create the extraordinary quality of life that you deserve. The firewalk is where that lesson begins.”
According to the Oregon Convention Center Director of Event Services Erin Jepson, Success Resources America managed its own registration and ticketing. As for the appearance of the fire marshal, it had nothing to do with burning coals. Jepson said, “In the event of the March 2 National Achievers Congress, capacity was reached early in the morning and again in the afternoon causing a hold in seating in order to ensure the safety of the attendees.”
Success Resources America, an international events firm, has hosted speakers including President Donald Trump during his peak days of Apprentice TV show fame, along with former Presidents Bill Clinton and both George Bushes. According to the company’s CEO Michael Burnett, the event was not oversold. Rather, there was a miscommunication with the venue regarding the seating floor plan which contributed to the seating debacle.
“We’re pushing through hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of clients around the world,” he said, stressing the firm’s 35 years’ experience in hosting events where ticket holders normally get seated and fire marshals don’t prevent people from returning to their folding chairs.
“Nobody’s perfect,” said Burnett. As a consolation, he added, “Sometimes you’ll go to a sports match and you don’t like what happened — it rained, your team loses.”
The Phantom House Flipper
The crowd was hopped up by the time Wayne Gray, a virtually-unknown real estate pro, concluded his talk. But unlike the speakers on the advertised bill, Gray made no secret of his intention to sell something — in this case tickets to yet another seminar also hosted by Success Resources.
McCollum, a thirteen year real estate vet, called Gray’s examples of cash scores he’d made by flipping houses “ludicrous.” Still, he managed to coax a slew of attendees out of their seats to take him up on a buy-one-get-one $500 ticket offer for a weekend course on how to strike it rich in real estate.
“I’m watching people all around me, but my gut is telling me that they can’t afford to spend a grand on a real estate system that is a scam,” said McCollum. “It makes me feel sorry for people who aren’t smart enough to get up and walk away.”
Perhaps even stranger than the thought of people rushing the stage to pay for his seminar is the fact that this particular Wayne Gray has zero online presence, and Success Resources would not provide any information on how to contact him, despite several attempts to garner that information. Burnett said he did not know how he got booked for the event. Was he just a guy with a fake name hawking the company’s Real Estate Intensive seminar? Whoever he was, the slick sales guy’s shadiness only enhanced the oddness of what went down that day at the Oregon Convention Center.
“It was just such an energy suck,” Hannah B. concluded about Gray’s appearance. “Was it worth taking the day off work to be sales pitched at?”
Steve Buller, who calls himself a “huge Tony Robbins fan,” delighted in the swarm around Gray, taking it all in the day before the Portland event at Kent, Washington’s ShoWare Center, home of the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds. His eyes beamed as he peered downward into his camera, walking and talking as the crowd buzzed behind him.
“Just one way to become an entrepreneur,” he said into his phone camera with a Cheshire Cat smirk, “Get on stage in front of a lot of people — put a good value proposition in front of them.” Buller posted the quick selfie video clip to YouTube.
There’s a reason for the selfie advice video, a required arrow in the quiver of any serious wannabe self-helper. Buller, too, claims to makes his living giving others advice about how to be a success. The business coach is the author of a book called, “I Quit My Job to Help You Quit Yours.” But whether he has the business chops to teach others how to do it is questionable. He said he once ran a paint store franchise in addition to what he called a less-than-successful ecommerce operation.
Chatting about the event a month after, Buller had to admit, the idea of speaking and selling seminars like Gray did is “definitely inspiring.” Buller’s “I Quit My Job to Help You Quit Yours” mission is “to be part of a movement of people taking charge of their own lives and doing what they want to do,” he said. He attended the event not only to hear Robbins speak, but to learn. “I don’t support Wayne Gray or necessarily anybody I heard from,” he said. “My [video] commentary was about the effectiveness of their sales techniques.”
I Roll VIP!
The soft sell doesn’t fly these days, Buller added. “In today’s world nobody pays attention to you unless you make a big promise.” All in all, he concluded, supplementing the day’s schedule with unknowns selling other Success Resources seminars to a captive audience likely to be receptive to money-making opportunities was just good ol’ fashioned “smart marketing.”
It was tough to miss: Beneath the thin veneer of Just-Set-Your-Mind-to-It-speak (“Every master was once a disaster!” “Execution trumps knowledge!” “You’ve got to allow yourself to dream!”), the National Achievers Congress was a bastion of unadulterated praise for the almighty dollar and instant gratification. The promise of achievement had a get-rich-quick underbelly that stuck out plainly.
Mind you, this was happening in Portland, a place defined by liberal anti-capitalism where city commissioners recently voted to stop investing in corporations in favor of federal bonds and “non-corporate options.” Yet, the makeup of the crowd, many of whom were in their 20s and 30s — yes, even a few with tattoos, brightly-colored hair, beards and dreadlocks — seemed to signal a mainstream acceptance of the day’s fixation on immediate wealth sans hard work.
“Turn to your neighbor, give them a high five and say ‘I’m gonna be rich!’” shouted Thomas Tadlock, MTV’s 2003 Hottest Body and former out-of-work personal trainer-turned passive income earner. He was another pre-Robbins speaker hired to sell a Success Resources event and hype up the steadily tiring crowd.
He employed the familiar Bursts of Physical Activity + Insipid Mantra = Positive Vibes and Camaraderie equation: “Turn to your neighbor, give them a high five, and say, ‘I roll VIP!’”
With a shaved head, Tadlock resembled a young Yul Brenner as he paced across the stage. Many people obeyed his high-five commands. A few shrieked with delight or nervous energy, expecting Robbins would speak soon. A few looked at one another wearily, eyes rolling.
“Every master was once a disaster,” quipped Tadlock, giving the requisite “I was once like you, but look at me now” spiel. He, too, wasn’t shy about promoting his event — The Millionaire Mind Intensive, which would be coming to Portland in April. Tadlock said he’d knock down the price for the three day conference from the regular $795 per ticket to just $97 for two, but the pressure was on — he could only register 600 people.
Buller called this an “urgency bias.” All of the non-advertised speakers who were planted to sell other seminars used the tactic, a common sales ploy that made sense to him. “It’s such a good opportunity that it’s easy for professionals like them to get a few people to think, ‘Oh, heck yeah, I’ve gotta get that’ — and then they create an urgency bias.”
You Don’t Have to Be Rich…
“I feel a little bit like Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth husband” declared Gerry Robert, attempting to spin the now-obnoxious assembly line of speakers into something remotely resembling humor. If his grey mustache, suit and classy-old-guy white pocket square weren’t enough of a tip-off to the largely millennial crowd that Robert might not be the most hip speaker of the afternoon, surely his mention of a long-dead Hollywood actress they’d never heard of would be.
Unlike the tanned, muscle-bound Tadlock, Robert appeared particularly slight up there on the convention center exhibit hall stage — dwarfed by two massive screens flashing giant sums — $100,000! $1 Million! $150 Million! — on either side of him.
“How many of you would like to make next month what you did last year?” he asked. You bet people raised their hands. Who wouldn’t?
“How many people here are thinking I’m gonna sell you something?” he asked. “I don’t want to disappoint you.” His one-liner landed with a thud.
Robert gabbed for around twenty minutes without giving much advice, other than to share a paradoxical message: “You don’t have to be rich to write a book on how to get rich.” It turned out there was a reason Robert was so keen on the printed page. His “millions” are fueled by the publishing enterprise he founded, Black Card Books, which pumps out a perpetual infinity loop of business, life coaching and wealth strategy titles.
One 2016 publication: “Home at Last! How Migrant Workers Can Retire Rich and Worry Free!” by Geraldine Isa-al, a.k.a. “Gee.”
Books are better than business cards, contended Robert, because, “A book is never thrown away.”
And, yes, he too was also selling a seminar — in this case, the “Publish a Book and Grow Rich Bootcamp” — which was discounted drastically from the $2,498 listed in the handy National Achievers Congress workbook. The course would teach a simple step-by-step plan towards achieving boss-free wealth. The convoluted wealth-creation proposition: Learn how to write your own book, sell ads in the back of the book to pay for it (“Step 7: Get Others to Pay for Everything”), then watch the money roll in.
Robert brought the day’s pyramid schem-i-ness into stark relief. His business model, quite literally, is to sell publishing classes and services to people who wish to become wealthy by promoting their arguable get-rich-quick skills via books published by Robert’s firm, and paying for those publishing services by selling ads in the backs of those books to a potential network of people who will help the authors achieve the very success they claim they can teach others to achieve.
Is your head spinning yet?
Help Me to Help You (to Help Me)
While Buller seemed to buy into Robert’s and Gray’s hard sell approach, Centrella, the Portland-based aspiring motivational speaker and author or “Hustle Believe Receive: An 8-Step Plan to Changing Your Life and Living Your Dream,” did not. The fact that attendees were confronted with a barrage of un-advertised speakers selling other events was “fraudulent,” she said.
By April, Centrella had organized a motivational event for women she said was prompted entirely by her negative reaction to Robbins and his brand of positivity through coerced revelry. The National Achievers Congress, she said, “was the catalyst that I needed to do what I wanted to do which is totally the opposite of what [Robbins] is doing.”
Her Empowered Ladies Social will be held in May in Portland, at a cozy event space just a stone’s throw from the Oregon Convention Center. Centrella aimed for a calmer experience than the forced high-five fest she attended two months prior.
“Learn the 8-steps to living your dream NOW!” promises her event website. “We’ve invited 3 amazing women who have made their dreams a reality to share their keys to achieving success.”
Centrella thinks of her approach, complete with swag bags, a four-course dinner and a red carpet entrance, as part of a revolutionary movement in the self-help community. And maybe it is to some extent, but to many outside this subculture, the language describing the Empowered Ladies Social doesn’t seem that far off from Robbins’s own Unleash the Power Within event, which promises attendees will “Learn how you can surpass your own limitations to achieve your goals and improve the quality of your life.”
The notion of achievement in itself is a lofty one, inspiring even. One has to wonder, though, why people like Robbins, Robert, Buller, Centrella or others have decided to make a living based on a business model contingent on others buying into their secrets of (inchoate) success.
Motivational speaking and self-help “was definitely something that found me,” said Centrella, who described it almost as one would a religious calling. “It stalked me for a long time before I was really willing to take it seriously,” she said, noting that she helped people including athletes and coaches for free before deciding to parlay it into a profession.
It’s difficult to parse, though, isn’t it? — This notion that “helping” others is inherently intertwined with the success of the person doing the quote-unquote help? Rather than garnering valuable experience or knowledge through a previously successful operation and sharing it with the world, turning motivational self-help into a profession seems in many cases to rely on the promise its practitioners make to their customers as the very foundation of their businesses. The product or service, so to speak, is the promise.
Can you imagine if your auto mechanic or plumber promised to fix your vehicle or clean your pipes, then asked for your money to pay for their on-the-job training while they told you how you, too, could be successful at draining clogs?
Ultimately, the message of the National Achievers Congress and even some of the self-help hopefuls who attended seems to be less “help me to help you” and more “help me to help you help me.”
But the wheel keeps spinning. Success Resources is hosting its Ultimate Wealth and Success Summit in Boston, featuring Robbins and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in June.