Saturday, March 15, 2008




How the Learning Annex went from teaching offbeat courses on computer programming and the art of reflexology to being a Trumped-up marketplace for get-rich-quick schemes. Ivor Tossell reports

Special to The Globe and Mail

March 15, 2008

The Learning Annex is back. It's just not the one you remember.

It actually made its first appearance this time last year. Early one Saturday morning in March, 2007, the lobby of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre was heaving with thousands of inspiration-seeking registrants scrambling to get programs. Each program was emblazoned with the motto "THIS WEEKEND BECOME A MILLIONAIRE!"

The Learning Annex Real Estate & Wealth Expo had plastered the city with Donald Trump's face, but hadn't advertised when in the two-day event his ballyhooed speech would occur. So here was everyone who'd paid upwards of $100 for tickets, bleary-eyed and jostling, not wanting to miss out.

"If you have your badges, keep moving up the stairs," hollered an official in the crowd. "If you have questions, ask the cute girls in the white shirts!"

Upstairs, as the stadium-sized main floor filled up, the girls in white tank-tops - and there were many, every one of them cute - milled about and greeted newcomers. Someone had dressed in a costume with a giant Trump bobblehead. Up front, a speaker had taken the stage.

"We have a little tradition here," he boomed. "It's called the money dance!" The money dance was set to the tune of the 1990 pop song I Wanna Be Rich: "I... want... money! Lots and lots of money!" Step-clap-step-clap... As the music blared, thousands got up, looked around a bit sheepishly, then stepped, clapped, stepped and clapped.

And then the organizers of the Learning Annex Real Estate & Wealth Expo did a little money dance of their own. For the next two days, attendees were offered a blend of high-octane inspirational talk along with pitch after pitch for schemes that promised success at everything from flipping apartments to profiting from foreclosures - if, of course, they purchased further learning materials.

This is the new Learning Annex - and it will be rolling back into town on March 29. After being sold and re-sold over the years, the institution that Torontonians might best recall for its intriguing and offbeat night-school courses has morphed into a different creature entirely.

Its curbside boxes are empty and dilapidated, its quirky courses no longer offered. In its place is a travelling extravaganza of high-profile speakers and anyone-can-do-it real-estate schemes. If last year's event is any indication, it will leave some people feeling like a million - and others wondering where their money went.

From z to z and back

It wasn't always this way. What happened to the Learning Annex that was?

"Donald Trump," is Bill Zanker's answer.

"Donald Trump took our brand and put it on the map."

Mr. Zanker would know. He founded the Learning Annex in 1980 in New York City. By 1986, it had expanded to Toronto, as well as other big cities in the United States. Over the years, it earned a reputation for offering how-to courses that ranged from meat-and-potatoes to downright weird.

The Learning Annex would teach you everything from computer skills to reconnecting with your past lives, from magazine writing to "The Intimate Art of Foot Reflexology." It might not have been Harvard North, exactly, but who else offered a course called "Break Into The News Business! An Afternoon With Gord Martineau"?

In 1991, however, the Learning Annex filed for bankruptcy, and Mr. Zanker sold the organization he started. The Toronto end of the operation was purchased by a trio of Canadian businessmen and run locally for most of the decade.

Through the 1990s, the Learning Annex's local owners moved towards bringing in more high-profile speakers - motivational and otherwise - in addition to the usual courses. Toronto saw the likes of Jerry Lewis, Deepak Chopra, Timothy Leary and Kurt Vonnegut, who spoke in a church on Queen Street East.

"We brought a lot of personal growth to the big stage during the nineties," said David Sersta, who was the Learning Annex's managing partner in those years. "We introduced a lot of great speakers, like Eckhart Tolle." (Mr. Tolle went on to author The Power of Now, which became a darling of Oprah Winfrey and her formidable marketing machine.)

By 2001, however, Mr. Zanker had retaken the reins of the Learning Annex in the United States. Meanwhile, the Toronto operation had caught the attention of Moses Znaimer, the impresario owner of the CHUM media empire. As Mr. Zanker tells the story, Mr. Znaimer was hooked when Timothy Leary, in town to speak to the Learning Annex, made an appearance on CHUM. (Mr. Znaimer declined to be interviewed for this story.) After the Learning Annex's three Canadian owners sold it back to Mr. Zanker, he in turn sold it to CHUM in 2001.

Mr. Zanker said that Mr. Znaimer's plan was to use his television assets to promote the Learning Annex.

"It didn't grow to the extent that we wanted it to grow," said Ross Mayot, who headed the Learning and Skills Television of Alberta division of CHUM that operated the Learning Annex.

"Bill [Zanker] had some new ideas he was developing in the United States with Trump," he said. "We seized on the opportunity to sell it back."

Those new ideas involved real estate. Noticing the interest that the Learning Annex's real-estate seminars were attracting, Mr. Zanker had assembled them into one super-sized Wealth Expo.

And so, in 2006, the Learning Annex's Canadian incarnation ceased to be, swallowed by the real-estate spectacular that Mr. Zanker was already touring around the United States, riding the wave of Mr. Trump's newfound reality-TV stardom.

In March of 2007, it pulled into Toronto, skinny white t-shirts, Trump bobblehead and all.

putting on a big show

The 2007 expo drew 50,000 attendees, by the Learning Annex's own tally. Everything about it was oversized - including, it seems, the range of reactions people had.

Those who went seeking entertainment - and there were many - seemed to walk away happy. "It was fun," wrote Simon Bernath, a 19-year-old Hamilton salesman who's starting a business in energy-efficient appliances, in response to an e-mail query. He said it was "well worth the $100 admission price to see the many speakers, not so much for the actual content but more for the motivational factor of being at the event." (Mr. Bernath also made a point of praising the cute girls in white tank-tops.) Last year, the keynotes packed the convention hall with high-voltage crowd-pleasers like Tony Robbins and Richard Branson, whose promised appearance turned out to be via satellite feed.

Mr. Trump, for his part, proved as good a showman in person as he is on television, regaling a psyched-up sea of spectators with New York-flavoured life lessons ("When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades!").

The real-estate seminars were another story. At shows like these, the keynote speakers are paid to be there - Mr. Trump, in this instance, to the tune of $1.5 million - while the seminar presenters pay for their chance to present. Offerings last year included the likes of "Automatic Millionaire Homeowner" and "Auctions and Foreclosures," which promised to teach students "how to buy a home with less than $50, without a credit statement."

As the uninitiated quickly discovered, most of these "courses" boiled down to extended infomercials for get-rich-quick schemes.

"It was more like their life stories," said Diana Newton, a social worker from Scarborough who attended with her son, looking to get into real-estate investing. "Then at the end, if you wanted more information, you had to come up with $2,000 or $3,000."

Salesmen took turns exhorting customers from the main stage, and reiterating their pitches in breakout sessions in smaller rooms.

Susan Prestedge, a college instructor who went to the show on a lark, recalls sitting in on one large breakout session on real-estate flipping. Near the end, the instructor announced that there were only 500 seats available in his three-day $1,000 seminar, which would be held in Toronto at a later date.

"At that, half of the people got up and started running for the back of the room," she said. "I've never seen so many people so eager to separate themselves from a thousand dollars."

But those seminar materials might just wind up sitting on the shelf.

"Very few people are affected in a positive way by seminars," said Brad Lamb, the Toronto real-estate broker. "Some people change their lives. Most people end up adhering to the same bad habits."

Real estate seminars are nothing new; Mr. Lamb notes that some of the presenters at the Wealth Expo have been selling their wares in Toronto for decades.

"There was a host of guys that would travel around doing these motivational real-estate seminars, where they sold you a video and a book and a series of instructional booklets to show you how to find your way to riches," he said. "And they're all conceivably correct, except in practice they don't work."

Some would beg to differ. Those who arrived knowing what to expect could take the seminars in stride as a shopping opportunity. Among them were out-and-out fans: real-estate junkies who follow the Trump mantra of thinking big. Maria Lavoie, an ebullient real-estate investor who calls Mr. Trump her mentor, travelled from Sudbury to learn what she could from the show.

"We're obsessed with what we do," she laughed, in a phone interview arranged by the Learning Annex. "We do this seven days a week. We don't do anything else."

Ms. Lavoie said she and her husband quit their jobs five years ago and threw themselves into full-time real-estate investing. She said that nuggets of wisdom she got from the speakers led her to focus on buying trailer parks (she now owns two) instead of managing property. Her sales since the expo, she says, have totalled over a million. (Ms. Lavoie was so pleased, she wrote a testimonial that's featured in a book co-authored by Mr. Trump and Mr. Zanker, called Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life.) At the event, speakers were upfront in saying that truly successful investors are a rare breed. But where some see opportunity, others see opportunism.

"I thought they were barely this side of being scams," said Dan Richards, a consultant to the financial sector who was also in attendance. Mr. Richards said he saw a lot of people of limited means hoping to find "quick-fix" solutions.

"The biggest value for most people is they give them a brief period of hope."

Ms. Newton left disappointed. "A lot of people are down on their luck," she said. "These guys make it seem so easy just to jump up and get started, and it's not."

The trump card

On March 29, the show will be back in town. This year, however, the expo has been reduced from two days to one.

"I think we're not sure how the Canadian market is," said Mr. Zanker.

Despite a note on the Learning Annex website that says that Toronto classes will be starting soon, Mr. Zanker says there are no plans to bring them back. In fact, while classes are still offered in New York City, Mr. Zanker says the organization is moving away from in-person classes, and towards online learning.

Already, last year's attendees have been receiving free tickets to "Donald Trump Live," arriving in large envelopes with Trump's face scowling from the front.

Inside, a flyer urges readers to "Come Meet DONALD TRUMP."

"Don't miss Donald's LIVE Q&A after he teaches," it reads. "Ask him about anything... if he will fund a new business idea, where to invest, or even if you could be his 'apprentice.' "

The eagle-eyed, however, might spot a disclaimer at the bottom corner of the page, in the smallest of type: "Donald will be recorded LIVE via satellite." His appearance will be beamed in from his house in Florida. He won't be here at all.

On the envelope front, the ever-adaptable Learning Annex has updated last year's pitch to fit its foreshortened schedule: "One Saturday" - the first two lines are underlined in red - "Can Make You A MILLIONAIRE!"

Hope springs eternal.


After attending last year's expo - and signing up with my credit card - I discovered an unwelcome surprise on my bill.

In the weeks after the show, telemarketers made two follow-up phone calls to me. In the first, I was told about a "free" Learning Annex online-learning website - and was told that an e-mail would be sent to me containing a login and password. Seeing no harm, I consented to receive the e-mail. I didn't open it. When a second telemarketer phoned to follow up, I responded that I had no interest in the website, or in any further phone calls.

I never visited the website. Months later, though, I discovered two charges for just over $40 on my credit-card bill. Checking the unopened e-mail, I found fine print stating that I would be charged if I did not cancel within 14 days. The Learning Annex had billed the credit-card number I'd used to pay for the expo.

Visa refunded my money, but my interest was piqued. It turned out I wasn't alone.

Much the same thing happened to Ash Silva, a producer of entrepreneur-oriented events who said he enjoyed the Wealth Expo itself. After the show, however, telemarketers called about the website, telling his wife (who answered the phone) that they had a follow-up product and wanted to confirm their home address.

"It was almost a steamroll," said Mr. Silva. "They speak so fast, it doesn't even make sense." Mr. Silva said his wife declined the offer.

"Lo and behold," he says, "the credit card got billed."

When he called the Learning Annex, Mr. Silva said, a supervisor claimed she had an audiotape of his wife consenting to have her credit card billed. He said it was only when he challenged the supervisor to go ahead and play the tape that she agreed to refund the money.

In a phone interview last week, Mr. Zanker called the claims "ridiculous" and said that the Learning Annex would never put unauthorized charges on a credit card. He added that everyone who was signed up to the website trial consented to it when they registered for the expo.

"If anyone wanted it, they got it, and if they don't want it, they don't have to have it," said Mr. Zanker.

The Learning Annex: Trading places and trading hands

Over the years, the institution that Bill Zanker founded has gone through many incarnations.

1980: Bill Zanker founds the Learning Annex in New York City with $5,000.

1986: Learning Annexes are established in several North American cities, including Toronto.

1991: The Learning Annex files for bankruptcy. Bill Zanker sells the organization in both the U.S. and Canada. The Canadian operation is purchased by a trio of local investors. Timothy Leary visits Toronto to present a Learning Annex seminar.

1999: The Canadian owners of the Learning Annex sell it back to the American operation.

2001: Bill Zanker returns to the company he founded. The Canadian operation is bought by Moses Znaimer's CHUM media.

2005: In the United States, Donald Trump appears at Mr. Zanker's wealth expo. Speaking fee: $1.5-million.

2006: CHUM sells the Learning Annex back to Mr. Zanker. Classes cease.

2007: The Wealth Expo comes to Toronto, headlined by an appearance by Donald Trump. Tens of thousands attend.

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