To those who think that benefit auctions for charitable causes may be losing their appeal, Kip Toner, who for more than three decades has been in the business of getting folks to raise their paddles, has news for you.
Toner, who's KTBA, Inc. (Kip Toner Benefit Auctions) is 20 years old this year, says auctions have become an increasingly important part of charitable organizations' annual fund raising efforts. And he predicts that the importance and the number of auctions will continue to grow for those non-profits, perhaps even because of the current economic challenges.
"Because of what's happened in the economy over the past four years, auctions have become increasingly important for charities because other sources of revenue have declined significantly," Toner observed. "A number of those charities have come to us and said they simply need to have their auctions produce more than in the past."
It was in 1991, after 15 years learning all aspects of the auction business with the James G. Murphy Co., that Toner launched his own company in Seattle and proceeded to grow the enterprise into an auction company that does business across the country.
Toner sees two trends that he expects will dramatically increase the importance of benefit auctions in the future. One is the growing use of handheld devices for bidding. The other is the increasing presence of what he calls "consignment items" -- items for which the donor and the charitable organization split the amount of the winning bid.
Referring to the advent of bidding with handheld devices, Toner says: "The trend will increase the bidder pool against a fixed number of items and that will certainly increase the price for each item."
The emergence of handheld devices for bidding is part of what Toner sees as "the challenge auctions have in front of them to update their appeal to a new generation." He adds that the way handheld bidding fits into a more fun environment is that attendees don't have to pay as close attention to the front-of-the-room action when they can track bidding on their device.
Despite the challenges, the number of auctions is actually growing rather than declining, Toner notes.
"Some organizations have stopped doing auctions," he says. "But for every one that is dropped 10 emerge. There is almost an unlimited supply of items for auctions and coming up with new and unusual ones is merely a matter of creativity."
Toner's company did 105 auctions last year, with he doing at least one a weekend at auctions extending from New York and Washington, D.C., to Hawaii.
Asked about how much money his auctions generate for various charities, Toner said the last year they tried to calculate the total charity take was 2007 when "the auction revenue the charities actually took in was $16 million," he said. "That was the amount actually earned at the auctions from the live and silent segments, fund an item and other sales such as raffles."
As a result of the expected growth in auction numbers, Toner says more and more people are seeking to get into the auctioneer game. That has prompted the national auctioneers association to create a recognition of the formal title Benefit Auctioneer Specialist and ask Toner to write the curriculum and teach the classes for those who want to qualify for that ranking.
Toner credits the late Dick Friel, who with wife, Sharon, were the beloved team at many Seattle-area auctions, with bringing humor to the auctions.
"Dick was great because he taught us all about the importance of humor in the auction, he showed us how to be entertainers as auctioneers," Toner added.
Two items that Toner says are growing in popularity are parties at the local fire station and small-plane flights put up by the owners of the planes.
"Firefighters love to have people come to the station both because they inevitably get a few minutes to do a fire-safety talk and because those attending the party usually bring the food, and leave the leftovers behind," Toner said with a smile.
"The private-plane trips are frequently bought by people who want to take out-of-town guests up because it's a great way to see the Northwest in all its glory," He adds.
Asked about what makes a successful auctioneer, Toner emphasized: "you have to make it about the attendees, not about the auctioneer, and that includes thanking people by name.That isn't really difficult since I have a sheet with a name after each bid number," Toner pointed out.
He recalled doing a recent art auction in New York where all the attendees were Spanish, adding that he spent advance time learning how to pronounce each name. "I'm not positive I got each name right, but they appreciated the effort."
What's the largest pricetag he recalls for an item? Toner says it was likely the $650,000 paid by an auto dealer who outbid several other challengers for the opportunity take his customers on trip aboard the cruiser of a well-to-do North Idaho business person.
"In the end, the winning bidder decided instead to take all the competing bidders," Toner chuckled.
When the 68-year-old Toner was asked how long he might continue at his current pace, given continued good health and energy, he said he's done 23 years of auctions for Georgetown Prep in Washington, D.C., and 20 for Pilchuck Glass. "I'd like to reach 25 with each before I think about retiring."
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