Funeral Plan Provider Readies U.S. Launch

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Aiming to help people through the funeral planning process, Everest Funeral Package LLC in the first half of 2004 will debut an Internet- and telephone-based package targeting women ages 45-65.


The service at www.everestfuneral.com is currently live in Canada in partnership with Federated Life Insurance of Canada, GE Insource and Electronic Data Systems. A major affiliate is Canada's Association for the Fifty-Plus, which is similar to AARP in the United States.


"We want to be a nationwide product in the United States, but the Canadian market was smaller and easier to get to," said Mark Duffey, Houston-based president/CEO of Everest.


McLellan Group, Toronto, is handling marketing for Everest, which also has an office in that city. MKTech, a McLellan sibling, is in charge of the Everest site.


Everest offers funeral insurance ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. Monthly payments for the smallest policy start at $48 for a 50-year-old woman or $84 for someone who is 70. Alternatively, the 50-year-old can make a single payment of $6,700 that turns into $10,000 upon death.


"Through MKTech's QuickIssue technology, consumers can purchase insurance online in as little as six minutes and receive confirmation or coverage via e-mail within a further two minutes," said Caroline Bretsen, manager of public and media relations at McLellan. "This is drastically different than anything that is currently available on the market."


While the proceeds of the insurance are tax-free, Everest also offers 2.5 percent interest yearly on the policy.


The company differentiates itself on another count. Most insurance policies take 90 to 120 days to redeem. Everest makes the payment in 48 hours once informed by the beneficiary of the policyholder's death. All details are stored digitally.


The rapid redemption is mainly to satisfy funeral home requirements of cash-upfront payments. Everest can contact the funeral home and make the payment directly, with the rest sent to the beneficiary.


Each year, about 3 million people in the United States pre-plan their funeral. One-third go to the directors of local funeral homes. The rest buy funeral insurance through direct response television commercials and mail outreaches. Everest eyes this primary market.


For example, only 15 percent of the 22,000 funeral homes nationwide are in the hands of consolidators like Service Corporation International or Carriage Services. The rest are independently owned and operated.


"They're still doing it like they did 100 years ago, going down the street, talking to a funeral director at the worst possible time -- at the time of the death of a loved one," Duffey said. "There hasn't historically been another good way to do this in advance."


Evidence shows that women most often are left to handle funeral planning. Furthermore, pre-planning at a local funeral home has its disadvantage. What if the person moves? Though the payment is recoverable, there are financial as well as emotional penalties.


"No one represents you," Duffey said. "It's very difficult to price-shop. Try going to the Internet to shop."


Everest has competition from independent operators and corporate giants such as Service Corporation and Carriage Services, which Duffey co-founded in 1991 and left to start Everest with EDS. There also are insurers like Garden State Life Insurance and those that sell via mail and DRTV.


"But our biggest competitors are people who don't do anything," Duffey said.


The Everest package comes with funeral details, company history, funding information and independent round-the-clock advice by telephone. The plan is portable in Canada, meaning that Canadians can keep the plan anywhere in the country and switch homes or details at no extra cost.


"Everest gets no money from funeral homes," Duffey said. "We get paid by the insurance company for providing this product."


Everest is using mail and ads in Canadian senior magazines like Good Times and Active Adult to promote the service. It also is running ads in the Canada's Association for Fifty-Plus' journal as well as sending e-mails to its member list. The association has about 350,000 members.


Efforts are on to get more mileage through new affinity partners, Duffey said. All ads point to everestfuneral.com and the toll-free number.


"The biggest response we're getting is from the Web," he said.


Another important persuasion tool is a video on the site, with a woman chosen to appeal to the target audience.


"We've identified through focus-group testing that women most commonly bring information home and initiate discussion," Bretsen said. "They don't necessarily make the decisions, but they certainly are the first point of contact."


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