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Conference Evolution

One of the most interesting questions facing the advisor/planner ecosystem this year is when and how in-person conferences will resume.  National meetings have traditionally been important venues for creating relationships and networking, and building a common culture among like-minded attendees who, in the hours after the sessions have passed, talk about the profession’s next evolution and how to embrace it.  I have commented elsewhere that the fastest track toward becoming a leader in the profession is serially attending national conferences and interacting with people who are already leaders.  And many of those existing leaders got there by the same route.

This is a long way of saying that I believe in-person national events are important for the profession, and that losing them for more than a year was less than ideal.  As I think most of you know, Joel Bruckenstein and I have designed a survey which we hope will identify the very best national conferences in the profession, to help each of you decide where to budget your travel time in the coming half-year and beyond.  We included questions that should also give the producers of those meetings the kind of information they need to accelerate our collective return to getting together once again.

But I still believe there are ways we could improve the conference experience if/when these experiences resume.  One of them is the exhibit hall—still a relic of the days when planners were actually salespeople who needed to restock their shelves with exciting, exotic, high-commission investments, or when the only way to do due diligence on a mutual fund was to meet with a fund company representative at a major conference.  Today I would argue that the most functional exhibit halls are the T3 meeting, where you can browse the existing and upcoming tech features all in one place, and our Insider’s Forum conference, where we curate the exhibit hall and eliminate potential sponsors who we don’t believe are relevant to the audience, and go out of our way to identify new services or (mostly tech) products that advisory firms might not yet know about.

The curation element is highlighted in contrast to many national meetings where the biggest, flashiest, most expensive booths are typically hosted by the annuity firms, the non-traded REITs, and the giant ETF providers who have money to burn either because they prioritize marketing over substance, or because their products have become so ubiquitous that you already know everything there is to know about them. 

In some cases, at the larger custodial and BD conferences, these booths are there in a complicated pay-to-play arrangement where the deal is: buy a big booth and we’ll promote your product to our affiliated advisors and reps.  In others, the booth that is a Tiki bar serving drinks or a habitat with a celebrity signing autographs is trying to get you to consider recommending a product which might not ideally serve your clients, in return for soft dollars, commissions or promotional benefits that you might not have heard about if you hadn’t stopped by for a drink or a quick schmooze. 

Some of us in the conference business are looking for better ways to highlight more beneficial members of the planning support ecosystem, and I suspect that the virtual experiences of 2020-21 will allow more flexibility in combining exhibit booths with on-screen presentations before or after the meeting.  Some conferences have created virtual exhibit halls, which, alas, are still largely populated by the same old firms.  In all of this, there’s a hint of reform, but we’re still in the very early stages of figuring it out.

Facilitating the in-person networking and peer-to-peer conversations might be another focus in the post-pandemic conference scene, although here I think the most forthright approach is to attract great people to begin with.  Yes, there should be cocktail receptions and time set aside between sessions for people to talk about how to apply the presentation they just saw in their own firms, and yes, too many conferences hurry you from one session to the next or collect so many attendees that you get lost in the crowd.  It’s possible that the biggest conferences will have the most trouble getting back to their former scale, especially now that you can get all the CE credits you need or want simply by accepting a daily invitation to this or that webcast.

And that may be the final change we’ll see from pre- to post-pandemic: a shift from offering CE credits as the primary value proposition to assuming that attendees can get CE credits anywhere, and offering more in-depth presentations on industry issues, future trends, practice management best practices, marketing ideas and how to improve your client service—the very things that are most productively discussed in those peer-to-peer conversations.  Conference producers are going to discover that excellent non-CE speakers are a bit harder to find.

All of this is a bit speculative, of course; we hope that our survey will help clear up some of the confusion about which conferences offer the best experience, and how the conference scene as a whole will change after our year-long experiment in virtual meetings.  (Click here to offer your own views and help shape the final report:  I hope everybody reading this will give us ten minutes of your time to help provide this clarity, and I hope we’ll see a robust return to in-person conference attendance once we’re all finally vaccinated and cleared to travel.  The profession has inarguably benefited from its conference lineup in the past, and it would be a shame to see that culture-building, leader-creating element falter just when we need it most.