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Conference Sophistication

In the next issue of Inside Information, I'm going to offer the best insights and information gleaned from the FPA NorCal conference and the NAPFA Spring conference, in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, respectively. But something occurred to me at both meetings that is important to share now.

Getting a national-quality meeting on your busy schedule is hard. You have to budget the time out of the office traveling to and from the conference site, the cost of travel and registration and the hotel, and the frantic days before and after the event itself, when you're trying to clear your desk and then catch up from the time you missed. It's an investment not to be taken lightly, and clearly not all conferences deliver a fair return, either because they invite speakers who clearly don't meet minimum standards, or sell the podium to sponsors whose representatives deliver naked sales pitches with little pretense to education. When I was asked to speak at one national meeting recently, and cited my fee, the person at the other end of the phone said that instead of a fee, I should regard the speaking engagement as a great opportunity to sell my products and services. I declined.

But if you choose wisely, there ARE rewards, and I saw them first-hand twice within a three-week period. I spoke at both NorCal and NAPFA, and had the same impression at both meetings. When I speak at local FPA chapter meetings, and give one of my normal presentations (I write new ones every year), many of the attendees will be staring in slack-jawed amazement at the things I'm telling them. I would not dare to give the same presentation to the audience at NorCal; they're already familiar with advanced topics, and looking for the ultra-advanced, not the cutting edge but the things over the horizon, not the really good ideas (because they know them already) but the great ones.

What made them so much more sophisticated? For 42 years, the NorCal conference has assembled a great lineup of speakers from around the country, and made them available right there in downtown San Francisco–which means no big trip to another city, which means people living in the Bay Area can go home after the day's presentations and sleep in their own beds. The accrued value of being able to attend a national-level conference once a year for decades is clearly visible in the knowledge of the advisors and the sophistication of their practices. You can see it in their eyes, and hear it visibly in their conversations. They have an unfair advantage, and people elsewhere are starting to catch on. I ran into advisors from as far away as New York City, Boise, ID and Jacksonville, FL at this year's event.

You see the same thing at NAPFA meetings, not because NAPFA brings its conferences right to the doorstep of its members (the Spring and Fall conferences are both national meetings, but they move around to different locations), but because the NAPFA membership–which is truly a community–makes it a priority to attend at least one of the organization's major conferences each year.

The point is that over time–and I think this does require a few years–you become visibly more informed and sophisticated. This, of course, means that if you go to the right conferences, each year's set of speakers is challenged to provide more than the usual information, which builds on a foundation that is already much higher than the industry average.

This ever-increasing sophistication is, I think, more than fair value for the time and expense of attending national conferences, and in the case of NorCal, the return on investment is skewed further because the meeting is local and convenient. You have access to the innovative thinking, best practice management ideas, new trends and most advanced ways to communicate with your clients. And you feel far more confident that your practice is prepared for the future.

There will be a new wave of national conference opportunities this Fall–and, of course, our Insider's Forum event is one of them (http://www.insidersforum.com). Our mission is to provide exactly this return on your conference investment, and we take it very seriously. But whether or not you're able to come to our conference, I would recommend that you look hard at making a commitment to attend at least one quality national meeting a year. To make sure you get a fair return on your time and money, look at the agenda, consider the organization that puts on the event, and ask friends in your community whether they've attended this event in the past, and whether they felt like they got something out of it.

And next month, look on these pages for some of the best insights from two great meetings, which will give you a small measure of the full experience of being there.