Here's a question I never hear anybody ask: What would you have to receive from a national conference in order to feel like you got a substantial return on your investment?
The traditional calculus, which is tossed off carelessly by keynoters everywhere, says that if you come away with one or two good ideas, then the trip will have paid for itself. But is that really true? How many times have you come back to your office with a bunch of great ideas that were somehow never implemented?
Would you call that an adequate return on your investment?
Would you recommend that kind of investment to your clients?
When we created our Insider's Forum conference (September 17-19 in Dallas; http://www.insidersforum.com), our fiduciary duty to our attendees demanded that we take a realistic look at this cost/benefit ledger. When you delve into what people are actually paying, and what they're actually getting from the traditional conference experience, vs. what they actually COULD be getting-well, let's just say the results are surprising.
On the expense side, by far the biggest item is the three days of your time out of the office. You can argue all you want that it's important to invest in your own career, that mingling with your peers energizes you and reminds you why you're in this business in the first place, but chances are you accomplish a lot in those three days and your staff is more productive when you're on the premises. I don't know how you assign a value to all this, but when you pick a number, I would tend to err on the high side.
Add to that the cost of travel and registration fees. Let's say you also add the time and travel cost of a key administrative staff person, plus the time and travel cost of your key investment professional-and, to make the numbers as fair as possible, let's assume that each of these additional staff persons take advantage of our Insider's Forum registration process, and is able to register at a substantially discounted fee.
Add up these factors using your own numbers, and that your total investment in the conference.
On the return side, in the traditional conference experience, you get exposure to new ideas, you freshen up your knowledge of technical planning issues, and you return with additional energy. You may get a couple of good suggestions on how to improve your practice, but unless they are implemented, I would argue that they don't belong in this equation.
What else COULD you be getting? The Insider's Forum conference offers your administrative staff very hard-to-find training–in state-of-the-art office procedures, in how to systematize and automate tasks, in how to delegate tasks to the lowest-paid person who can do the job competently. At hands-on workshops, they'll be exposed to the best thinking of other key administrative people who have signed up for their own specialized educational track. They'll ask their peers how they're using various software tools in their own offices. About what works and what doesn't.
Your admin person can bring this information and insight back to the rest of your staff. This represents a real return on your investment. Learning what others think about the various software tools might save costly mistakes–another item on the return side of the equation.
Meanwhile, the Insider's Forum offers your investment staff an advanced portfolio management track which explores better ways to manage and allocate assets. Investment specialists from around the country-the peers of your investment professional–can compare notes about how they're preparing for the impending bond bubble burst, how they're handling risk and (I think a hugely important issue) how to better communicate with clients what you're doing in your portfolios.
I believe the peer-to-peer interaction makes up at least 50% of the value of a conference experience-and you probably know this from personal experience. The ability to compare notes with successful advisors, the networking opportunities and awareness of the current “buzz” in your field is hard to quantify, but certainly expands your effectiveness. When you triple that peer-to-peer benefit by having it inform the investment and administrative parts of your practice, the overall benefit is raised by orders of magnitude.
Of course, the Insider's Forum also gives you a chance to collect your own great ideas from the keynote sessions and the CEO educational track, and provides exposure to the latest thinking and new trends in the profession. I hope we will do this better than anyone else, with all the time and thought and feedback we've incorporated into the program, and the quality of the speakers, but this is the value-added that every conference attempts to provide.
Now let's add up your total return. You'll get training for your admin person, plus new software and systems ideas. You'll get new investment ideas and a chance to compare how you're managing portfolios with other advisory firms. You'll be motivated by the new ideas you collect on your own.
PLUS–and this may be the key value of the Insider's Forum conference experience-you'll get a much higher probability of implementation. The three of you will have three days to compare notes. Your admin staffer can have you demo the software that other administrative people are raving about. After hours, you'll talk about different ways to streamline your practice. Your investment person will show you a couple of new fund strategies in the exhibit hall, and together you'll take a fresh look at your client portfolios.
All together, you and your team will decide, before you ever leave the meeting, which changes you want to happen in your office. You'll return home with a plan of attack, and broad agreement on what has to be done next.
As you look at the local and national conference opportunities this Fall, I invite you to take a cost/benefit approach to your decision. For many, that might mean attending your very first national conference, simply because, for the first time, you can see how the benefits outweigh the costs. For others, it might mean that a favorite conference you've attended in the past doesn't measure up when you balance it on the cost/benefit scales. For the profession as a whole, I think it means a LOT more work and attention-to providing tangible value, rather than looking for a flashy keynote speaker who may not know much about the planning profession.
Going forward, I think the most important thing that advisors will look at on the "returns" side of every conference balance sheet is what I call the "implementation factor." Because of the way the Insider's Forum is structured, because you've brought and educated key decision makers from your office, all the great ideas you'll take home from the conference will have a much higher chance of actually being implemented.
And the value of implementing great ideas is priceless.