The sessions themselves would be just part of the benefit. When owner and office administrator attend the conference together, they can compare notes on what they've heard, prioritize the changes they want to make and sketch out how to implement them - the CEO looking at the big picture and giving buy-in, the administrator collecting details to make it happen, right there at the meeting.
As a result, attendees could make evolutionary progress at the conference. Compare that with the traditional way we process the powerful new ideas presented from the podium: The firm owner brings back a lot of notes, but then, upon arrival, becomes much too busy catching up to do anything about them.
As an additional benefit, while the principals are networking and picking the brains of other firm owners during cocktail receptions or sponsored dinners, administrators can be comparing notes on how their peers at other, similar firms handle different operational issues. Shop talk can take place simultaneously on two different levels.
BEYOND LIP BALM
One other additional conference function comes to mind: harnessing the expertise of the exhibitors. Is there any activity, anywhere in our economic landscape, more dysfunctional than gathering some of the industry's most innovative software companies, asset management firms and custodians into booths in a large exhibit hall, and have their representatives stand by hopefully while advisors avoid eye contact as they walk past them to the food and beverage areas?
"I sometimes wonder," one company representative once told me, in a terrific summary of the typical exhibit hall dynamic, "whether my highest and best use is to stand at a booth giving away Chapstick."
How do we fix this?
I would require the exhibitors to replace the lip balm and keychains with, for instance, a professional white paper written by a fund's economists and research analysts, outlining the most interesting things they're seeing in the markets.
I would ask the custodians to offer training sessions at their booths, showing attendees what power users are doing with their software interface.
I would only allow companies into the exhibit hall who are serious about partnering with advisors and delivering value to the planning process - and I would encourage advisors to talk shop with representatives who may have visited hundreds of other planning firms and collected interesting ideas from the visits.
As I look into the future, I see the traditional industry conference joined by a proliferation of study groups, sponsored traveling road shows, virtual meetings, webinars and increasingly sophisticated local chapter events.
In our ever-chaotic investment environment, advisors have to be given a great reason to leave their offices for two or three days. I think the traditional conference experience will only remain viable if it serves its traditional purposes more effectively than it has in the past, and if we can find ways to deliver more value for more people in the office.
Bob Veres, a Financial Planning columnist, publishes the Inside Information newsletter and website for advisors at bobveres.com. Post your comments on Financial Planning's discussion boards at financial-planning.com/forums. Readers can also send feedback to email@example.com.