Advisor’s dilemma: To travel or not in the age of coronavirus?

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In normal times, industry conferences are fine opportunities for colleagues to connect, reconnect, learn and network. But “normal” exited stage right when coronavirus entered. Now, the prospect of financial advisors shaking hands with hundreds of strangers suddenly seems like a shaky proposition.

In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, advisors across the U.S. are faced with tricky decisions regarding previously taken-for-granted behaviors in a people-driven industry. Advisor reactions are running the gamut from extreme caution to fatalistic.

One pressing issue is whether or not to attend key industry conferences on the busy spring circuit, ones usually filled with thousands of attendees.

“We talk about it in the office. We have families and we don’t want to put them at risk,” says Gabriel Gallante, an advisor at Rockline Wealth Management in Plainview, New York. These days, his team prefers to stay near “home base.” They are still taking in-person client meetings, but skipping conferences.

“Hey, we have a fiduciary responsibility,” says Gallante, underlining that in this case fiduciary goes beyond protecting a clients’ financial interests.

Of course, whether scheduled events will take place at all remains an open question.

The World Health Organization Wednesday declared coronavirus, or COVID-19, a pandemic. Across the , public officials have warned against large public gatherings, prompting authorities to cancel mainstay annual events such as the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas and Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Several advisors noted how fast the virus has spread since it first appeared in China in December. The number of confirmed U.S. cases topped 1,000 as of March 10, up from 60 cases March 3, according to the CDC, with under 30 deaths recorded as of March 11 in the entire U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. In several states and cities, officials have declared states of emergency.

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Some risk-averse planners have already canceled trips and meetings, underlining how coronavirus is scrambling wealth management operations.

Other advisors have adopted a more cavalier attitude, eyeing bargain deals on airline plane tickets and hotel rooms.

Marc Schindler of Pivot Point Advisors in Bellaire, Texas says he’s excited about how airlines and hotels have slashed prices in the face of disappearing customers.

“I also like stocks when they are on sale,” Schindler says.

Making business decisions in this environment requires tracking developments moving at head-spinning speed. Getting a scheduled flight or train may be challenging. Some airlines are cutting back on flights. Amtrak said it was canceling some train service between New York and Washington. It also promised "enhanced cleaning" of trains and stations in light of the virus.

Right now, some advisors are erring on the side of caution when it comes to travel.

Advisor Sarah Keys of Denver-based Cardan Capital says she doesn’t have plans to travel for work, but she nixed a vacation to Bali, Indonesia out of concern for how the coronavirus could upend her itinerary (the trip involved layovers).

Christopher Giambrone, founding partner of CG Capital in New Hartford, New York, says his team is utilizing Zoom meetings, adding that travel to conferences isn’t really worth the risk right now.

In some instances, firms are making the decision for advisors.

Hightower canceled an executive services showcase this week in New Orleans, which would have had about 100 expected attendees. The firm decided not to hold the event "so as to keep everyone safe and healthy," Chief Marketing Officer Abby Salameh said in an email. The firm is closely watching the situation as it plans for its largest annual meeting scheduled in Nashville next month.

LPL Financial canceled its Masters conference for advisors in Los Angeles, where the county has declared a state of emergency.

“There’s nothing that we want more than to recognize your success and demonstrate our appreciation for you and your business. However, out of an abundance of caution, we feel it’s best to not gather in Los Angeles given the circumstances and where it could evolve to,” the firm told advisors.

Other than that, an LPL spokeswoman says it has not cancelled any upcoming conferences, but it is monitoring the situation.

Gallante says his team had planned to attend the LPL event, but seeing it canceled was “a little bit of a reality check.”

“If they’re doing that, maybe there’s reason to take precautions,” Gallante says.

Show goes on

Currently, key advisory events are scheduled to take place this spring: Raymond James’ Elevate conference for advisors, April 20-23; NAPFA Spring 2020 National Conference, May 6–9; FPA’s Retreat, May 4-7; and SIFMA Private Client Conference, May 13-15. The SIFMA gathering is attended by top brokerage executives from across the industry.

Organizers for these events report no changes or cancelations as of March 11, but say they are keeping tabs on the virus’ development.

Face to face?

Of course, for advisors putting off conferences is one thing; putting off client meetings is another.

“I value the face-to-face time with clients and prospective clients, particularly in market climates like what we are experiencing of late. In light of the volatility, it is invaluable to continue to provide updates to clients, which our firm has done, as well as check in to confirm, and reconfirm, investment plans,” says Jay Spector, an advisor at Barton Spector in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Spector says he plans to travel to meetings in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Washington.

There’s also a question of whether advisors are following their own advice.

It’s about authenticity, says Chip Munn, president of Signature Wealth Strategies. “If I’m telling clients that, based on the information I have now, I think that the fears about the virus are exaggerated, then I can’t also cancel my travel.”

For advisor Brandon Opre, it’s business as usual.

“I already conduct most ‘meetings’ via phone or video conference, but I am not altering my travel plans in any way. I think the public fear — brought forward due to media causing panic — is overblown,” says Opre, founder of TrustTree Financial in Huntersville, North Carolina.

Advisor Robert Braglia, who plans to visit friends in Hong Kong, agrees. “This is a media and politics-driven mania,” says Braglia, who serves as president of The Intelligent Decision in New York.

Still, other advisors are taking precautions even as they plan to attend upcoming conferences. Laurie Allen says she has encouraged her five-person team at LA Wealth Management to work from home and use Zoom for meetings. The Long Beach, California-based advisor intends to attend industry events next month — provided organizers don’t cancel.

“If it's still held I will go and make sure to wash my hands,” Allen says.

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