What is the role of a national conference? What can we do to make them better? As it turns out, I'm deep in the minutiae of creating my own conference. It's a fairly complicated affair, with three separate tracks for people in different roles, and the whole exercise has forced me to think hard about what purpose a conference actually serves. Why do we have so many conferences, and what is their purpose in the profession?
One purpose, of course, is to deliver CE credits. But most of you know far more convenient ways to stay educated and prove that you've done so. There are webinars, virtual conferences - and of course you can read this magazine and take the CE Quiz on page 70.
Another purpose a conference serves is keeping you abreast of developments in the planning world. This requires conference organizers to be familiar with cutting-edge issues of the profession. Topics may include esoterica like the recent encroachment of beta factor explanations on what we used to call "alpha" in client portfolios: "Is that manager outperforming because she's picking great stocks or because she underweighted the eurozone at the right time?"
Or the recent phenomenon of investment committees and how to run one effectively: "We have great meetings, but decision-making has slowed to a crawl." Or the increasing use of new trading software with features your custodian or broker-dealer doesn't offer: "I can get automatic rebalancing alerts and see the tax implications of each trade right on the screen!"
Each year, there are many changes in our professional reality. Ideally, a conference should make you aware of them and explore the implications.
Yet another reason to go to conferences is for networking, which may be where you find at least half of the overall value. What interesting things are your peers doing, and why? How is it working? Can they shed some light on a challenge you're facing right now?
The key here is to have the "right" peers at the luncheon, in the hallways and sitting next to you after that cutting-edge keynote - people who are actively trying to improve their own professional lives, who work at firms not too different from yours and who are open to creative shop talk.
Finally, I think the sessions have to break through what I call the barrier of reality. In my experience, advisors are deluged constantly with "high-level advice," like: "Start an effective marketing program," or "Implement a succession plan," or "Make sure your portfolios are allocated efficiently." But at the same time, there seems to be a tremendous scarcity of real-world, nitty-gritty information on how to actually implement this high-level advice.
This disconnect would be comical if we weren't so accustomed to it.
See if you recognize this kind of presentation. Imagine that people in a different (and less stressful) profession are attending a session titled, "How to Construct a Nuclear Power Plant." The speaker helpfully breaks it down into a four-step process:
Step 1: Design your power plant. Make sure you include a lot of safety features.
Step 2: Buy fissionable material. (U-238 or plutonium are probably your best options.)
Step 3: Build the plant. Make sure you hire reputable contractors, and pay close attention to your construction budget.
Step 4: Check to make sure all the gizmos are working properly before you turn it on. You don't want any accidents.
Any questions from the audience?
In the speaker's parallel universe, this may be all you need to get ramped up. In the real world, the value of a conference session is measured by whether you get the granular details you need to actually hammer out the details of that succession plan, or get the attention of prospective clients in your target market. Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot more speakers from that parallel universe than presenters who can give you the straight goods.
This is what our professional conferences ought to be providing, and I do believe that some meet these basic standards. But as I think about my own meeting, I find myself wondering: Are there other purposes that we haven't explored? What other needs could an industry conference serve? I can think of two.
Why not offer staff training in addition to the professional CE presentations? If your firm has more than three employees, you already know how hard it is to find education and training for your administrative person and key back-office implementers. Why not have the conference bring in experts in office management and real-world software implementation, and hold workshops in the room adjacent to where the CEO is learning how to craft an effective succession plan?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.