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I usually attend at least 10 financial planning conferences a year, and each time it feels as if I’ve suddenly been transported back to the early 1980s. Our profession has made amazing progress in technology. The practice management sophistication of the hallway conversations is far more advanced than it has ever been.

But in my travels, it always strikes me that very little has changed with the conference experience itself. Specifically, our profession has done little to address a variety of important dysfunctions.

Exhibit Hall Dysfunction

In the exhibit hall today, just as it was in the last century, I see people who represent companies that contribute importantly to the planning profession’s ecosystem standing around hopefully while the attendees avoid eye contact on their way to the food. I watch keynote presentations by world renowned individuals who know nothing about financial planning. I hear stories of hastily assembled committees whose members recommend speakers because they’re friends who need the favor. And I sit in way too many sessions that were created primarily for entry-level planners.

Beyond that, we’ve all seen well-regarded presenters who give stale canned speeches over and over and over again, hopping from one event to another.

And, perhaps more important, at many conferences the implementation factor — the ability to transform promising ideas into meaningful improvements in our own practices — is limited. Advisers attend meetings and leave with a lot of notes, but the notes end up in a filing cabinet somewhere.

Not all conferences are disappointing, of course. In my view, the FPA Northern California Regional Conference and the AICPA PFP Conference provide terrific cutting-edge technical content. The FPA Retreat and the NAPFA Spring and Fall Conferences focus on a target market of thought leaders, and at the Retreat time is set aside to contemplate how you want the sessions to impact your firm. The T3 conference specializes in technology solutions, and has a highly dynamic, interactive exhibit hall. I attend the TD Ameritrade LINC conference primarily because there are always one or two specialized tracks where I can deeply explore an issue such as planning for 401(k) accounts.

Taking Charge

When I started sponsoring my own conference — called the Insider’s Forum — every September, it gave me the chance to address some problems I saw at other conferences. But I also think there’s a lot that you, as an attendee, can do on your own to improve the ROI for your conference spending.

The problem with the traditional exhibit hall, for example, is that there is little meaningful interaction between attendees and vendors. Ideally, you would have the attendees exploring the booths, looking for better technology, better investment solutions and better opportunities to leverage their staff talent to serve clients. You want vendor representatives and advisers comparing notes about trends they’re seeing, and exchanging ideas and advice.

Why doesn’t this happen? The companies with mega-marketing budgets that buy the biggest spaces are often companies that are mostly there to sell you something that benefits them far more than you or your clients — just, I suppose, like the broader world, where the brokerage and insurance firms have much bigger advertising budgets than fiduciary professionals. You can be forgiven if you’re reluctant to make eye contact with their eager reps as you walk along the aisles.

Make A List

My solution was to create a by-invitation-only exhibit hall, but you can do this yourself if you’re willing to put in a little work. Make a list of issues that you’re facing. These might include a desire for more robust technology; holes in your firm’s asset allocations; dissatisfaction with closet index funds with expense ratios more appropriate to 100% active management; outsourcing opportunities for issues your staff is having trouble doing competently; and marketing ideas.

Most conferences will publish a list of vendors, so you can cross off in advance whomever you want to avoid eye contact with and identify the true resource partners who will give you a productive conversation.

The educational menu is tougher, but here again you can self-curate. Spend an hour looking over the list of topics and speakers. Identify the issues you’re most interested in, and then see if the speaker is somebody you know to be a thought leader in that space. If you don’t recognize the name, Google it, and eliminate anybody you think might have a sales agenda.

At some conferences I’ve attended, this eliminated every speaker for a particular hour — but that’s all right. Devote that hour to having focused conversations about your pre-identified topics with your peers. Sometimes hallway conversations are more valuable than what you hear from the podium.

Meanwhile, just as in the 1980s, almost every session at the typical conference is focused on only one individual at your firm: the founder/CEO or senior adviser. Someday, the experience will include separate tracks that provide rare and valuable training opportunities for your CIO/investment people and your key COO/operations staff.

But here again, you might be able to create a customized workaround. Ask the conference organizers if they’ll provide a group registration discount if you bring along several members of your staff. While the CEO is attending sessions, the ops and investment people can fan out in the exhibit hall having those focused conversations with the people you’d want them to make eye contact with.

Strength In Numbers

This gives you the opportunity to raise the implementation factor of the conference experience. When you have two or three people at the firm on-site, the team can compare notes each evening. If somebody has seen an interesting tech vendor or heard about a new marketing idea, the others can visit that booth or map out specifically how you can adapt the new idea to your firm. Instead of notes that will be tucked into a filing drawer, you leave with a plan of action.

Finally, prioritize the conferences that address your firm as their target audience. T3 targets tech-savvy early adopters in the profession. The Retreat targets experienced advisers with a CFP designation. Our Insider’s Forum conference was created for thought leaders. The AICPA PFP conference excels at catering to CPA advisers who do financial planning and crave technical content that they can apply in their practices.

I look forward to a day when I can walk into 10 conferences a year and not experience déjà vu from four decades ago. Until that day arrives, I encourage you to customize your own conference experience.

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