Convention Wisdom


 

MEDA 2014-04-Convention Wisdom (header)

Attending industry conferences can provide valuable contacts and strategies to help you build your business. But these events take you out of the office and away from your clients. How can you ensure the conferences you attend are time well spent?

By Deanne Gage

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Tax season is almost over, which marks the start of conference season. When you began in the financial advisory business, you probably attended every financial conference or seminar available, regardless of whether it was relevant to your practice. You heard many of the same speakers spewing the same messages every year. Now, you know better.

Attending conferences can improve your professional skills and perhaps allow you to pick up some last-minute continuing education credits. But spending days out of the office instead of meeting with clients can be expensive. So, how do you ensure that the conferences you do attend are time well spent?

– Before you go

Be clear about the reason why you want to attend a particular conference in the first place. What objectives do you hope to achieve? Is your focus on broad continuing education and personal/professional growth, or do you hope to learn ideas to generate new clients and perhaps meet centres of influence?

“Have a plan in writing,” says Judith Cane, a fee-only financial planner with Money Coaches Canada Inc. in Ottawa. “So, when you get back to the office, you can fill in the blanks and find out if this was truly a good conference to go to.

“I create a spreadsheet of everything I want to achieve at a conference,” Cane adds, “from how many people to meet to takeaway points.”

How do you decide on the right conference to attend? Cane uses several factors to help her decide on the ideal conference, including session topics, timing of the conference and speakers.

As someone who doesn’t sell product, Cane says, it doesn’t make sense for her to attend a seminar focused on sales production, for example. Instead, she might look for a conference that focuses on issues such as the psychology of money and how to get clients to overcome their fears and bad habits.

Ultimately, it all comes down to which conference will help Cane to continue to grow her business. “My goal,” she says, “is to have one idea that I could take away from each workshop and implement almost immediately when I return to the office.”

Years ago, for example, one speaker gave Cane an idea about how to approach referrals. She began to use this approach immediately upon returning to her office and soon noticed a substantial increase in her business.

When Cane is determining the value of attending a conference, cost rarely enters into the equation. Instead, she looks at her return on investment. If she spends $4,000 on conference fees, accommodation and airfare, for example, then she needs ideas and lessons that will improve her bottom line by at least that much.

– Attend solo or with colleagues?

Going to a conference with colleagues can be great for morale and divvying up sessions. But it also can deter you from meeting new people if you all sit in on sessions together and don’t separate from the group for dinners and other opportunities.

Michael Kitces, director of research with Pinnacle Advisory Group Inc., a private-wealth management firm in Maryland, has a rule in his office: if multiple co-workers attend the same conference, they don’t spend time together. “You can talk to your coworkers at the office,” he says. “When you’re at a conference, you should be meeting other people.”

Cane prefers to attend conferences alone and, rather than stay at the host conference hotel, she’ll often pick an inn or bed and breakfast that’s slightly off the beaten path. That way, she says, you meet some interesting people, including like-minded advisors. One of her colleagues got a new client just by meeting an inn guest; the guest remembered the advisor and referred her to a friend.

Besides the networking opportunities, Cane also finds smaller hotels and inns more laid-back. “After sitting in seminars and workshops all day,” she says, “it’s cool to come back to a place that’s more like a home as opposed to lying on the bed to watch TV.”

As for meeting new people, if Cane is at a national conference, she scans delegate badges and tries to sit with people who are not from Toronto or Ottawa. “My goal is to meet people from across Canada and just find out what they do, how they market and who are their clients,” she says. “The good thing about our industry is we’re more open to meeting people.”

– Who will you meet with?

Some advisors also attend conferences to reconnect with friends in their industry. The Conference for Advanced Life Underwriting (CALU), for instance, is a members-only conference that attracts up to 300 advisors every year. Some, like John Nicola , have attended for decades and look forward to seeing their peers.

“You learn a lot about best practices by speaking to peers who are successful in the industry, and you get different perspectives on how to run your practice,” says Nicola, chairman and CEO of Nicola Wealth Management Ltd. in Vancouver, who determines whom to connect with ahead of time and schedules coffee or breakfast meetings.

A wholesaler may invite you for dinner or a round of golf during the conference. While you may welcome the invitation, Kitces says, make sure the activity is with someone productive who meets your overall objectives for the conference.

Whether you meet someone during a breakout session, at lunch or in your hotel, don’t neglect to exchange business cards. Kitces speaks on the U.S. circuit – this year, he will speak at 60 conferences – and he is amazed at how many advisors either forget their business cards or don’t bring enough. Kitces’ advice? Bring more than you think you can possibly need – a giant stack.

– Analyze the agenda

You’ve studied the agenda, and all the topics look enticing. Nicola advises that you focus on speakers who will address the issues you wish to work on (such as generating client referrals). “Don’t get distracted with an asset-allocation session,” he says, “that may be interesting but doesn’t speak to your main focus.”

That said, Mark Halpern, president and owner of IllnessPROTECTION.com Inc. in Markham, Ont., usually attends one session outside his comfort area. “It’s very easy to go to the stuff you know about because it’s familiar,” he says. “But just to try something different can help you to raise the bar and see things differently.”

What do you do if there are two outstanding breakout sessions going on at the same time? Large conferences such the Million Dollar Round Table often will hold the same sessions multiple times. But at most events, you’re just going to have to pick one. Nicola recommends finding another advisor – ideally, a friend or co-worker – who is going to one of the sessions you’re interested in, then share your notes before the end of the conference. If you don’t know anyone, most conferences provide delegates with a binder or USB thumb drive that contains all of the speaker’s notes. Some conferences even record the presentations, then offer the CD for sale.

“A CD is definitely worth buying,” Halpern says. “You can play it in your car,” he says, “and listen to what you’ve missed.”