Why In-Person Advisor Conferences Still Matter: Case in Point, Schwab Impact

I’ve recently begun to ask advisor conference organizers about the viability of big meetings at a time when virtual meetings are easier, and cheaper, to organize and run. After all, if you’re going to a conference to hobnob with like-minded individuals or to hear high-profile speakers or to be educated on a complicated topic or to get those all-important CE credits, you could be more efficient by staying in your office and taking advantage of virtual meetings that will meet those needs but at a much lower cost in terms of dollars and time.

At ThinkAdvisor, we’ve had some nice success in both standard webinars that meet those enumerated advisor needs and in virtual conferences that replicate quite nicely in a digital format the experience of a live conference.

And yet those in-person meetings persist, and over the last year or so in particular a number of organizers of such meetings have reported record attendees. Part of the reason for that, I know from personal experience, is the state of the markets. When the markets are performing poorly, like in 2008-2009, advisors do not leave their offices for big meetings: they’re too busy talking to their clients and monitoring those markets nearly full-time to exit for a few days to a live event, where they’ll likely spend plenty of time on the phone and at their computers as they will in attending keynoters or educational sessions.

So I asked Bernie Clark, who heads Schwab Advisor Services, about why big shows like Schwab’s annual Impact gathering seem to be thriving. He started by arguing that Impact is a “gathering of the overall community,” which includes not just advisors but their partners in the asset management and technology space. He said that the high number of registrants for Impact 2013 in Washington (Nov. 10-13) also reflects the fact that “successful people like to be around other successful people.”

That’s no doubt true. Last month, I asked Lauren Schadle, CEO of the Financial Planning Association, the same question about FPA’s annual Experience conference, held in October. Schadle responded that FPA’s national organization was “very proud” of its large chapter network, but that Experience could present “some speakers you can’t get locally” and that “one annual conference for the financial planning profession is very much needed.”

Also no doubt true. We can also thank Schwab for pioneering the superstar speaker role at national conferences, which if I recall directly started with a Bill Clinton appearance at the Schwab Impact show in Philadelphia in 2004.

I wonder, however, if there’s not something more basic at work. As I write this, I’m attending Commonwealth Financial Network’s annual conference for its representatives, this year in Phoenix. While I heard attendees raving about presentations like that of Amy Florian, the thanatologist, on how to work with clients experiencing transitions and loss (especially death), the keynote session—presented in TED-like short presentations on the opening day by design, said Commonwealth CEO Wayne Bloom—also was lauded by advisors at the conference.

One of those presenters was Guy Kawasaki, the ex-Apple Computer executive turned technology writing and speaking guru, who said in his talk (channelling Tony Hsieh) that “your culture is your brand.” That aphorism found a receptive communal ear with the attendees of Commonwealth, which is justifiably proud of its unique and heartfelt culture.

In-person gatherings of like-minded people is about experiencing and building culture. It happens in families, it happens among religious people, in fact it happens among all groups. It particularly happens among advisors, most of whom (at least the independent variety) remain in near-isolation in building and running their practices, regardless of the size or success of their individual firms.

Having an experience, a personal experience, with your peers helps you to understand and build your shared culture and your individual experssion of that culture, which builds your brand, which in turn brings you success. That’s why gatherings like Impact or Experience or Commonwealth's national conference are important, and will remain so, regardless of how technology continues to evolve.

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Check out ThinkAdvisor’s complete coverage of Schwab Impact 2013.

Check out 10 Tech Trends That’ll Rattle the Advisory Industry at ThinkAdvisor.

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