If you were unable to attend the annual meeting of the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting, held in Washington, D.C., May 1-4, then (judging from the session titles) you missed some really interesting content. Among the workshops: an examination of regulatory and litigation pitfalls for top producers; panel discussions on the future of non-qualified compensation planning, business planning and estate planning; and a kick-off main stage presentation by George W. Bush.

I wish I could tell you more about what the speakers said–but I can’t. Though an AALU conventioneer, I was denied entry to the four-day gathering’s workshops (plus the former president’s talk). That’s because of a new policy, brought to my attention only on-site, prohibiting press access to all but the general sessions, unless granted special permission by the workshop speakers.

Why the restricted access? James Lee, AALU’s vice president of member services and marketing, says the policy change was for members who believed that non-members who were not prospective members inhibited the discussions in the workshops. And so AALU restricted workshops to members and prospects.

The new policy infuriated me. Here am I in Washington to cover a major industry event and half of the meeting’s content is effectively off-limits.

What was especially vexing is that the restricted access applied to sessions that insurance and financial advisors value most: best practices and advance planning techniques to further their professional development. By contrast, the general sessions to which I did gain entry had a political orientation.

But enough about me. This week’s column is really about you–and what the AALU and sister organizations should be doing to boost attendance at their meetings, increase membership and, thus, secure two long-sought objectives: elevate advisors’ expertise and business savvy; and raise the industry’s political clout in Washington.

These are no small matters. At a time of unprecedented threats to life insurance professionals, both those regulatory (read: increasing compliance requirements) and legislative (notably Congressional efforts to reduce burgeoning budget deficits by limiting the tax-favored treatment of life insurance), the industry needs more foot soldiers than ever to do its bidding.

Yet membership rolls are on a downward slide. Consider the recent experience of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. Since NAIFA’s ranks hit a peak of 143,000-plus in the early 1990s, its membership has steadily declined by about 5% annually, dipping to approximately 50,250 life agents for the 2010 fiscal year that ended June 30th.

The Million Dollar Round Table, a gathering of the world’s top-producing life insurance professionals, hasn’t escaped the trend. As I reported from Vancouver last June, MDRT’s worldwide membership of (at the time) more than 31,000 was down 11% over a two-year period. U.S. membership dipped even more sharply–off 40% during the same period.

The contracting numbers can be attributed, at least in part, to factors beyond the associations’ control. Among them: a continuing fragmentation of the advisor workforce, a still uncertain economy, and a disinclination among young agents–Gen Xers and Millennials–to attend industry events.

But other factors are in the associations’ control, such as: the ability to insist that members occupying leadership positions actively recruit colleagues within their organizations.

I was absolutely stunned to learn recently about the inactivity of a principal of a financial planning firm out west who is the public relations chair of the Financial Planning Association’s local chapter. Yet this individual–someone who wields authority over those in his employ–does not encourage (much less require) fellow advisors in the firm to join the FPA.

Advisors might be more inspired to join an industry association if they had more opportunities to learn about all of the wonderful content imparted at association gatherings. And hence we return to my experience at this month’s AALU meeting.

My reporting on the event’s presentations served two purposes: (1) to educate our readers about news and trends that impact them; and (2) to offer advisors a window into the career-enhancing skills and expertise available to them in greater depth–if only they would attend. By restricting journalists’ ability to cover its annual meeting, the AALU also denied itself a valuable member outreach opportunity.

Let’s hope, for the benefit of an industry much in need of advisors who aspire to further their professional development and become more engaged in advocacy initiatives, that the AALU reconsiders its position on press access for next year’s meeting.