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MDRT 2015: A conference bursting at the seams

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The 2015 Million Dollar Round Table, an annual meeting for top-producing life insurance and financial services professionals, concluded its 4-day meeting in New Orleans this past week. And it was, by all accounts, a rousing success.

Packed to the rafters

That was evident in a key figure by which conferences are judged: attendees. At 10,000-plus (up from 6,500 in 2004, when I first attended) the annual meeting sold out; the conference organizers had to close registration even before the gathering got underway — a first for the 88-year-old association.

Considering that many industry meetings nowadays have trouble breaking 1,000 or 2,000 registrants, the appeal of the MDRT convention among rank-and-file producers was an eye-opener. The turn-out was doubly impressive when taking into account this fact: Agents and advisors (or their companies) not only have to cover hotel, travel and registration costs, but also meet steep production requirements to qualify for membership.

And so the question arises: How is it that MDRT can attract such large audiences? Clearly, much of the appeal lays in compelling content, starting with the association’s signature offerings. These include the Main Platform sessions, Focus Sessions, Special Sessions, Idea Exchanges and ConneXion Zone/exhibitor space.

To its credit, MDRT endeavors to keep the annual meeting fresh by shaking up the presentations. The changes were apparent at the opening general session where speakers — many of them longtime MDRT members — covered a host of practice management issues in a fast-paced format.

Also new in New Orleans were (1) Cornerstone Presentations, where attendees could select from concurrent Main Platform-quality presentations ranging from sales strategies and practice management to technology and wellness; plus (2) language-specific “Echo Sessions” featuring speakers who translated session takeaways into the languages spoken by member colleagues from their respective countries.

The big names at the annual meeting were also top-draws. Among them: New York Times columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman, who noted that the unprecedented pace of technology change is forcing workers — highly trained white collar professionals included — to continually upgrade their skills and expertise to keep from being rendered obsolete in the marketplace.

Also on hand was Stephen Dubner, co-author of the widely acclaimed “Freakonomics” book series. To arrive at accurate forecasts, said Dubner, analysts need to uncover differences between “declared preferences” (of, for example, individuals surveyed about their tolerance for investment risk) and “actual preferences” (as revealed during a market downturn).

Other factors at play

No doubt, supporters of other events for agents and advisors will object to claims that MDRT somehow has a competitive edge on professional development content. And, as I personally have observed, speakers and topics that have broad appeal frequently make the rounds from one conference to another.

So clearly MDRT is benefiting from dynamics that are helping to boost attendance. An obvious one is the association’s international character: Of MDRT’s 43,000-plus members worldwide (versus about 29,000 in 2004), the non-U.S. contingent (nearly 33,000) makes up more three-quarters of the rank-and-file. MDRT thus serves not only a broader advisor community, but can also tailor content to more varied professional development interests.

The annual meeting also offers an unparalleled opportunity to network with colleagues from around the globe to discuss topics of common interest. These range from new products and sales techniques to distribution trends and (of notable concern this year) regulation and compliance.

Yet another element is the extraordinary enthusiasm that members express for the association. That passion is especially marked among Asian producers. At every annual meeting, I inevitably encountered groups — from China, South Korea, Japan and other Pacific Rim nations — excitedly have their pictures taken in front of a backdrop with the MDRT logo.

There’s also this to weigh: the relative youth of the membership, an attribute again more pronounced among the Asian contingent. Indeed, the producers I saw from the Far East seemed largely to be in their 20s and 30s, and hungry for ideas to help them advance in their careers.

For their part, American insurance and services providers aiming to recruit new blood — and replace an aging distribution channel of agents and advisors nearing retirement — might do well to look to these youthful go-getters to learn how they can make that happen.

Check out our coverage of MDRT 2015 here.