After more than a year of virtual gatherings and Zoom calls, the road warriors of wealth management are champing at the bit to get back out there for in-person gatherings. But event organizers should be on notice that the pandemic-induced new normal has reshuffled the deck in terms of what financial advisers are expecting.
According to the results of a recent survey of 560 financial advisers, more than 82% highly value in-person events, compared to just 8% that find more value in virtual meetings.
But the lopsided result shouldn’t be interpreted as a green light to go back to business as usual when it comes to expensive, glitzy mega-conferences that sometimes rely on celebrities and “fluff” to draw attendees.
According to the 2021 T3/Inside Information Financial Advisor Conference Survey, which will be released Friday, the virtual conference experience has given advisers a taste of events they might not normally attend and as a result could lead to a growing appeal for more specialized and niche events once things fully reopen.
“Everybody is trying to figure out when we’re coming back, and about 50% of the people we surveyed said they’re ready to come back to in-person conferences, but after more than a year of virtual events, a lot of advisers have gotten a chance to taste lots of different content,” said Bob Veres, commentator at Inside Information.
While the largest industry events hosted by such major brands as Morningstar Inc., Charles Schwab Corp., and the Financial Planning Association, have historically been able to attract thousands of paying-attendees and command top rates for sponsors and exhibitors, Veres believes those hosting future mega events might need to update the standard formula of content, glitz and fees.
Veres, as the host of the annual Insider’s Forum, expects the appeal of niche events to be elevated as long as the content is top notch. Perhaps not surprising, when asked to rank the importance of considerations for attending a conference, content topped the list, followed by the ability to network with peers.
But number three on the list of top considerations was the registration fee.
“That surprised me, because the registration fee is actually a very small component of the overall cost, which includes the adviser’s time away from the office, travel and hotel costs,” Veres said.
Among the things that ranked low on the list of considerations for attending was presentations by the host company executives and “famous speakers” who may not be familiar with the wealth management industry.
Mindy Diamond, chief executive of Diamond Consultants, agreed that the organizers of large conferences might be overestimating the appeal of celebrity presenters. “I always felt that same way about famous presenters at conferences; it’s kinda cool, but it doesn’t help to elevate my business in any way, shape or form,” she said.
Diamond, who was not involved in the Veres research study, agreed that after a year of virtual events that typically included very little “fluff,” event organizers should start to realize that the content is often all advisers are looking for.
Among the findings from the survey, Veres learned that financial advisers have grown tired of political commentary coming from the stage, and that includes presenters specifically analyzing politics, as well as, presenters who express their personal political opinions.
According to the report, conference attendees are looking to learn things they can take back to the office and apply immediately.
When asked the rank the most important components of a conference experience, the respondents listed presentations related to practice management and client service, conference location, technology-related presentations and networking, in that order.
While there has been a lot of discussion about industry conferences rolling out next year with hybrid models of in-person and virtual attendees, Veres said even that seemingly simple tweak comes with challenges.
“I think the whole economics of a hybrid event will have to be rethought because you will have two different classes of attendees,” he said. “You might get some revenue from a larger group of people who want the content but don’t want to travel to the event, but then you have still got to sell the exhibit hall without as many attendees. A lot of it is still up in the air.”
Based on the way the wealth management industry quickly adapted to the shift to virtual within weeks of the global shutdowns early last year, Diamond is confident the industry’s leaders will figure it out. But she also believes the old ways are already in the rear-view mirror.
“Any firm that’s married to just one way of doing events or the old ways is probably going to be left behind,” she said. “One of the biggest reasons advisers are leaving big brokerage firms is they feel their leaders are not listening to what’s important to them, and if a firm is going to put on a conference and is married to one way of doing things because that’s the way they’ve always done it and that’s the way they get sponsors, they will lose.”
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