FPA Experience: The Big Show in Financial Planning

Posted by Michael Kitces on Tuesday, March 13th, 1:00 pm, 2012 in Conferences

Every community has its home - that place we all feel compelled to return to from time to time. In the financial planning world, that home is the FPA Experience conference - the annual convention of the Financial Planning Association that has become the biggest event of the year dedicated to the financial planning profession. Thousands of people from across the country - and increasingly, around the world - feel the need to visit the financial planning "homeland" and attend the conference. Some attend for the continuing education credit; others attend to be a part of their financial planning community. Personally, though, I believe the best reason to attend the conference is to see the latest offerings in the exhibit hall for the financial planning world, from products to services to vendors and technology providers. In fact, I would even say we have a professional ethical obligation to see the "big show" in financial planning at least once every couple of years.

The inspiration for today's blog post was the FPA's recent announcement of the FPA Experience keynote speakers, including the bipartisan political commentator duo James Carville and Mary Matalin highlighting how different presidential winners might impact the country and the world in the coming years, U.S. Army staff sergeant Salvatore Giunta providing a motivational session as the nation's first living Medal of Honor winner in 40 years, and commentary on the financial and economic landscape by former overseer of TARP and PIMCO Managing Director Neel Kashkari.

Of course, very few people choose to make the multi-day commitment to a conference like FPA Experience for the keynote sessions alone. The conference does additionally provide a wide array of educational sessions across multiple breakout tracks, covering most of the major topic areas in financial planning, and many attendees go to FPA Experience to check off the box of their CFP continuing education requirement. (This year's educational breakout tracks and sessions are not announced yet, but should be soon; updates will be posted when available to the FPA Experience conference website.) But to me, the best reason to attend FPA Experience is not about what happens in the educational sessions at all. It's about what happens in the exhibit hall.

Yes, that's right, the exhibit hall. That room full of people trying to sell stuff to you; the room most advisors avoid at every conference, to the point that organizers sometimes have to serve food or even free alcohol just to get us to set foot in there. Why would you subject yourself to such a barrage of sales solicitations? Simply put: because you have a professional ethical obligation to do so.

What I'm talking about here is the 7th Principle of our Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility as CFP Certificants: Diligence. The principle of diligence isn't just about being prompt and thorough in our interactions with clients; it's also about doing the due diligence necessary to ensure that we are providing appropriate products, services, recommendations and solutions for our clients. You wouldn't want a doctor who has ignored any new drugs that may have come out in the past 5-10 years. Your clients wouldn't want a financial planner who has ignored any developments of the past decade, either.

Which means entering the exhibit hall with an open mind to learn about the new products and services that may be available to use with clients is fundamental to ensuring that our recommendations to clients are timely and appropriate. And of course, the exhibit hall isn't just about actual financial services products you can recommend and/or implement with your clients. It's also about how to run a more efficient, successful, and profitable practice, from the custodians or broker/dealers you might affiliate with to the CRM software you could consider for running your practice more efficiently to the financial planning software you might evaluate to better analyze a client's financial situation.

I realize that walking into the exhibit hall is not always an easy nor pleasant experience. As I've written in the past, we have an almost irrational fear to enter the exhibit hall these days, which I believe is sadly justified in many cases, due in no small part to bad wholesalers that make the experience uncomfortable for us, and the occasional mismatch between exhibitors and attendees that makes the solutions feel entirely irrelevant. But the fact remains that it's part of our responsibility as professionals to be in that exhibit hall.

And if you're going to check out an exhibit hall, I believe the one at FPA Experience is the one to see. Although there are a few great niche conferences in specialized areas with greater exhibitors, nowhere else in financial planning do you get such a broad and comprehensive view of all the offerings available and relevant in the financial planning world, from products to technology for your practice to software for your clients. There are investment conferences for investment solutions, insurance conferences for insurance solutions, technology conferences for technology solutions, and practice management conferences for practice management solutions. But only FPA Experience is the big show that brings it all to one place.

No, that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to go back every single year just to see the latest marginal change in what the exhibit hall has to offer. But it does mean that FPA Experience should be something you attend every few years, simply to remain of everything that's out there and available for you and your clients. And in the worst case scenario, at least you'll pick up some Continuing Education credit and a few inspirational keynote sessions along the way.

Or for a lighter look at the conference, check out last year's promotion video for "the most interesting conference in the world" FPA Experience starring 2011 conference chair Evelyn Zohlen:

So what do you think? Are you thinking about attending the "big show" in financial planning this fall? Have you ever attended FPA Experience in the past? Do you make a commitment to attend regularly, whether that's annually, or every couple of years? Do you consider attending a conference - including visiting the exhibit hall - to be part of your professional responsibility as a financial planner?

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  • Tom

    I've attended the FPA annual conference since joining the FPA 5 years ago.

    It is the only reason I belong to the FPA. I've never attended and only learned "a little". Each year, we come away with something(s) of value. The ethics courses are actually enjoyable and educational instead of snore fests.

    I find the exhibition hall to be lacking, though on a number of fronts.

    We have chosen to manage the client and leave the investment selection/management to others. However, the one or two third party managers that might exhibit are the standard mutual fund wraps that manage strategically. Pretty boring.

    The sponsored breakfast sessions have become rather stale...seems to be the same companies the past few years. I think Chubb even repeated the same presentation last year. Would it be possible to get a group of some of the smaller exhibtors to pool their resources and do a roundtable or panel type presentation? This would expose attendees to a wider group of exhibitors. Or...give a group of them 5-10 minutes each to make an impression. Of course the objection will be that folks won't show up that early because it isn't CE...but the ones who do show up will be there because they want to be...it won't be a bunch of plate lickers.

    One other item that I always find interesting, is the lack of follow up by exhibitors.

    In the past and more than once, I have spent time chatting with a wholesaler/rep, provided all my contact info and asked them to contact us...never to hear from them again.

    In one instance, I chastised the rep because I saw his company at our B/Ds conference and was never contacted afterward. The rep at the FPA conference still didn't bother to make contact.

    So, if exhibitors, are crying about lack of interest...I wonder how much of that is self inflicted?

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