Accordingly, I've put together my own list of what I would view as the best-in-class conferences for financial planners (in the US, at least!) in seven categories coming up for 2013: Best Technical Content, Best Technology Content, Best Practice Management, Best for Advanced Practitioners, Best Overall Value, Best Virtual Conference, and Best Overall Financial Planning Conference.
I hope this is useful for you to use as your own guide in selecting events to attend for yourself and/or your staff for 2013!
(Events are listed in chronological order to facilitate planning and registration/early bird deadlines.)
Best Technical Content: AICPA Personal Financial Planning Conference
The AICPA Personal Financial Planning (PFP) conference has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years, and is now what I would consider the premiere advanced technical content event for financial planners. As I've written in the past, the AICPA's PFP section - including its conference - is not "just" for CPAs, but any financial planner who wants quality technical content.
While the sessions do tend to have a bit of an income and estate tax tilt to them - given the organization's CPA roots - the conference has a pretty strong lineup of insurance and retirement content as well, and has put together a strong investment track as well working in partnership with IMCA and the CFA Institute.
At the AICPA PFP conference, the speakers treat their audience like the advanced practitioners they are, leading to a good range of challenging content, and as the conference approaches 1,000 attendees it has leapt to the #2 spot for the largest "pure" financial planning conference of the year behind the FPA's national event. If you're looking for continuing education that really teaches you something new in the technical realm, this is the conference to attend. For firms where the principals are focused more on business development than the latest in technical financial planning, this is a great educational conference for financial planner staff members.
Who Should Attend: People interested in advanced financial planning technical content, including both senior financial planners, and newer planning associates looking for advanced educational content. Content relevant for any CFP certificant, regardless of whether or not a CPA.
Details: January 21st - 23rd at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.
Cost: $1,025 for AICPA members, $1,325 for non-members. Early bird discounts: $100 off if registered by October 20th, dropped to $75 off if registered by December 7th. Get an additional $110 off with "KITCESPFP" discount code!
Conference Website: AICPA Advanced Personal Financial Planning Conference
Best Technology Content: Technology Tools For Today (T3) Conference
The T3 conference is run independently by practice management and technology consultants Joel Bruckenstein and David Drucker. Born of their own frustration at the lack of quality content for financial planners specifically around technology, and an extension of their newsletter by the same name, the conference is now entering its 6th year and has become a staple of the conference world.
If you're looking to really see the latest developments from software companies that serve financial planners, from CRM to portfolio management to financial planning software to productivity apps and more, and a glimpse of the cutting edge coming in the future, the T3 conference is for you. Virtually all of the major technology vendors attend - and even time their big company announcements to coincide with the event, as the Envestnet acquisition Tamarac was announced at this past year's T3 conference - giving you an opportunity to talk directly to the companies that serve the advisor space. Most firms send their principals to this conference for a look at available technology options, although larger firms are increasingly sending whatever staff member is responsible for their technology instead.
Who Should Attend: Financial planning firm business owners, or the firm staff member responsible for technology.
Details: February 11th - 13th at the Hilton Miami Downtown Hotel in Miami, Florida.
Cost: $375. Early bird discount: $80 off if registered by November 1st. Additional $50 off with "2013T3IC" discount code!
Conference Website: Technology Tools For Today (T3) Conference
Best Practice Management: FPA Business Solutions
The Business Solutions conference is run annually by the FPA and has grown to be one of the largest practice-management-centric conferences of the year. Although the event tends to lean slightly more in the direction of independents with its content (both independent RIAs and to some extent those with independent broker/dealers), the conference goal is to provide value and perspective regardless of practice type and business model, and tracks historically have covered technology, marketing, optimizing the practice, and a standalone track specifically on portfolio and asset management issues (from the business perspective). In addition, there's a healthy exhibit hall of prospective vendors to meet who can help you with your business, lots of consultants (sometimes as exhibits and often as attendees), and some broader sessions around overall industry trends.
If your primary goal is technology solutions in particular, the T3 conference is a better fit for you. But if you're looking for content and ideas to take your practice to the next level, and a wider range of vendors and service providers, check out Business Solutions.
Who Should Attend: Financial planning firm business owners.
Details: March 7th - 9th at the Weston O'Hare Hotel in Chicago, Illinois.
Cost: $399 for FPA members, $599 for non-members. Early bird discount: $100 off if registered by January 25th.
Conference Website: FPA Business Solutions
Honorable Mention: An honorable mention in the practice management category goes to the Bob Veres-organized Business & Wealth Management Conference, which has become the Insider's Forum for 2013, and is intended for larger independent RIA practices that have their own unique practice management issues. Dates for 2013 have not been announced yet (as the 2012 conference just wrapped up), but stay tuned to their website.
2nd Honorable Mention: A second honorable mention in the practice management category goes to the major custodian and broker-dealer conferences. Virtually every provider now hosts their own annual event, from Schwab IMPACT to various LPL Financial national conferences. The upshot of going to a custodian or broker-dealer conference is that you can get more information about the specific technology and systems made available to/for you, and you can meet other practitioners who are more likely to have a comparable business model (given the same custodian/broker-dealer). Many advisors I've met will alternate between a custodian/broker conference and an outside event, or alternatively in a multi-partner office may send one partner to each for best practices ideas from both.
Best For Advanced Practitioners - FPA Retreat
The FPA Retreat conference has an incredible history. Originated as a peer-to-peer style conference almost 30 years ago, for practitioners to teach each other their own best ideas and practices (and in large part because the event couldn't afford outside speakers anyway in the early days!), this event has an incredible loyalist crowd where many introduce themselves in the opening circle gathering by sharing how many times someone has attended the conference. The upcoming 2013 event will be my own 10th consecutive time going to the conference, and it is one I personally commit never to miss each year.
While the FPA Retreat has a strong array of advanced content, it is different than the AICPA's advanced planners conference in that Retreat has a far more deliberate focus on the "softer side" of planning as well, and tends to present a more holistic focus on both the art and the science of financial planning. As a result, many major developments in the financial planning world can trace their roots or first discussions back to Retreat, from a panel discussion that helped to birth the Morningstar style boxes decades ago, to the emergence of life planning, to the NexGen young planner movement.
In practice, though, the Retreat conference is as much about the incredible array of practitioners it attracts, and the peer-to-peer interaction opportunities. While the conference often has a great lineup, this is also the event you're most likely to miss half the content because you were caught up in conversation in the hallways and completely lost track of time until you see people coming out of the session you had been planning to head in to!
Who Should Attend: Experienced financial planners who are looking to challenge themselves, expand their mind around financial planning, or refresh and re-energize themselves - and who want to connect with others looking for the same thing.
Details: May 4th - 6th at the Westin Mission Hills Hotel in Palm Springs, California.
Cost: To Be Announced, but 2012 was $1,149 for FPA members ($1,349 for non-members) with an early bird discount. Stay tuned to their website for further details.
Conference Website: FPA Retreat
Best Overall Value - FPA NorCal
The FPA NorCal conference may actually be the longest standing dedicated financial planning conference in the country, as it just celebrated its 40th(!) anniversary as an event this past year. And while it is a "regional" event - it's hosted by a consortium of the northern California FPA chapters - this conference holds its own against any national conference around, with up to 6 simultaneous breakout tracks that are so quality it's actually difficult to choose just one. Simply put, this conference just oozes "quality" in everything they do, and they do it that way year after year after year.
The added benefit of the NorCal conference is that you can get all this quality for significantly less than the price of a national conference registration, which makes it one of the most outstanding benefit/cost values around! The NorCal conference is always held on the Tuesday/Wednesday immediately following Memorial Day weekend, which allows you to keep your travel down to 2 nights of accommodations, further making the conference even more affordable and a great value for the price.
It's notable that NorCal also makes a great destination conference as well - spend the weekend in San Francisco (or if you prefer, Napa or Sonoma Valleys just outside the city!), and then stay through for an absolutely content-packed 2-day event.
Be careful not to wait too long, though. The NorCal conference caps registration at 500, and they do sell out and close registrations every year!
Who Should Attend: People interested in an all around quality financial planning conference, packed together with great content for a great value in a great location. Appropriate for both firm owners and staff members.
Details: May 28th - 29th at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California.
Cost: To Be Announced, but 2012 was $729 for FPA members ($929 for non-members) with a $100 early bird discount. Stay tuned to their website for further details; registration open by December 15th in time for those who wish to pay in 2012 for tax purposes.
Conference Website: FPA NorCal
Best Virtual Conference - NAPFA iConference
The NAPFA iConference, hosted jointly with Forbes, is the first (and currently only) major virtual conference available. Operated for the first time this past summer, the iConference brings high-end quality speakers, including Mark Tibergien, Rob Arnott, Bill Gross, and even Steve Forbes, along with popular practitioner speakers like Carolyn McClanahan and Scott Leonard, in a two-day webinar-style format (along with access to the session archives for up to two months thereafter).
In truth, it's somewhat awkward to label the NAPFA iConference as the "Best" virtual conference, as right now it's really the only virtual financial planning conference, but the first offering in 2012 has set the bar high for any competitors, and a good foundation for the 2013 event.
And because it's entirely virtual, it is by far the least expensive conference and quality continuing education available, not just because it has the lowest registration fee, but also because it requires no travel or accommodations to participate! Of course, the caveat is that while there is an online chat room as a part of the conference software to engage with other participants, you'll probably still engage less and make fewer connections than you would with an in-person conference, at least given current technology constraints.
(Note: The NAPFA iConference has not formally been announced yet for 2013, and it is possible that NAPFA will not continue the event. Stay tuned for further information.)
Who Should Attend: Those looking for a large chunk of quality financial planning educational content at a very affordable price, and without the constraints of travel. May be an especially appealing option for a firm to make available for all the planners in the office.
To Be Announced, but 2012 was hosted in the middle of the summer on August 1st/2nd. December 4th -5th
Cost: To Be Announced, but 2012 was $99 for NAPFA members ($199 for non-members) for a total of 8 CFP CE credits (plus some practice management content as well).
Conference Website: 2012 NAPFA iConference Site
Best Overall Financial Planning Conference - FPA Experience
The FPA Experience conference is what I have previously called "The Big Show In Financial Planning" - simply put, it is the largest standalone event, by far, dedicated to and focused on financial planning, typically drawing 2,000 - 3,000+ participants.
The conference provides a wide range of financial planning content, covering both beginning topics and advanced, technical and practice management. Although in many years the content is not necessarily "best in class" compared to the more focused technical or practice management conferences noted above, the FPA Experience conference still provides the strongest all-around experience that means almost anyone who attends will be able to find some useful and relevant takeaways.
One of the premier benefits of attending FPA Experience, although sadly many people don't view it this way, is the conference's exhibit hall, which is by far the largest hall of vendors, providers, technology companies, and consultants focused on serving financial planners. If you're looking for a new solution, option, platform, product, or consultant to help round out your business, career, or client offerings, you should find a lot to choose from in the exhibit hall. And frankly, even if you're not specifically looking for a new solution, professional due diligence alone would suggest that any and every practitioner should make a pilgrimage to FPA Experience at least once every few years, just to see the latest that's out there and available that you might not even be aware of.
Who Should Attend: Any financial planner looking for a conference to make connections with other planners, get some continuing education credit, and learn about the latest platforms, products, and solutions available for your business, career, or clients. Notably, this conference is also popular for those from the international financial planning community.
Details: October 19th to 21st, 2013, in Orlando, Florida.
Cost: FPA member rates of $699 super early bird registration (deadline August 16th), $899 "regular" registration (deadline October 18th), and $1,099 registration at-the-door. Higher rates for non-members. Reduced student rates available.
Conference Website: 2013 FPA Experience Conference Site
So what do you plan to attend? Do you have any conference favorites that I didn't include in the list? Please speak up in the comment section below!