Human beings are creatures of habit. The good news is that habits make it easier for us to get through the day and do everything we need to do. The bad news is that it can get us stuck in a rut and reinforce bad behaviors.
In this week’s #OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces, my Tuesday 1PM EST broadcast via Periscope, we look at the virtue of going to financial advisor conferences, as a way to get a fresh perspective and get out of a potential rut in your business and career.
Because ultimately, while there’s certainly value to going out for a conference to get a lot of CE credits all in one place, it’s the potential for business ideas and connections with other advisors that is really the most valuable. Because often it takes an outsider’s perspective about the struggles you face to figure out how to move forward.
To really maximize the value of attending a conference, though, it’s crucial to take the steps to prepare yourself for success. Which means scoping out the agenda in advance to plan on what sessions you will (and won’t) attend, bringing ample business cards to share, sending a follow-up email to the people you meet, and visiting the exhibit hall, which increasing is filled with providers that can help make your business more successful!
(Michael’s Note: The video below was recorded using Periscope, and announced via Twitter. If you want to participate in the next #OfficeHours live, please download the Periscope app on your mobile device, and follow @MichaelKitces on Twitter, so you get the announcement when the broadcast is starting, at/around 1PM EST every Tuesday! You can also submit your question in advance through our Contact page!)
#OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces Video Transcript
Welcome, everyone! Welcome to Office Hours with Michael Kitces!
I want to talk today about attending conferences. I’m here at the FPA NorCal Conference, which I think is one of the best financial advisor conferences of the year. I’m sorry if you’re not here. You obviously missed it this year, but you can check it out next year.
One question I hear a lot about advisor conferences, though, is whether they’re really worth it, because they are so expensive. Between registration, hotel, airfare, the other costs, you can easily be out $2,000 for a conference. And so I get the common question these days:
“Why would I pay $2,000 for CE credits that I can get online for free just by reading a[n industry trade] magazine?”
The True Cost To Attend A Financial Advisor Conference
So I want to talk about this issue. It is a good question, given that for so many advisor conferences, it’s common to have about a thousand-dollar-plus registration fee. And then you’re going to be out $300 to $500 or more for airfare, plus another couple hundred dollars a night for hotels, because these conferences are usually at not-inexpensive hotels. So it really is true that you’re often in for two grand.
Notably, you can get that cost a little bit cheaper sometimes at some regional events, like the big annual symposium events from the FPA Minnesota and FPA Dallas/Ft. Worth. Those two big regional chapter events bring a couple hundred people each, and are less than $500 in registration fees. Though still, you can be out $1000 or more to go those conferences if you have to travel, with airfare and hotel expenses.
And frankly, this still ignores the biggest cost for going to a conference, which is based on the value of your time. If you value your time at $100 an hour, based on what you’re trying to do as billable work with clients, being out for two days costs you almost $2,000 based on lost productivity time to work with clients. And the more successful your business is, and the more you bill and the more valuable your time is, the more of a cost drag that time cost really is. Which means with a fair value for your time, your hard-dollar costs plus your soft-dollar costs is probably more like $4,000 or $5,000 to attend a conference!
So that being said, why do you attend a conference? I’m making this sound really expensive, and you can get relatively inexpensive CFP CE elsewhere, including as a reader of this blog!
Why Pay For A Conference When CE Is Available Online?
The first answer about why you should attend a financial advisor conference it to recognize that it’s not about the CE.
Sure, it’s nice to get a bunch of CE in one place if you go to a good conference. I maintain a list of my suggestions for the best financial advisor conferences every year. And if you go to a good conference, at least you get some pretty good speakers, so you’ll hopefully get some interesting CE – the kind of continuing education that actually teaches you something, rather than just checking the CE box by taking the quiz at the end of a magazine.
So certainly there’s some value in going to a good conference, rather than just trying to read your way to CE, to get a higher quality of CE (at least compared to some options out there).
But to me, for the driving value of going to conferences, is about gaining fresh perspective. It’s about seeing your advisory business and what you do for your clients from a different view. It’s the different perspective you get when you talk to other advisors who nominally do the “same” advisory business you do, but they do it differently.
In fact, one of the things that amazes me about our financial advisor world is that so many people do “financial planning” so differently. For running remarkably similar businesses, where we all use the same general value proposition, we all do it so differently when you get into the details.
This is important, because the challenge I find – which happens to all of us – is that you get used to doing things the way that you always do things. We get stuck within the four walls of our office, and the way things are done there, and forget that there’s a whole other world out there that may do things differently than we do. Without stepping back to reflect on that, you can get stuck in a rut and burn out.
Sometimes, I find advisors who don’t even realize that what they’re doing is so inefficient and bad for the business, because they’ve just “always” been doing them that way. They get stuck in a rut, and can’t take a step back to really think about the business. And conferences help to break out of that rut. Particularly when you travel to a conference, because part of the point is to take yourself out of your normal routine.
After all, even if you go to a local conference — and I don’t want to knock local events — but you go out for a day, and maybe it’s a nice way to get some CE, but if you stay local you’re still thinking locally. “Oh, I’ve got to get back to the office and I’ve got a couple of emails to answer, and…” The rest of your day, the things you need to do when you get back home in the evening, are buzzing around in your head. And you don’t really take a step back to look at the business.
It Only Takes One Great Idea To Generate The ROI You Need
When you travel, when you actually block off a day or two from work, you leave the area, and your routine, and it lets you get a fresh perspective. And the reality is, often you really only need one significant idea, one major takeaway, one big thing that you can take back to your clients and your business to generate a huge Return On Investment (ROI). Even on that $4,000 hard-dollar-plus-soft-dollar cost of going to an event. Maybe it’s a new idea about marketing or prospecting, or a way you could change a process, or finding a new vendor that takes some problem/challenge in your business and solves it.
I feel like I set the bar so low to say, “Hey, if you go to a conference for two days and just try to find one thing, and you can get a great ROI on the investment of your time and dollars,” but it actually is true. It really, really does happen that way. And the more your business is growing and the larger that you get, the more that matters.
For me, this has been a formative part of my entire career. Especially I grew most of my early career in an employee context. I got used to doing things the way that we did them in our office. I liked what we did, and I was very proud of what we did, but it wasn’t until going out to other firms and seeing things like, “Oh, you do data-gathering mind maps. What the heck is that? Tell me about that. Let me understand that more. You’re using your planning software more interactively. How exactly do you do that?”
And now that I’m a partner of the firm as well, there are even more conversations. “How do you structure the compensation for your advisors so they feel engaged and rewarded? Because here’s what we do. Are you doing the same thing? What’s working for you?” That external perspective is so valuable. Because otherwise we all just get used to doing things our own way, and it’s hard to just spontaneously think of a new way to do things. You need outside input.
Don’t Underestimate the Value of Networking
And even more broadly, I find that the biggest value for me in the long run has actually been the networking.
I know “networking” is a clichéd term. To me, it’s simply the connections I make with other people, that blossoms into something more later. For me, even early on, going to a conference was transformational. Going to one of my first conferences was where NexGen was born. We founded it out of an FPA Retreat conference. If we hadn’t all come together for a conference, that whole thing may never have kicked off.
Similarly, the study group that I’ve been involved with for ten years, we came together at a conference. That was how we all met each other.
In addition, my New Planner Recruiting business partner Caleb Brown, I originally met through conferences. That was how we got to know each other, and found we had the shared passion around helping young financial planners find jobs and helping firms find good financial planners that have promising careers. We saw a need to help make that match-making process happen, for the betterment of both advisors and firms.
But we didn’t even realize there was a need until we went to a bunch of conferences, and found young planners that said they couldn’t find good firms, and good firms that said they couldn’t find young planners. And we had the proverbial light-bulb moment, “We should be a matchmaker here. This is a business problem we can solve, and benefit our community, and have a viable business to do it.” And you just don’t see those opportunities until you get out of your office to see them.
Bring Business Cards….And Hand Them Out!
A few further tips I’ll give, to really maximize the conference experience.
Number one, and I hate that I have to say this, and I’m sorry if I’m calling some of you out for saying it… but bring business cards. Seriously. This is what they’re for! I am constantly astounded by the number of people who go to a conference, where one of the primary benefits is networking, and they don’t bring business cards! Or they bring just a few, and then they meet a bunch of people, and then they don’t have enough business cards, and then they can’t follow up with all the people they want to follow up with because they ran out of business cards!
Bring business cards. Bring a stack of them. Bring fifty of them, and make it your goal to give them all away. Because bringing your own business cards back home with you has no value. Business cards you give to other people are connections that you made. So bring a stack, and make sure you don’t go home with any of them. That means you’re connecting with other human beings and making some relationships! Or at least starting some relationships.
Read the Conference Agenda and Make a Game Plan
Another tip is to look at the agenda in advance. Plot out, “What do you actually want to go to?” And frankly, think about “What do you not want to go to?”
It took me years to understand that, because so much of the value of going to conferences is who you meet, and who you get to know, and the relationships that you form, that it’s okay to not go to every session at the conference.
Maybe that’s like a revelation for some of you. It was a revelation for me. It was literally years before I got out of the habit of thinking “I must go to every single session.” Early on, I was hardcore conference attendee. I went from the breakfast sessions to the last at the end of the day. I thought I had to go to every session. And then I found out that some of the best experiences that I had occurred when I started talking to someone, I got caught up in the conversation, and the next thing I know, people are coming out of the door that I was going to go into because the session is over and I missed the whole thing. Because I was having an awesome conversation in the hallway.
FPA Retreat in particular is legendary for stoking so many good conversations that you miss lots of sessions because you’re just having great conversations with people.
But looking at the conference agenda prospectively, you can figure out what you want to go to, and what do you not want to go to, so you know when you have time to connect with others.
Walk the Exhibit Hall…Seriously
Next tip, Andy [from Periscope] just nailed it with a comment.
The vendor room, the exhibit hall at conferences, go in there.
I know we’re obsessed with not going in the exhibit hall, because frankly a lot of sponsors have burned us with bad experiences. But the nature of exhibit halls is changing.
I think the fundamental reason why most of us, historically, have felt so uncomfortable in exhibit halls is that the exhibit halls were filled with companies that manufactured products, that wanted to get them to end clients, and we were their distribution channel. So basically they were selling at us, to get through us to our clients. And when you’re that intermediary, that middleman person for product distribution, it feels icky. Because they’re throwing stuff at you to try to get you to peddle it to your clients. And it feels ugly.
That’s changing, though. The reality is we still help our clients implement financial services products. Even if you’re an operating fee-only, you still have to make sure your clients get to proper outcomes, which means you need to know what products are out there, and you need to do your due diligence. So view the exhibit hall as an opportunity to do due diligence on whether there are better solutions, and different things you should be recommending to your clients.
The second benefit of the exhibit hall, which I love is finally changing — and kudos to FPA NorCal here who is supporting this — we’re finally seeing a growth of technology vendors that serve advisors, in exhibit halls. I pounded the table for years for advisor conferences to do this more. FPA National finally started adopting it a couple of years ago. Now we’re seeing NorCal and other places adopt it as well: have an area for technology vendors, because as advisors we need technology solutions!
In other words, the whole challenge of the exhibit hall has been it was filled with companies that wanted to sell stuff through us to our clients, and not people who are actually there to solve our problems, to make our businesses better. That’s changing now. The exhibit hall increasingly is filled with vendors that actually want to solve our problems as advisors, and make our businesses better and our lives easier!
But you have to show up at a conference, and go in the exhibit hall, in order to actually take advantage of that.
So walk the exhibit hall. Find time to plan to walk the exhibit hall, and look at all the providers who are there, and have some conversations with them. You might be surprised what you learn now.
Another idea I suggest: make sure you’ve got some way to capture ideas and takeaways from the conference. As many of you know, I’m a hardcore Evernote user. I scribble everything in Evernote because I can get back to it from my laptop, or my desktop, or my phone, wherever I am. It syncs across all devices. But whatever you’re mechanism is, even if it’s a yellow pad that you scribble on, have a place to capture the ideas and takeaways.
Because what you’ll find, if it’s a particularly good conference, is that you’re going to get lots of ideas as you’re talking to people. And if you don’t write them down, they’re going to flit away when you have the next conversation with someone else, and you may lose your ideas, or you may lose the one good nugget that you wanted to run with. So have a way to write down those ideas.
The other reason that you write them down is so that when you get back to your firm, and you’re there a day or two later, and the buzz and the excitement is wearing off, you can still go back and decide “Okay, what did I actually learn that I want to implement?” That’s when you pull out that notepad of notes and say, “Now that I’m looking with a fresh mind, what on this list do I actually want to do? Is there a business idea I want to use? Is there a new product I want to follow up on? Is there something I want my team to help me out with?”
Send An Immediate Follow-Up to the People You Want to Stay Connected To
The last item I’ll suggest, to get good value out of a conference, is that for anybody you met that you actually thought was interesting, and that you had a good conversation with… you need to send a follow-up email. You don’t have to send a full thank you note or anything. Writing a thank-you note that just says “Thank you for meeting me. It was really cool,” gets kind of weird.
Just send a follow-up email. It can be brief. “Hey, Jimmy, it was great to see you at the conference. Really enjoyed the conversation. Hope we’ll stay in touch.”
The reason you do that is twofold.
First is that i’ts just an opportunity to further cement a budding relationship with somebody you had a good conversation with, and you genuinely want to stay in touch with.
The second reason is… it’s hard for me to even count the number of business opportunities I’ve had that came from met some people at conferences, sent them brief follow-up notes, and then years later I get an email out of the blue from this person with an opportunity. The email says “Hey. We had this great conversation two years ago and I’ve been thinking about it. Now I want to do something and I want to see if I can work with you.”
And when I look at the email they sent me, it’s actually a reply to the one I sent them, from two years ago! Because people keep their emails now, and the easiest way for them to reconnect is to just go through old email, and search for the name, and hit “Reply,” and continue the thread. You would be amazed at how many emails you can get from people that will reply to something you sent weeks, months, or even literally years ago.
So when you send that follow-up email, you make it easier for them to re-initiate the connection. And that’s very powerful to making sure that you form connections and preserve the potential for future opportunities that may come.
How to Pick the Right Financial Advisor Conference For You
In terms of deciding on what conferences to go to, I’ll admit it’s tough. Our industry has an overload of conferences these days.
I would encourage one of two directions. Either A, look at your broker-dealer or custodian conferences, or whatever your business platform is. If you’re in XY Planning Network, we have our own XYPN16 conference for people to network. Schwab has their own event called Schwab IMPACT. LPL has their own giant event called LPL Focus. Virtually every platform or network group has their own conference, and it’s a great place to go, because by definition everybody there is at least somewhat similar to you, because they’re on the same platform or in the same network. It’s a nice opportunity.
Going to membership associations often work well, for the same reason that the membership that association attracts has a common bond. So if you’re a fee-only planner and you’re in NAPFA, and you go to NAPFA National, you’re talking to other fee-only planners. You can find people who have a similar interest, a similar passion to you. You may run your businesses a bit differently, and that’s where the good connections come, but at least there’s a shared element and philosophy that means you’re likely to have good conversations with people.
And there are many other conferences. I keep a full list of advisor conferences to attend and check out, so you can always look there as well if you’re trying to find something new or different. I know a number of advisors now that are starting to do two conferences a year, one in the fall, one in the spring. Two in quick succession can be stressful for the business, but alternating them every six months is a good balance for many.
Because what you’ll find is, once you start getting good ideas and connections for your business by going to conferences, you may want to iterate faster and go to more. Go to a conference, get something, take it home, run with it, go to another conference in six months, do it again. And that’s how your business gets better.
Andy [from Periscope], it’s so true what you’re saying: “I like how motivated I am coming out of them.” Yeah. Conferences can get you fired up. If you don’t go to conferences often, or you’ve never been to a conference, you may not even realize how fired up you can get by just taking a break from your normal routine and putting yourself in a fresh environment like a conference, particularly with people who are similar to you who you will draw energy from. It’s really energizing. It’s really powerful to give you fresh ideas to come back and make your advisory business better.
And even if you’re an employee, this is relevant for you as well. It’s still an opportunity to advance your career. If your employer won’t do it, pay your own way. I’ve bought my way to many conferences over the years, because it forms new connections. You may even find a new job opportunity that’s better than the one that you’re at! No offense to any current employers. But again, the connections that you can get by going out there to conferences are really powerful.
So I hope that’s helpful as some food for thought around conferences and the value of going to one. Yeah, there’s educational sessions and CE, and I don’t want to knock that particularly because I get paid to be a CE speaker! So please still come to my sessions! But I’ll still admit, the biggest value of attending a conference is not the CE, it’s the people you meet and the connections you make. Especially when you maximize the opportunity by taking the important little steps, like bringing your business cards and doing the simple follow-up afterwards.
Thanks everyone, for joining us. Sorry we’re a little bit late on the broadcast this week. But normally office hours, 1PM East Coast Time every Tuesday. Thanks again, and have a great day!
So what do you think? What’s your favorite advisor conference to attend? What’s the biggest impact you’ve ever had on your business or career by going to a conference? Any other best-practices tips to suggest? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!