Observations from my first in-person conference since COVID hit
By Jon Aldrich
I walked into the exhibit hall of the Schwab IMPACT 2022 Advisor Conference @ the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver and was immediately greeted by someone I know at one of the fund companies we use but have not seen since pre-COVID. “Sure is great to be back for a real conference instead of another damn Zoom conference.” He said, I replied, “It sure is. It is going to be a great 3 days!”. And you know what, it all felt normal. Sure, there were a couple folks here and there wearing masks, but other than that, it felt exactly like a pre-COVID conference felt.
I took a long look at the huge exhibit hall where I would spend a good portion of the next 3 days. It was filled with many familiar names of companies in the financial services industry that work with advisors and some of these “exhibit booths” are really extravagant and take up a lot of space and contain some really neat stuff. Even though some of these booths are designed to attract people to come and learn more about their products, most of the companies I wanted to meet with had much more down-to-Earth exhibits.
One of the large exhibits was set up to look like a mini carnival with “Whack a Mole” Ski-Ball, Claw vending machines that grab toys and goodies, etc, with all having a theme tied to their products. The “Whack a Mole” game was re-titled “Whack-A-Risk” and the gophers that popped up to be hit with the hammer were investment risks that this company’s products could help solve. They had contests for high score of the day and you could win some real nice prizes. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to play the Ski-Ball game because my schedule was full every day and that is too bad because I am a whiz at Ski-Ball so I bet I could have won a nice prize.
Of course, almost every vendor exhibit booth has some kind of tchotchkes to catch your attention so that a conversation can be initiated, and the sale process can commence. This year, portable hand sanitizers in various forms was the most prominent theme. These were everywhere. Personally, I always look for the vendors that are giving away Titleist Pro-V golf balls, or things such as Yeti thermal cups, phone charging tools, reading glasses or gourmet popcorn. Of course, I am on the look out for some of the cool food and snacks certain exhibits have instead of tchotchkes such as smoothies, soft hot pretzels or maybe just the simple Kit Kat bars and tic-tacs which are always nice to snack on during some of the long presentations. If you are not careful, you can really come back with a boatload of stuff and make it difficult to get it all in your luggage for the return trip home. When my boys were younger, I used to have to bring an extra suitcase to bring all the loot home as there are lots of things kids love, such as stuffed animals such like the Killer Whale from Pacific Life or the T. Rowe Price ram or dozens of foam footballs, baseballs, etc.
I couldn’t believe how many acquaintances I bumped into consisting of both advisors from other firms I know from attending many of these conferences previously over the years and representatives of companies whose products and services we use at Focus or are familiar with. Everyone I ran into had the same feelings of how great it was to be back at what was the first “live” conference many of us have been to since 2019. You do not get these kinds of interactions with the Zoom conferences we have had to attend the last couple of years.
I attend the Schwab conference most years because I gain so much knowledge and insight into our industry from seeing what new software, investment solutions or other tools we can implement at Focus to help stay on the cutting edge and provide the best service and value we can to our clients. I also go for the education sessions to stay current on tax, investment, regulatory and legislative changes that will affect everything we do as advisors and will certainly eventually affect our clients.
The “carnival” exhibit booth that attracted a lot of traffic
The real value I get, however, is all the new people I meet, usually other advisors from around the country (and the world) doing the same thing I am doing. You bump into people in the hallways, in the education sessions, and just having a cocktail at the end of the day when the open bar rings and the complimentary adult beverages start flowing at 5 pm. You can gain so much insight sharing ideas with other advisors about how you handle certain issues, such as feelings on the markets, tax planning ideas, how to serve clients better, tips to operate more efficiently, etc. You just cannot get this interaction in the virtual remote conferences.
The days can be long and tiring as things usually start around 7:30 am for the first keynote session, and you may not be hitting the sheets until late at night especially with all the dinner and after-hours events at local establishments where you can meet even more advisors and professionals and glean even more ideas. Sometimes you may end up having maybe one more cocktail than you should have, and 7:30 can come very early, but nothing a few shots of caffeine that can be obtained from all the tea and coffee stations they have all over not only the exhibit halls, but also in the halls where the breakout education sessions take place. The place is huge, so you get your steps in if you look at your step counter.
There is a lot of media presence at this event, and CNBS has a live show that takes place from the exhibit hall, so you can see the behind the cameras view of all that takes place to put on a polished show. You can follow the teleprompters and see what really occurs on the commercial breaks as you are only a few feet away from where all the action takes place.
Another great feature is that you can grab the ear of some famous and well-respected investors, journalists, founders of companies and others that are there giving education or keynote presentations. I have had the chance to share a few words with many very well-known people I respect and look up to the most in this industry as they are very approachable and will take the time to answer your questions or even give you their e-mail address if you have further questions they can help with. Often, I can speak face to face with the fund manager of an investment I may be considering or already own and ask them questions directly or the founder of a software company that designs the applications we use every day.
You need the 3 entire days to see everything there is to see and talk to who you want to talk with. It also really puts you on the cutting edge of knowing what solutions are out there that can be used to solve issues we are having or can better help us serve our clients. I am always on the look out for enhancements or new software that can improve what we do. This year alone, I must have had discussions with 7 or 8 newer software companies that provide some very interesting products that show a lot of potential for us to use in the future.
I take a lot of notes on my One Note program that I can either enter directly on my phone or on my Surface Pro laptop, at least until the batteries run out, which is usually be about lunchtime. The notes can sync between my devices, so they are available whether I am using my phone, Surface Pro or my computer at my desk when I get back to the office. This method also is a huge time saver from the old days when I would have to transcribe all my handwritten notes onto the computer so I had them permanently. I still have my notes from all my conference going back the past 15 years or so.
There can also be a number of quick 10-minute meetings you will have at the conference that you need to wedge between all your sessions and events you are attending. These could be people from companies that we work with or have a relationship with but may not have an actual exhibit booth at the show but do have a presence there meeting with their clients and prospects and hosting after-hours dinner and other events. The vendors pay big bucks for some of these exhibit booths and the privilege of having the eye and ear of several thousand advisors attending so it is understandable that many smaller and even some larger firms still get value just being there even without an official booth to visit.
(Was it symbolism that there was a giant bear looming over the Schwab Conference?)
Once you get home is when the hard work starts by following up on your ideas and how they can be implemented or start doing the due diligence on new investments or software solutions that we are thinking of utilizing. The list can be very long, but if you don’t do the legwork of taking these ideas and making them a reality or at least exploring if they can help, you lose a lot of the value you get from the conference which is not an inexpensive outlay between the cost to attend, flights, hotels, transportation, etc. You are also going to have to pick and choose from the barrage of phone calls that will hit from all the vendors you spoke with that are following up on their new hot sales lead. Some of them I really do want to speak with, but others I may have spoken with at the conference, but I have no use for their product or service. You talk to a lot of people at these events.
On the last day, when they announce that the conference has ended, you feel a bit of a sense of sadness, as everyone is leaving and saying goodbyes and exhibit booths are being torn down to be shipped back and to allow room for the next conference, whatever that may be, that is scheduled in the Convention Center. It is amazing how quickly the whole place becomes a mess as the workers are right on our tail as we are leaving and getting everything disassembled.
Schwab puts on an incredible event and the final night party is unbelievable. In the last event I attended in San Diego in late 2019, they rented out Petco Park, where the Padres play and had a huge party on the field of the stadium with a private concert by the band One Republic. This year, they rented out the Mission Events center in Denver and had a huge extravaganza that I am not sure I saw all of it because it was so big, and a private concert by Darius Rucker formally of the band Hootie and the Blowfish. There were countless bars available and dozens of buffets to choose from as well as a bunch of other things, such as hot donuts they made right there or photo booths to take pictures as well as 4 or 5 other bands playing at all different areas of the event, totally amazing.
Sure, there are a lot of parties, dinners and after-hour events along with the full days of education and keynote speakers, but you can gain so much insight as to what is going on in the financial advisory industry as well as the opinions of many as to what the outlook for markets is if you do the conference right and chat up as many people you can. I learn so much from others I speak with, but I also pass on a lot of what I know to other advisors I speak with as well that learn from what I am doing as a financial advisory firm owner.
A very small sampling of the huge exhibit hall
I do attend a couple of other conferences most years, but the Schwab conference is really the one that has so much more than some of the other, smaller conferences I attend. I always come back recharged and ready to utilize what I have learned. Also, since I cannot sleep on a flight, I was able to get my blog written on the plane so I can be ready to roll back in the office on Monday morning!