Insights

How to Attend the Right Industry Conferences

July 8, 2014

I attended two financial services conferences in a row last week: the InvestmentNews Women’s Forum and ETF.com’s Global Macro ETF Strategist Conference. From a stamina perspective, it was a scheduling fail: there were enough keynote speakers, expert panels, PowerPoint decks and networking breaks to rival Davos. It was a struggle to stay focused. 

But there was a method to my madness. I had a specific goal in attending each conference—which I’ve found is the best way to come away satisfied that the time and costs were well-spent.

Three possible value-adds

There are three ways that conferences can add value. Two are obvious: first, by listening to experts speak, you can learn about subject matter. Second, you can network with people in your industry.

The third falls somewhere between the first two, and it was crystallized for me by a new acquaintance I met at the ETF Strategist Conference. Given his status as the founder of a highly successful investment program that he has since sold to a behemoth investment firm, I was curious why he had attended the conference. Surely he wasn’t there to hear lectures or meet prospective customers?  

He wasn’t. He was there, he said, to keep tabs on the evolution of different parts of the investment management industry. He was conducting high-level reconnaissance, drawing conclusions from who was and wasn’t there and how they behaved. How many employees had a given firm sent? Who were they talking to and about what? What were the value propositions of some of the newer businesses that are still largely under the radar? When driven by the right questions, this industry reconnaissance can lead to highly valuable big-picture understanding. 

Each conference offers anywhere from none to all of these three value-adds: subject matter, connections or big-picture understanding. Once you decide which are most important to you, here’s how you can predict whether a particular conference will deliver.

For subject matter utility, look no further than the agenda

Conference providers nearly always release detailed agendas ahead of the event. It seems like a straightforward prescription to suggest reading the agenda, but the devil is in the details. 

Look at the topic and the speaker. Is the speaker truly an expert on the topic? Are they legitimately experienced and/or respected? What might their biases be? If the topic is “Are bonds dead?” ask yourself: does the speaker’s firm sell only fixed income products or could they still make money if bonds WERE dead? If the answer is that the firm is bullishly biased toward bonds, consider who is speaking. If it’s an analyst or portfolio manager, you might hear a compelling (albeit biased) quantitative argument for the asset class. This could be useful. If the speaker is a marketer, however, you are likely to hear a a thinner version of the investment team’s view.

For networking utility, ask: what is the conference’s EQ?

EQ – or Emotional Quotient – is a phrase we commonly use to describe an individual’s “people skills,” or aptitude at perceiving and responding to their own and others’ emotions. A gathering of people, though, can also pulsate with as much — or as little — EQ as any person. A conference’s EQ is directly proportional to the number of meaningful connections — not business cards, but actual relationships — that you can expect to come away with.

Here are some hallmarks of a high-EQ conference (the InvestmentNews Women’s Forum last week exhibited all of these):

  • The door is open for personal, not just business-specific, relationship development. This particular Forum was about the importance of mentoring and being mentored, as well as the under-representation of women in wealth management. Senior women told stories of struggles they had faced. It was not a stretch to involve personal context in business conversations.

  • There are many non-airbrushed moments. Amid a few too many buzzword-laden conversations about the importance of listening and helping others, some conversations at the Forum were refreshingly genuine. During one session featuring mentor-mentee pairs, a mentor described how she gave her mentee the tools to extricate herself from an abusive situation as the junior member of a predominantly male team. Prompted by a question from the audience, the mentor revealed that no, the mentee had not been honest with her former colleagues about the reasons for her departure. Nor had she informed anyone at their firm of the human resources issue. The room buzzed with conflicting emotions after the revelation — disapproval, resignation, amusement. A dam had been opened.

  • The event is framed by moments of social import. In the Forum’s case, because 100% of the conference’s proceeds were donated to Girls Inc., someone from the organization addressed the audience at the beginning. The stories about young girls who had overcome economic and social adversity were incredibly moving and changed the tenor of the entire room.

The result: The conversations got down to business more naturally and unabashedly than at most other events I’ve been to. 

One quick story is worth retelling because it was just so refreshing: I spoke for 5 minutes or so with a friendly woman who works at a real estate mutual fund. We went over what each of us is focused on, and then she said very politely, “It’s really lovely talking to you, but it doesn’t seem we have any business to do together, so let’s both mingle.” I loved that. We both felt stuck in the conversation and she felt comfortable enough to acknowledge it, which helped both of us. I’m not sure that exchange could have happened if the emotional stage hadn’t been set.

At the same time, the personal backdrop gave people more runway to tell their whole stories and arrive at a richer portrait of what they do and how they might be useful to others in the room. I had several meaningful business conversations and heard lots of others happening around me even though the technical details of managing money did not figure into the programming at all. This is the power of a high-EQ conference.

So… I’ve got to attend “touchy feely” conferences where we talk about our feelings in order to make meaningful connections?

No, we’re not saying that technical programming is a recipe for a conference without personal connections. This forum happened to be about elevating women in the workplace, but plenty of more industry-focused and expertise-driven conferences can pack a networking wallop.

How can one identify them in advance? By definition, it can be difficult to know when unscripted moments will occur. But opportunities for focus on the personal and the socially important are predictable. Some of the best-attended segments of the Opal conferences that focus on family wealth have treated softer subjects like making philanthropy personal and coping with the fallout of a loved one’s drug abuse. The Ira Sohn conference, a forum where some of the most well-respected portfolio managers share their investment ideas, is convened to raise money for an important medical cause. When pediatric cancer is discussed from the main stage, it colors the vibe of the experience in a significant way. It only takes 5 minutes and a powerful story or cause to imbue all of the day’s interactions with more meaning.

For industry reconnaissance, think narrow

There were four general categories of people represented at the Global Macro conference: ETF providers, firms providing the methodology driving ETFs, ETF strategists and Financial Advisors. 

Because Artivest doesn’t fit neatly into one of those categories, attending the conference felt somewhat like crashing a college reunion. On more than one occasion, I inadvertently interrupted a conversation between a product provider and a client. This was a first for me. Also, it took some doing to have meaningful conversations because people were so focused on selling or being sold to.

And yet because the focus was specifically on ETF strategy, I learned a ton about the ecosystem. Having started my career when the ETF industry was in nascent stages, it was amazing to see how mature and multi-layered it has become.

It was also eye-opening to learn how influential ETF Strategists are. These are the firms that focus on how to choose among and deploy the roughly 1,600 ETFs currently available. Some financial advisors buy their “signals,” i.e. their decision triggers for buying and selling different ETFs. Others buy their fund products, like mutual funds and separate accounts.

On its face, this conference was highly technical. ETFs, after all, can be precision instruments for allocating to specific industries, countries, capitalization sizes and other factors. Statistical terms were bandied about liberally.

But the conference was ultimately most additive (for me) on the softer side of the ledger: People and their goals. Who was schmoozing whom. If the subject matter had been broader or more nuanced, the “people watching” would not have been nearly as instructive.

The upshot

The next time you are deciding whether a conference is worth attending, consider what you are looking for. Then examine the agenda, gauge the EQ and consider the scope. I hope you find exactly what you are looking for.

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