Organizers of financial industry events are finding unique ways to educate advisors and provide networking opportunities through the COVID-19 pandemic. Going to a virtual format has allowed them to thrive through expanded reach all while making creative attempts – think swag boxes full of booze and chocolate – to keep the fun alive and maintain the critical social component that conferences and symposiums provide.
“We decided very early on that we’re not going to compromise on the flavour of [our] event,” says Evelyn Jacks, president of the Knowledge Bureau Inc. in Winnipeg, which has been putting on the Distinguished Advisor Conference (DAC) that’s taking place this week for the past 17 years. “We wanted to bring an educational extravaganza from a content point of view, but also what we have been known for are some really fun and unique networking events that make our audience feel like a family by the time they leave.”
Usually held in exotic locales and popular retirement destinations such as Mexico, this year’s DAC was already being planned to take place in Niagara Falls, Ont., as “the world was already changing” prior to the pandemic, Ms. Jacks says, noting that more people are opting to retire within Canada.
“By May, it was pretty clear we weren’t going to be able to meet personally, but we didn’t want to give up all the fun things we do to network and get to know each other,” she says. “So, in thinking about how we can do that this year, we immediately came up with the DAC-in-a-box concept.”
From a small bottle of sparkling wine for the mid-morning mimosa break to special matcha and syrups for coffee breaks, the “DAC-in-a-box” is effectively a care package full of goodies – among the items included is “chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate” – that allow participants to follow along virtually with tastings and other social events.
Although sending out more than 100 of those boxes across the country was not cheap, Ms. Jacks says “the margins [this year] are definitely better because we are not travelling and spending time in a hotel, and I would say that is one of the great advantages of the virtual world.”
Another advantage of running an event online is the broader content options, says Don Bridgman, principal at Mindpath Corp., which is holding its seventh annual ETF Conference this week. “We have been able to widen the reach of our lineup” this year to include speakers from as far as New York, London and San Diego, he says.
“Our conferences have generally been in Burlington, Ont., or Mississauga or Toronto, and when you’re trying to get your lineup completed to get commitments from speakers you are restricted a little bit on their ability to travel to your location,” Mr. Bridgman says. “The fact that it is now all virtual has opened up a much wider range of potential speakers.”
Holding events virtually also means “way more people can participate,” he says, noting Mindpath is expecting to “at least triple” its usual turnout of about 150 advisors at its ETFs Conference. “We think we will get north of 500.”
Despite utilizing a sponsorship model in which attendance is free for advisors, Mr. Bridgman says the higher turnout is nonetheless a boon to his balance sheet.
“If we say we have 20 people in the room or we say we have 500 people, [sponsors] would rather get their message to 500 people,” he says. “In the past week, we have had three more sponsors want to participate, so that helped for sure on the bottom line.”
Mindpath’s conference will include some digital networking possibilities. For example, attendees can go into virtual booths to talk to wholesalers.
“But it’s not the same as it was,” Mr. Bridgman says. “If you know a specific person who is attending that you want to talk to, you can still do that through this platform, but you’re not going to be chatting with someone new. It’s just not the same in terms of relationships and the social part of it.”
For Hillary Dawson, chief brand officer at FP Canada, who’s in charge of organizing the annual Financial Planning Week that takes place in late November, adding a specific networking component to the first-ever virtual version of the long-running event was simply too much too soon.
“My direction to our team was that we’ve never done this before, and even some of the platform providers are learning on the fly,” she says. “I’d rather not overwhelm this with bells and whistles. If we perpetuate this model going forward, we will try and add some more of those tools. [But for this year,] we wanted to focus on the quality [of the event], on the delegate experience and leave it at that.”
The strategy has been successful thus far, she says, as more than half of attendees this year are attending for the first time and more than one-third are from outside the Toronto and Vancouver regions, which are where Financial Planning Week events usually takes place.
While the different format of previous events makes a direct apples-to-apples comparison difficult, Ms. Dawson says both of those figures are generally much higher than in previous years “and the feedback we are getting as people register is, ‘Finally, I can participate.’”
The Institute of Advanced Financial Planners (IAFP) also had “nothing but good feedback” from its first virtual symposium held earlier this month, according to symposium chair Peggy Cameron.
“There was a huge learning curve, but the end result has been very positive,” she says. “We have had more than double our usual attendance.”
Regardless of whether the current global health crisis is resolved over the year, the IAFP is planning on sticking with its new format.
“We’re assuming it is going to be virtual next year,” says Jacquie Skinner, president of the IAFP. “And I think going forward it will [remain virtual] just because it turned out to be so successful.”
Psychologically, Mr. Bridgman believes the effects of long-term physical distancing will only serve to cement the virtual event format as the new industry standard.
“Even when you’re ‘allowed’ to do big gatherings, I think there are still going to be a lot of people who will be quite leery to do it,” he says. “It’s a tradeoff. Wider range of speakers and more numbers to get out, but you miss some of that social stuff too. For the foreseeable future, until it’s clear where this is going, which nobody knows, we will be going virtual.”