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Staying attentive during virtual conferences can be a challenge for advisors as they’re watching discussions on their monitors, tablets, or smartphones for hours, but one advisor says taking notes during the sessions helps to maintain focus.

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The COVID-19 pandemic may have shifted what financial services industry conferences look like, but the virtual format has been a welcome change for some advisors. While networking with peers is missed at in-person conferences, some have taken a liking to their home offices being the new convention hall.

“I believe virtual events are here to stay and that format will still be requested for quite some time,” says Grant Maddigan, a certified financial planner at Principal Planning Inc. in St. John’s, Nfld. “I can see a hybrid model developing in the future – events for advisors who want to meet and network in person, with a virtual component for advisors who want to listen to relevant content and presentations.”

Virtual events are more convenient and accessible to advisors who live far away from the conference epicentres like Toronto and Vancouver. To attend in-person events, Mr. Maddigan would typically spend half a workday travelling and shelling out a few thousand dollars on flights and hotels.

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Now, Mr. Maddigan just has to pay the conference fee, which is often cheaper than attending in person, and he can participate in more of them from the comfort of his home. He has noticed that virtual conferences tend to be more succinct. While an in-person conference may feature 10 sessions, its new virtual alternative may be scaled back to half the sessions, “making it an even more efficient use of my time,” he says.

Mr. Maddigan has attended half a dozen virtual conferences so far this year. He especially enjoyed an event featuring former Canadian Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser as the keynote speaker. He says her talk was relevant to the pandemic, “highlighting the importance of working together as a team toward a common goal in trying times.”

Abe Toews, a chartered financial consultant at Beyond Wealth Management in Regina and chairman of the board at Advocis, the Financial Advisors Association of Canada, has also looked beyond the typical advisor conferences in Canada.

“I look for ones that showcase what’s happening in other parts of the world. I typically wouldn’t have done that before,” he says. “I look to see what advisory practice, particularly in the U.S., may look like in the future.”

Betty-Anne Howard, a certified financial planner in Kingston, Ont., who has worked out of a home office for years, says virtual conferences better suit her personality. But she has high expectations when it comes to attending these events.

“I only have time, energy and interest in listening to really good speakers,” she says. “I want to learn, I want to be motivated and inspired. I’ve been in the business for more than two decades and I’m tired of the same old. There are many conferences – and we also have things we can learn from people in other industries.”

For example, Ms. Howard recently registered for a virtual marketing workshop offered by U.S. author Donald Miller to learn how to better convey her messages through storytelling.

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Staying attentive during virtual conferences can be a challenge for advisors as they’re watching discussions on their monitors, tablets, or smartphones for hours. And these same devices can easily revert an advisor’s attention back to their everyday work. For Mr. Maddigan, it’s just a matter of turning off all distractions, including phone, e-mail and text messaging. “That way you can really pay attention to the sessions,” he says.

He also says taking notes during the sessions keeps him focused. After the conference, he refers to his notes and applies things learned from speakers directly to how he conducts his business.

Although Mr. Maddigan prefers day-long virtual conferences with several 15-minute breaks, Mr. Toews likes conferences that are under two or three hours, which will still allow him time to deal with any client issues that may come up during the day. He tends to select ones that have an early morning start and blocks the event as “personal time” in his calendar. “When my staff sees my calendar blocked that way, they won’t interrupt me,” he says.

Ms. Howard appreciates when conference organizers set up things such as virtual polls and chat rooms to keep delegates focused on the presentations.

She says virtual interaction works as follows: a delegate writes a question pertaining to a session’s topic in a chat room for all delegates to see. The speaker, in turn, answers the question not only during the presentation but also writes a response directly in the chat room.

And the nature of chat rooms means all delegates can weigh in with their viewpoints for the duration of the conference. Compare that to an in-person conference in which a delegate misses a thought-provoking question due to being temporarily out of the room. In that case, the question is addressed by the speaker, but never heard about again, Mr. Maddigan says.

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“As long as [conference organizers] have great content, people are going to stay engaged,” he says.

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