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Virtual Conferences for Advisors Get a Boost

As financial advisor conferences—and the CE credits that go with them—evaporate this year thanks to COVID-19, attendance for virtual replacements is way, way up. Could this be the future of advisor events?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic restricted travel and public gatherings, the Chartered Market Technician Association was planning to hold its 47th Annual Symposium earlier this month in New York City. Twenty-eight speakers and thousands of holders of the CMT designation from across the globe were scheduled to attend the two-day event.

The annual meeting is the organization’s flagship event. Earning the CMT designation is meant to attest to a high degree of knowledge in the sometimes arcane field of technical analysis of financial markets, and the annual meeting is an opportunity for holders to meet in person, network professionally and—perhaps the real draw—earn up to 15 continuing education credits, the total number the organization encourages CMTs to complete every year to maintain the credential.

Like with so many other conferences, the pandemic forced the CMTA to alter plans. It is postponing the event until April 2021. In its place, the group offered its members 40-minute webcasts by the symposium’s speakers. The “virtual” events pulled in far more attendees—about 10,000 viewers—than the conference itself ever has, said Tyler Wood, the managing director of the association’s global business development.

The pandemic is prompting many organizations that thrived on in-person events to lean even further into online and virtual versions, replicating the keynote speeches and breakout sessions in online webinars and livestreams. That provides a way to ensure designation holders have the same opportunities to earn the continuing education credits they need. In many cases, the virtual events are attracting even more attendance.

The Association of International Certified Professional Accountants was forced to postpone its conference this year, denying members an opportunity to earn a sizable amount of the 120 continuing education credits the group requires members earn every three years.

Those members have shown an overwhelming interest in virtual learning, according to Clar Rosso, AICPA’s executive vice president of engagement and learning innovation. The group’s recent CE webinars have been viewed about 80,000 times in the past four weeks, up from 6,500 a year ago.

When the CFA Institute canceled its annual conference—scheduled for May 1720 in Atlanta—the institute put a virtual conference in its place, featuring the same conference speakers as panelists. The conference included 16.5 earnable CE credits. CFAs need to complete 20 every year. To obtain the 3.5 credits left, the CFA Institute has dedicated a webpage that includes a series of upcoming CE webinars and its available resources around COVID-19.

In April, the first of the planned webcasts streamed to 6,136 viewers, more individuals than would likely have attended the Atlanta event.

The CFP Board, the grantor of the popular Certified Financial Planner designation that requires 30 hours of continuing education every two years, said it would advise and support any of the 1,200 groups it works with to offer CFP credits to transition live, in-person programs to virtual delivery.

After the Investments & Wealth Institute canceled its event this year, the group said it would offer a four-week certificate program online and a limited-time discount on select online courses. Annual events attendees could have earned up to six credits for the listed designations, and 5.25 credits toward the Certified Financial Planner designation, which IWI also supports. It remains to be seen how many will take the group up on the replacement offer.

Not all virtual conferences increase participation, particularly when the meetings were forced to come together in a short amount of time.

The Sudden Money Institute, the administrator of the “financial transitionist” (CeFT) designation, planned for more than 100 members to show up to its Financial Transitionist Institute Mid-Year Conference in New Orleans in March.

Almost two weeks before U.S. President Donald Trump declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency, Susan Bradley, the founder of SMI, reacting to news that flights were being restricted and corporate leaders were pulling back on air travel, started planning to replicate the conference online.

“[At the time, it all felt] like a big overreaction to us, but it was just possible. So, we planned for possible,” said Bradley.

SMI quickly reworked the event and placed it on Zoom, using that company’s online learning management system. Unlike the limited features of one-off webcasts, the Zoom system let SMI hold the workshops together and then usher randomly selected attendees into simultaneous breakout sessions for discussions.

SMI spread the initial two days into three to give advisors more time to tend to clients and their families. Still, given how rapidly the group had to pivot on news of the pandemic, the virtual program brought in only 40 attendees, fewer than were planned for the New Orleans meeting.

The in-person event still has great appeal, says John Garniewski, the president of The National Association of Estate Planners & Councils. Yet his organization is mulling over what to do with its 57th Annual NAEPC Advanced Estate Planning Strategies Conference scheduled for November in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the planned 400 or so attendees and the credits it offers for numerous designations that it could deliver virtually.

“We don’t know if we’ll get another stay at home order,” said Garniewski. “There’s a lot of financial projections we’re making right now. How many people will attend? What would happen if we canceled? What would be the penalties? What would our sponsors do? What kind of webinar services can we use to replace the conference? We’re really looking into all of those things.”

“We are creating the wheel,” he said. “We have had webinars before, but as far as having a complete conference virtual, no we’ve never done that. A lot of us are questioning whether this might be the future.”

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