Schwab Advisor Services’ decision to remake all of their remaining conferences for 2020—including their national conference Schwab IMPACT, previously scheduled for November 10 in Boston—into virtual conferences, could signal a permanent change in the way industry conferences are handled in the future.
And according to many advisors, it’s a change they would welcome.
The work and travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed advisors, and the vendors that support them, deeper into a digital environment, said Schwab’s top RIA leader Bernie Clark.
“Our events play a critical role, that won’t change,” said Clark. “There’s a certain new normal put in place. These are changes we think will survive into better markets and more normal times.”
Schwab’s IMPACT conference is arguably the industry’s largest custodian conference, pulling in more than 2,000 advisors along with another 1,000 or so vendors and sponsors. Also going virtual this year is Schwab’s multicity SOLUTIONS conference and its ADVANTAGE conference for fast-growing advisors.
Clark says details are still being put together for the November conference, but it will likely take place over days and without the robust schedule of an in-person conference, or the networking opportunities. “We’ll rely on social media here for networking—that’s going to be a little more lost.”
“We will probably reach more clients,” he said, with a broader pull from advisors who won’t have to travel for that week as well as the archiving and replay capabilities that come with digital distribution.
Some advisors, when asked about the idea of virtual conferences, were enthusiastically in support. Many—unlike organizers and sponsors—attend conferences to get continuing education credits and check in on the latest developments of their partner organizations, while enduring the sometimes heavy-handed marketing sessions on the stage or in the halls of the venue.
The fact that advisors are often enticed by prime travel destinations and swanky hotels is testament to the fact that they need to be enticed in the first place. Getting access to the content with less disruption to their day-to-day business holds an appeal, they say.
“I’m a fan” of virtual conferences, said Chris Chen, the founder of Insight Financial Strategists in Boston. “I do one session at a time, so it can have my full attention. Then I figure out if what's applicable to me. Then, I work on applying it right away. That's different from a regular conference when I get flooded with information over several days and then I get back to my office where I am flooded with to-dos.”
The convenience of attending a conference at a personalized pace and time holds great appeal, said Sandra D. Adams, a partner with the Center for Financial Planning in Southfield, Mich.
“As long as you avoid multi-tasking during presentations, you can focus and get great information from presenters and presentations during the conference,” she said. Another advantage—moving from one breakout session to another without having “to dodge large numbers of people and navigate a large venue,” not to mention the safety of avoiding crowds when the threat of infection still looms.
“Virtual conferences are a great idea,” said Tom Balcom, the founder of 1650 Wealth Management in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “The time saved from not having to travel to a conference makes it worthwhile for a number of reasons, including cost, convenience and safety.”
Advisors can also pause sessions to address client calls, he said.
“The main drawback from not attending conferences is that I won’t be able to bring home any swag for my 10-year-old daughter,” he said. “Besides that, and the networking with other industry professionals, the positives will be met in a virtual format.”
Clark said the firm would resume in-person conferences after the crisis lifts, but the mix of physical and digital will likely be changed forever. Clark pointed to a recent regulatory update held virtually that was attended by over 800 advisors—a large turnout given the topic. “People are learning to participate more aggressively in these things,” he said.
“There is a longer-term strategic benefit from some of the changes we are making now,” he said. “We used to talk about relationships being augmented by technology, but it’s not binary. It’s both.”