The economy may be struggling, but the summer series of big credit union conferences upcoming in Las Vegas and Chicago seems to be wooing good crowds even though many participants are on tight travel budgets.
For nearly two years now, nail-biting conference planners at CUNA, WOCCU, NAFCU and CUES along with state leagues and smaller trade groups have fretted over low turnouts given poor earnings and NCUA assessments. But, in fact, the numbers have held up well, a sampling shows.
"Taking in the vendors, we should have 2,600 for our Las Vegas conference, which we think is pretty extraordinary on its own," said Todd Spiczenski, vice president of CUNA's Center for Professional Development in Madison, Wisc.
As CUNA officials acknowledge, that 2,600 count does include the added glut of foreign CU executives taking part for the first time in a joint CUNA conference with the World Council of Credit Unions and branded as the "1 Credit Union Conference" slated for July 11-14 at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino.
CUNA officials said a breakdown of the advance registration list shows a 50-50 split between domestic and international participants, with 61 countries on hand. In addition there are 197 booths representing 176 vendors.
"It's not every day that you get a chance to exchange ideas and best practices with our foreign peers in these kinds of breakout sessions," said Robert Cashman, chairman of the Massachusetts Credit Union League, who will be accompanied to Las Vegas by one of his directors at the $800 million Metro CU of Chelsea, where Cashman is CEO.
He said the driving factor in deciding to go was not the location but the program content.
But Las Vegas, despite its deep-running economic malaise, has become attractive once again because of low hotel rates, said Nevada CEOs, who claim conditions in the city have finally bottomed out even as local economists counter that the worst is not over.
"A year ago, you could walk into a restaurant and be the only one at a table. And now they are busy again, and there are lots more visitors on the street," said Paul Simons, president/CEO of Cumorah CU of Las Vegas, a division of the $694 million Credit Union 1 of Rantoul, Ill.
Meanwhile, NAFCU, as the sponsor of another major event on the July calendar, is forecasting nearly 1,800 for its 43rd Annual Conference & Exhibition at Navy Pier in Chicago July 20-24.
"After what credit unions have been through, a terrible year, the NCUA write-down, we think this is a marvelous turnout coming close as it is to the 1,800 we had for San Diego in 2008," said Fred Becker, president/CEO. He added that the number of volunteers signed up is double from a year ago.
Despite the glowing conference forecasts, a sampling of CEO views shows many are following strict expense limits on conference travel under board guidelines imposed more than a year ago.
Even CEOs in Nevada are skipping the CUNA meeting altogether because of budget cutbacks at CUs that lost millions last year and remain hard pressed by the recession.
"We're not going to be attending any CUNA conference here," said Wayne Tew, president/CEO of the $549 million Clark County CU of Las Vegas, pointing to a freeze on such conference expenses. Looking at local economic conditions, he said, unemployment "is still at 14%, though I think some of the hotels are doing pretty well lately," All in all, "we're still limping along," concluded Tew.
Echoing Tew that "the free fall has at least stopped" was Brad Beal, president/CEO of the $761 million Nevada Federal, who said his CU has cut conference travel 75% during the year, limiting executive trips to only those directly related to employment.
As a director of NAFCU, Beal does get his travel expenses reimbursed, and he is taking along to Chicago "just one director where we used to bring three or four."
In Carson City, Wally Murray, president/CEO of the $500 million Greater Nevada CU, said he is looking forward to the CUNA-WOCCU conference as a chance to mingle with his foreign counterparts.
"It's pretty unique and exciting to have this kind of event right in your own backyard," said Murray, chairman of the Nevada Credit Union League.
Despite the economic malaise, CUNA/WOCCU planners remain upbeat about the popularity and allure of Las Vegas as a meeting site.
One testimonial to that might come from the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association which decided rather than meet in Harrisburg, it decided to hold a directors meeting in Las Vegas during the conference "since many of us would be out here anyway," concluded a spokesman.