Industry Ponders Technology, Economy and What Works
Another year, another meeting. A reality of the credit union industry is that it is chockablock with conferences, conventions, and more, from CUNA’s sprawling annual Washington Governmental Affairs Conference in late February through the California-Nevada Leagues’shindig on the West Coast toward year end.
But meetings today are different than they were even 10 years ago and, in a few years, they may be different still as technology, the economy, industry needs and more conspire to trigger changes in what works and what doesn’t.
Industry experts are ready to offer insight into what’s happening with the big meetings that typically involve paying a fee to attend and travel to an out of town hotel or conference center.
“Attendance is trending up,” said Todd Spiczenski, CUNA vice president, center for professional development.
“The worst year was 2009, it’s headed up since,” said Fred Becker, CEO of NAFCU.
Attendance was down in 2009 because the industry’s finances were under assault–mortgage defaults coupled with the failure of many corporate credit unions severely constrained spending. Better times mean more attendees, said Becker, who indicated attendance at his association’s national events has been inching up, year on year.
Finances, though, remain critical in credit union industry meeting planning, said Becker, who indicated that the focus is on cheaper locations. “We have not been back to Hawaii,” where NAFCU last met in 2007 at its 40th annual conference. Closer in destinations, with more modestly priced hotel accommodations now are the norm, said Becker.
Busy schedules also are a 21st century conference norm as organizers strive to give attendees good value for their admission fees, but, said Becker, organizers continue to have to allow time for attendees to “interact with their peers. That’s often a benefit of attending.”
Another trend that is changing the make-up of many credit union conferences: There now are more nonindustry speakers, said Samantha Paxson, a CO-OP vice president who organizes the CUSO’s annual THINK Conference. For THINK 2013, scheduled for spring in Chicago, Paxson indicated that speakers will include Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker as well as executives from Lego and Dunkin’ Donuts. “Our industry is hungry for fresh content,” said Paxson, who elaborated that CO-OP sought to feature speakers who will share ideas about achieving greatness in other businesses but that might apply smoothly to credit unions.
In that vein, frequently industry talker John Moore, a onetime Starbucks executive, said that a trend he has witnessed is a shift toward what he called TED style talks, which he characterized as taking around 20 minutes with a focus on a big takeaway idea or two. “Many conferences are bringing in more speakers to say less,” said Moore.
To attendees, that might seem in fact like more ideas in a conference–at least more big ideas– and it also makes for a much faster paced event. “The audience has to be prepared to be hit with a fire hose of big ideas,” said Moore..
Big names also are a draw, said Aaron Steinberg, who has chaired the annual National Directors’ Convention, which recently has been in Las Vegas where it again will be hosted in August 2013. One recent year the confab featured a show by Frankie Valli, another year it was Smokey Robinson. “We believe this helps with attendance,” said Steinberg who declined to provide information regarding fees paid to the headliners.
More technology at meetings also has emerged as a transformational theme, said Paul Gentile, CEO of the New Jersey Credit Union League. He pointed to smartphone apps that are often distributed in advance of a conference and help attendees plan their time at the event, barcode readers at exhibit booths so exhibitors can keep precise tabs on who stopped by, and transponders that let attendees vote on poll questions.
Technology also is allowing more to access meetings, sometimes by not actually physically attending them, said CUNA’s Spiczenski. “Technology is allowing us to reach credit unions and staff who before we might not have been able to reach.” Between webinars and videoconferencing, suddenly, much of the content of many meetings can be more widely distributed, often at very low cost.
More attendee feedback is also reshaping events, said Steinberg. “We get evaluations for everything and I read it all. I also interview some attendees to solicit their opinions.” That has become typical as event organizers acknowledge that it’s the attendees who decide an event’s success or failure and taking their pulse, on everything from breakfast buffets to individual speakers, has become standard.
Emerging trends include building in a significant charitable component, said CO-OP’s Paxson. She added that as much as a half-day of the 2013 THINK event will be devoted to activities that support charities.
Another trend fingered by Grant Sheehan, CEO of the National Coalition of Firefighters Credit Unions, is more family involvement. His organization’s 2013 event, to be held this fall in Boston, will attract 110 to 120 attendees. Sheehan said at least half will bring a spouse or significant other.