WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Outwit, Outplay and Outlast could soon become the motto of credit union conference planners. With hundreds of credit union conferences available, it's possible to toss a dart on almost any day of a calendar and find a conference. Given the questionable state of the economy and the tugging of credit union budget strings, conference planners have a tougher job ahead of them. A CUNA Online Research News Now Quick Question Poll finds 68% of credit unions send staff or volunteers to national credit union trade shows with 28% deciding to send them to more than three during the year. With conferences it all starts with location. It's possible to have the best speakers and most interesting subjects, but if it is held in a place without such factors as easy access from other cities, safety, restaurants, interesting offsite activities and public appeal, experts agree that not many people will be able to attend. "An attractive destination is equally as important as the quality of the product," said CUNA Vice President of Meetings and Special Events Dean Archer. "Those two components are critical." NAFCU Director of Education Sara J. Romanick agrees and adds, "We study the membership and where they are located, look historically at where the conferences have been held in the past and try to rotate them evenly between regions and coasts." Size and the audience also dictate where a conference will be held and who will be speaking. For organizations like CUNA and NAFCU that hold such large conferences, space is always an issue. Not only does the hotel need to have sufficient staff to service the attendants but space and the hotel layout have to be easy to navigate and large enough to accommodate the exhibit hall, break-out sessions, general sessions and receptions. According to CU Conferences President Robert Berra, a hotel's service can influence whether a member will return to a conference. On-site inspections prior to selecting a hotel to review every aspect from the valet parking and check-in, to the speed of room service and how the staff treats guests help limit negative surprises. As for speakers, NAFCU Associate Director of Education Millicent Runner uses a three-fold system for picking speakers and education topics. "Most important is listening to the input, needs and thoughts heard from members of previous conferences," said Runner. "Then researching new/continuing trend indications in the press while keeping an eye on the broader perspective of important national and global events and I also try to act as a conservative entrepreneur. That means being willing to bring innovative, futuristic ideas and speakers into the mix." Berra adds, "Don't underestimate networking at these conferences because sometimes it can be even more valuable than the speakers. Great ideas get generated that way." A typical day behind-the-scenes at a conference begins as early as 5 a.m. with a core staff meeting. This is the time to rehearse the day ahead, check audiovisual equipment and discuss any issues that might have occurred the night before. The days are long and can last as late as midnight. "The most challenging aspect of setting up a conference is the endless attention to countless detail," said Archer. "The analogy is that you can have a $50,000 car and if you are missing a three dollar part the car won't run. We've got to be all things to all people to make sure they enjoy a well-rounded event." The National Directors' Conference and Expo has been averaging 1,400 attendants and the numbers have been going up 10%-20% every year. With nearly 1,300 people already signed up for next year, Directors' Conference Chairman Dennis Sullivan isn't about to reveal his secrets. "We look at where historically our most successful conferences have been held and while it makes no sense at all Las Vegas pulls in the largest numbers," said Sullivan. "It's 110-115 degrees in middle of summer and we're competing with vacations but I guess what separates us is our content. It's just packed with good solid information from people who have been there so the speakers know the challenges and relate to the audience their experiences." According to Sullivan, he tries to entertain while educating at these conferences. This year, the main event was a debate over tiered pricing. Ropes were placed around the stage to make it look like a boxing ring and guest speakers Lending Solutions, Inc. President Rex Johnson and State Employees' Credit Union CEO Jim Blaine stepped into the "ring" to the theme song of Rocky wearing boxing gloves. Separated into 12 rounds, each speaker had first 10 minutes each, then five and three minutes to make their case. Not only were the speakers able to ask questions of each other but also the audience was encouraged to ask questions and keep score of who delivered the most powerful argument. Between rounds Sullivan would summarize some of the "punches". The one and a half hour session ended in a draw. "They are both so very passionate about the subject and everyone had a great time with it," said Sullivan. "But it is a big issue credit unions are dealing with now and they were able to learn in a unique way." [email protected]

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