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It is becoming more obvious every year that the typical national conference format utilized by credit union group sponsors, and all sorts of other industries as well, has probably outlived its usefulness. There has to be a better way than going from registration to opening reception to opening general session to breakouts to general session to breakouts to evening social event to wrap up session. Along the way is a yearly repeat of side activities such as a Political Action Event and a golf tournament. Everything at major credit union meetings has become so predictable from the conference bag and its contents, to the chairman’s scripted opening remarks, and the invocation by a local clergyman. Even the signage, staging, and audio-visuals, have a sameness to them. Granted, groups like NAFCU can still attract impressive numbers as the trade association did at its late July Annual Conference and Exhibition in Boston. Even though the daily conference schedule has become pretty much set in stone. Some conclude that the program format, general session speakers, breakout session topics, exposition hours, handout materials, etc. matter very little. The main reason, they say, that some conferences are bigger than others is the draw of the location. Boston, for example, is a city people love to visit. Over two thousand credit union persons showed up making it the group’s fifth largest annual conference. There is no denying that location does play an important role in attracting attendees to most national credit union meetings. But NAFCU draws well wherever it meets. It has a well-deserved reputation for a solid education program (timely topics presented by speakers with expertise), a huge vendor exposition (166 companies in 209 booths this year), and fun social events (“Take me out to the ball game”). But even with NAFCU, it is beginning to look like major conferences for credit unions need a shot in the arm. They need to generate some excitement. They need to be more creative. They need to get attendees more involved. They need to get credit union people talking and mixing. They need to find ways to get all participants anxious to participate fully from the opening gavel to the fond farewells. They need to be different! Most of all, they need to be worth the enormous total expenditure of credit union money (plane tickets, hotels, meals, registration fees, etc.) they represent. Instead, playing hooky seems to be becoming more prevalent. Where were those 2,000 plus credit union people in Boston at credit union expense? Even the opening general session was far from overflowing. At times the expo hall would have been a good place to roll a bowling ball. In fairness to NAFCU, and any credit union group that holds meetings in big city convention centers, they have two strikes against them going in. Being in multiple hotels and sprawling meeting facilities, connected by walkways or not, presents association meeting planners with tremendous challenges. In Boston, the hike from hotel rooms to the upper reaches of the convention center was a formidable one. A quick trip back to one’s room was not really an option. Nor, apparently for many participants, was staying in the convention center all day. Besides the mileage involved, getting from sleeping quarters to meeting sites was also loaded with temptation. Meeting-goers were forced to navigate the long trek through dozens of shops (many with sales signs in their windows) lining the most direct path to the meetings and expo. Once inside, the journey continued down numerous hallways and up escalators. After trying it a time or two, some just gave up and found other things to do. Not a hard task in a city like Boston. As the conference wore on, it looked to this veteran observer that not only was the format tired, but so were the participants. Some other observations: * Also typical of all credit union meetings, large and small, numerous amoebas were present. Individuals from the same credit union seemed to be joined at the hip. They went everywhere together and did everything together. Good way to avoid meeting new people and picking up fresh ideas. Stick together. Stay comfortable. That’s what credit union amoebas do. * The opening general session had only one outside presenter, Lester Thurow, nationally know MIT Sloan School of Management Professor. A no-nonsense speaker, he wasted not a second getting into his speech. He was excellent. Thurow laid out economic scenarios that made sense in a world that seems at times to be spinning out of control. Quotable quotes include these: “Greed makes capitalism work.” “But it also causes financial instability.” “The entire world is swinging towards capitalism.” “Socialism is dead.” “Recreating ourselves genetically may be the single most important discovery of mankind.” Buy the tape. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to interact with Thurow. Maybe it was his choice. In any event, there certainly was time. Despite what seemed like an awful lot of time spent on internal matters, the opening general session ended 24 minutes early, something that almost never happens at a big meeting. * NAFCU CEO Fred Becker did his group proud with several conference appearances. Rather than hide in the wings as many association executives choose to do, or are forced to do by egotistical chairmen, Becker made his views known on everything from the strength of the federal charter, to debunking banking industry-generated CU myths, to ticking off impressive NAFCU accomplishments under his direction. * Dennis Dollar showed again why he has become the most popular NCUA Chairman. Since his term is officially up, he could coast. Instead, he continues to operate full speed determined to accomplish as much as he can for credit unions until a successor is appointed to his spot on the NCUA Board. So despite the same old format, was a trip to Boston worth it? Definitely! NAFCU continues to be number one when it comes to annual credit union conferences. Even with an outdated format. Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]

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Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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