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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – The situation resounds with a number of credit union industry groups: conference attendance is declining in spite of solid post-conference reviews from attendees. The Tennessee Credit Union League is stepping up to the situation with a proactive approach aimed at more clearly identifying attendees’ needs and phasing in changes. League President/CEO Tom Gaines stresses the effort involves many people, including the league board and management staff such as Vice President Trish Patterson. The TCUL sponsors several major sessions a year with an annual convention, a managers conference and an elected leaders conference. Although registration for the elected leaders gathering was up this year, the general trend has been down. “A lot of it involves the type of educational conferences leagues have traditionally put on, and some that even our national trade associations have done,” Gaines says. “Obviously there are fewer credit unions and they are larger. What we have done is strung out the marketplace. You have a smaller base to pull from for your conferences. Of course those things have to pay for themselves – they have to cover the direct costs.” Another factor, he continues, is larger credit unions tend to send fewer people to any single conference. They can handle much skills training internally. Finally, there’s more competition from national and professional program managers. They offer cruises and lure people to Las Vegas and other attractive sites with big-name national speakers. When conference attendance drops, “There’s a tendency to be defensive and say, `It’s not my fault. Most of the people are going say they like it. It’s a great program. It’s your fault for not being there.’ But people vote with their seats – their seats aren’t in the chairs,” Gaines says. So the league devised a questionnaire for each of its major conferences. The questionnaires covered everything from amenities to the location, the speaker, networking opportunities and cost. The survey on the annual convention was sent to all credit unions in the state. Six face-to-face discussions were also held around the state with credit union CEOs. Credit unions said they wanted: * More networking opportunities. * More chances to hear from credit unions themselves. * More hands-on workshops. * Something to fill out, take back to the credit union and actually use. Getting something tangible and usable is more important than cost, credit unions emphasized. For example, rather than a broad look at macroeconomics, credit unions want to examine the impact of interest rates on their fixed-rate real estate portfolio. As one response, the TCUL wrote to attendees at the managers conference ahead of time and asked what they expected to gain from a particular session. The league then shared that information with the speaker. The result, Gaines reports, was knock-out reviews and extremely positive word of mouth. “We start the program and end the program with, `Here’s what you said you wanted.’ If half of them say they want red and half say they want green, you need to have both red and green,” he says. “When we get through, we ask if there was something we missed or something else they wanted. We ask them to evaluate the whole conference. It’s open. It’s subjective. We don’t ask them to rate the temperature and the seating and the food. We ask how we can improve and what we can do next year.” If a speaker earns rave reviews, do you invite them back? Gaines says no. No matter how much the audience loves a speaker, don’t bring them back. He sees almost all speakers as one-shot rifles. The league isn’t hiring speakers because they’re good speakers, he adds. A speaker makes the cut because they are the best person to discuss an issue that has already been targeted as something attendees want information about. The league has also discovered it needs to offer other channels. So TCUL has increased the amount of training through telephone conference calls and on the Web. It has also identified opportunities to go into a large credit union to train people in groups and have small credit unions attend training on a group basis. Gaines raises still another possibility. “We’re going to have to look at multi-league programs. I’ve heard from other folks who say we’re cost-sharing. You’re not cost-sharing. You’re market-sharing. You’re trying to broaden your base. “People who pay a big chunk of the ticket are the vendors. We can’t put two leagues together and double the number of vendors, because you have the same vendors going to both conferences. If the vendors feel it’s worthwhile to be there because of the quality time they get with more buyers, their costs are cut in half because they’re only going to one instead of two.” The adjustments will continue to evolve, Gaines says. The amount of competition from major national conferences won’t change. “We don’t know the magic formula. In many ways you’re dealing in degrees of gray. There are people who have been coming for 30 years and don’t want to see a change. You have to gradually introduce improvements,” he indicates. -

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