Make the Most out of Every Conference: 5 Steps to Success

Written by: Mark V. Petersen

Fall is officially here. Labor Day is behind us and students of every age—from kindergarteners to graduate candidates—are back in school and geared up for another year of learning. The same is true for financial services professionals gearing up for the fall season of conferences, and there are a slew of options to choose from.

The FPA BE Conference is right around the corner, on September 14-16 in Baltimore. San Diego is a hotbed of activity, beginning with the XYPlanning Network Annual Conference and Bob Veres’ Insider’s Forum both on September 19-21, followed by FINCON 2016 September 21-24, then Charles Schwab’s annual IMPACT conference on October 24-27. If you’re on the east coast, NAPFA’s National Conference is closer to home, in Arlington, VA, October 11-14, and IPA Vision in Chicago on October 17-20. And in Las Vegas, the ADISA Annual Conference runs from September 26 - 28. It’s quite a list of possibilities. But whether you’re attending one or handful of events, do you have a plan in place to squeeze the greatest potential out of your time away from the office?

Everyone knows that basking in the Southern California weather and catching up with old friends can be great perks for attendees. But if you’ve ever come home from a conference wondering if it was really worth your investment, it’s time to take a new approach. Follow these 5 steps and make the most out of every conference to help grow your career and your business:

1. Make a plan before you get there.

Don’t wait until you’re on the plane—or, worse yet, standing at the registration table—to make a plan and set your goals for the conference. Print out the attendee list and identify people you want to connect with. Whether it’s a B/D you’ve been hearing about, a vendor of a new technology that can empower your business, or an estate attorney with mutual clients, there’s a huge pool of value at your fingertips. Identify a specific business problem you want to solve while you’re there, then review the agenda and speaker list and plan each day carefully. Target topics that fit your business and are aligned with your growth objectives. It’s all too easy to wander from session to session, only to realize you’ve missed some of the most valuable content—and contacts—when the day is done.

2. Get out of your comfort zone.

One of your goals at any conference should be to challenge your thinking and stretch your boundaries. To be sure that happens, don’t talk to the same people all the time. You’ll never have the opportunity to uncover new opportunities if you’re constantly engaged in conversation with old buddies. Make it your mission to meet five new people every day. Spend more time listening than talking (you have two ears and one mouth for a reason!). If approaching new people is a challenge for you, have one good question at the ready to use as an icebreaker—anything business-focused to start the conversation will do. And when you meet someone who really resonates with you in some way, take the time to build a good relationship. Immediately connect on LinkedIn and ask if it’s ok to follow up in a week. If LinkedIn isn’t an option, ask if you can snap a photo of their name badge or business card so you have the information stored right in your phone.

3. Leave office work at the office.

Ever find yourself at a conference but locked up in your hotel room on a series of conference calls? I have. Guilty as charged. While office emergencies happen, don’t allow this to be the norm. Commit to making the conference your focus. Set up an out of office message on your email and your voicemail, and only respond to items that require your immediate attention. Leave your laptop in your room and keep your phone out of reach ! Think you can multi-task by listening to a session while answering email? Cognition studies show you’re doing at least one activity ineffectively—and probably both. If you’re really pressed to get something done at the office, set aside an hour or two to go do it right, then get back to the business of the working the conference.


4. Make the most of evening events.

Pick events based on how well they match your mission. If you’re invited to load onto a bus with people you’ve known for years, be sure to sit with someone new. If the bus trip doesn’t promise good value for your time, think about foregoing the fun and arranging a small, intimate dinner with new acquaintances—and invite them each to invite someone as well. It’s a great way to build your circle of influence, and the relationships you forge in a small group will likely be stronger than those made on the bus. No matter how you choose to spend the evening, always remember that relaxing with a cocktail or two can be great, but overdoing the alcohol can thwart your mission entirely. Your goal is to have conversations you remember clearly the next day, not to get the most “value” from the open bar.

5. Make follow up a priority.

Once you’re back in the office, it’s time to put all the networking you’ve done to use. Make a list of everyone you met and set a plan to follow up. That advisor who was so insightful about marketing to Millennials? Proactively schedule a call to talk more about how she’s achieving success. That vendor who gave a session on an interesting new product for your HNW clients? Send him an email requesting more information and the names and emails of a couple of advisors you can talk to about how they’re using the product successfully. Remember that specific business challenge you wanted to solve? Reflect back and see if you found your answer. If not, review your new LinkedIn and other connections and consider who may have the answer for you, then follow up until you get the answers you need.

Depending on how you approach them, conferences can be extremely valuable…or a colossal waste of time and money. My own success story happened years ago: I walked into my office one Monday only to be told the firm was shutting down and I was out of a job. Already signed up for a conference beginning the next day, I decided the best possible thing I could do in my situation was get out there and keep making connections. At the registration table, I ran into someone I had connected with at numerous events over the years. “How are you doing?” he asked. When I replied with the usual, he didn’t buy it. “No, really Mark. How are you?” As I stood there, my conference badge not yet pinned to my jacket, I told him I’d just been laid off and was trying to decide my next step. His reply: “Can you have dinner with me tonight?” That dinner led to an 18-year career at his firm. All because of a conference connection and being in the right place at the right time.

As you head into conference season, plan wisely and commit to making the most out of your time away from the office. Make valuable connections. Challenge your thinking. Stretch your boundaries. By being smart about how you use your time, you can transform every conference into an opportunity to grow your business and enhance your career.

Mark Petersen has over 25 years of experience leading distribution and sales efforts in the financial services industry. His background includes managing retail and institutional securities sales as well as national accounts, and he has forged strong relationships with broker/dealers and financial advisors throughout his career. Currently Executive Vice President at GWG Holdings, Inc., Mr. Petersen is also a registered representative of Emerson Equity. His previous roles include co-president of Behringer Securities LP and executive sales and marketing positions with CNL Fund Management, Franklin Square Capital Partners, and Madison Harbor Capital. He holds an MBA in finance from Baylor University and a B.S. in business administration from the University of Texas at Arlington.