Many of you flat-landers out there will be surprised to hear that I left the ACORD LOMA Forum, came home and skied! Snowbird Ski Resort, which sits majestically about 7,000-feet about the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, is our “local mountain.” Long after the destination resorts of Deer Valley and Park City Mountain have closed, the locals turn their attention to “the Bird”, where if there is snow, and folks to ski and ride it, the resort will be open into June.
This is that special time of year when the hard core golfers are golfing and the hard core skiers are skiing. Locals have been known to do both on the same day. It’s that time of the year when you come down out of the mountains to discover that the rest of the country has moved on from winter, through spring and into early summer.
It is also conference season, when insurance professionals shake off the long cold nights and head somewhere (often south) for their annual IT and business get-together. This year ACORD LOMA was in Las Vegas, and IASA will be in Washington D.C. These events are interesting bellwethers of the state of our industry, reflecting technology, business, and economic trends.
The very fact that after several years of recession, depression, and lackluster recovery these events are still viable is interesting in and of itself. By the time an attendee is done with hotel, airfare, cost of admission, and incidentals, a trip to one of these events costs thousands of dollars. So who comes, and why do they continue to come?
There are several and varied groups that attend these conferences, each with their own agenda and objectives.
First there are the association members and volunteers==those who toil in the trenches of standards committees, regional organizations, ongoing education, and the like. Without these people there actually would be no conference to attend. ACORD, LOMA, and IASA are run by very small groups of professionals who rely for much of their delivery on large numbers of volunteers who organize the educational content and delivery, offer conference help and information, and provide guided tours and the like. These folks attend in order to volunteer, to network with other members, and to enjoy the speakers, business show, and other special events.
For carrier and agent/broker representatives there are several reasons to attend. These shows offer ongoing educational credits and a variety of informational sessions on both business and technology tracks. These sessions are a good opportunity to get new information, new ideas, and to meet people that know things the representative is there to learn.
On the technology side, introductions to subjects as diverse as legacy replacement, cloud computing, big data, and social media are available. On the business side accounting, compliance, and regulatory updates are common along with more strategic sessions on changes in underwriting and claims business operations. Event organizers go to great lengths to ensure that attendees get useful information rather than just sales pitches from the various vendors, consultants, and industry analysts who sponsor and participate in many of these sessions.
The annual conferences are also a great place for carrier representatives to make contact with vendors of technology solutions that they are interested in. These meetings range from an initial (and anonymous) review to an opportunity to meet in-depth with a vendor and review a given product. At the anonymous end of the spectrum there are activities such as IASA’s Vendor Connect Tours where a group of like-minded attendees tour a series of vendor booths (in the business show exhibit hall) and hear a brief product introduction. The carrier representatives get to watch and listen without having to identify themselves or be exposed to unwanted follow up from the vendors.
The great thing from the carrier’s viewpoint is that they get to either walk away or to follow up at their option, depending on their level of interest. And follow up can be anything from coming back to the vendor’s booth or writing an email weeks later. We at CastleBay have had several emails or calls in past years that start out with, “We were on your Vendor Connect Tour and are interested in learning more about. . .” So they work for both carrier and vendor.
For the bolder, or more focused attendee, scheduling an in-depth product briefing with one or more vendors is a great use of these shows. Where else can you get to meet with several vendors of interest in a concentrated two- or three-day period? And just walking the exhibit hall can introduce new vendors, renew past relationships, and provide a useful sense of the pulse of our industry. Anyone who thinks our industry is lacking in creativity or competition should spend a couple of hours walking the exhibit hall and just absorbing the energy and innovation on display.
Finally of course there are those people who attend because “it’s their turn.” A seasoned vendor can identify these people from a distance; they are the ones going from booth to booth collecting marketing giveaways while trying hard to avoid eye contact. These folks collect bags full of free swag to take home for the kids (or not), as mementos of an exciting trip. Some vendors put out great swag, so what’s wrong with that?
Talking of vendors, they are the other main group in attendance at these annual events, and indeed pay the vast majority of the operating costs through sponsorships. Make no mistake, these conferences cost a ton of money to put on, and the admission fee for attendees and the exhibit fees for vendors come nowhere near covering that nut.
Hence, you will notice that in addition to a hundred or so exhibitors paying for booth spaces that range from small and marginally located (I proudly count CastleBay in this group) to large, flashy, and centrally located, there are all kinds of sponsors. There are the “minerals”—silver, gold, platinum and diamond, with a sliding scale of “signage recognition,” speaking opportunities, and other goodies. If a vendor feels less like a jewelry display but wishes to make their mark in the sponsorship stakes they can sponsor your breakfast, your lunch, your water, your room key, the bag or backpack you carry your swag around in, etc., etc.
Then there are the event sponsors who pay for late-night parties (including the cost of pretty good entertainers) or keynote speakers. While I have attended some fun social events, my favorite part of these conferences has tended to be the keynote speakers—world-class writers, scientists, politicians, and humorists. My favorites list includes Michio Kaku (physicist and futurist), Ben Stein (economist, humorist and Ferris Bueller’s teacher), Colin Powell (former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Bob Woodward (journalist and political analyst) and Malcolm Gladwell (author who coined the phrase “the tipping point”). These speakers were funny, provocative, and insightful and I thank the sponsors that splashed out major bucks to put them onstage.
If you want to find a vendor, go to the Exhibit Hall. That is where—during designated hours—the vendors get to tout their wares to the convention goers. Interestingly enough, regular attendees are not allowed in the Exhibit Hall during non-hours. It’s not a place for the faint of heart, especially if all you are after is a few knick knacks for the kids, but I think of it as the price that attendees should pay (in addition to the price they have already paid) to attend.
Vendors try many tricks to get attention and draw a crowd, including hiring actors and magicians; adding games and competitions; and accosting innocent passers-by. The hubbub is fun and it can be educational, but the message definitely is, if you want to meet a vendor during hall hours make an appointment, know where you are going and know how to get there, otherwise you may get distracted. If all this sounds boisterous it is; but not unpleasantly so. After all, we are talking insurance here.
As the leader of a company that helps insurers select vendors I tend to enjoy some of the same treatment the actual carrier representatives get. One of my favorite encounters is with the sales guy who wants to show me the latest and greatest software product from his new company. What he seems to forget is that last year we had the same encounter, except he was with a different company. This has happened so many times I believe that not only are sales people rabid optimists, they are also amnesiacs.
But it’s all part of the conference fun. And if you approach it in the right way you will learn something new and useful... and maybe bring home some good swag, which you can give to the kids before you go off to play golf—but not ski. Enjoy!