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Conferences Should be about Education, not Profit

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Associations, I’m talking to you…

I hope all event planners for industry conferences read this, as IMHO it’s time for some real change around association events.  Specifically, the focus should be solely as an educational opportunity to enrich members, as opposed to a profit center.

This week I was fortunate to be among a small group (~300) invited to the Distressed Servicing 2009 Conference was developed and presented by EuroCatalyst and Housing Wire. 

The event‘s theme was to challenge best practices in debt servicing and the U.S. Impact on Global Mortgage Markets.

Their tag line was “You Will Never View the Industry the Same Way Again.”  That’s an understatement.  Additionally, I will also never view conferences the same way again.

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That’s all I can tell you.  Seriously.

The organizers brought together C-Level (COB, CEO, COO, etc), high-level executives from across the servicing value chain (and around the globe), economists, GSEs and others for a series of peer-to-peer, brutally candid conversations lasting two days.  The concept was to foster open, candid sharing and panelists were asked (and answered) challenging questions. 

Interestingly, to encourage open discussion, ensure confidentiality and privacy, thus alleviating the need to stay “on message”, everyone was asked to sign a No Media policy.  No taping, tweeting, writing, blogging etc. about the specific content or attributing quotes to anyone.

Associations, I challenge you!

I understand the need to make money.  I do.  I’m all about profit.  That said do your members really want to attend events where they get more value from networking than the sessions? 

Have you ever had 300+ heavyweights, CEOs, etc. arrive at 8:00am and sit in a conference room, engrossed in every single session for 8 straight hours? 

“This is the first time I’ve actually learned something at a conference.”

Big associations and conference organizers – are you listening?  What a shame for your events that this sentiment was echoed again and again at this event.  

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Commented Toni Moss, CEO of EuroCatalyst in the July issue of HousingWire

“We wanted to do something different by focusing on interaction, education and entertainment – particularly because networking is needed to become more sophisticated rather than drinking in bars and hallways; we had the challenge of educating an audience of extremely senior people who did not feel the need for education; and we find most conferences void of content so we thought we’d provide more color and commentary by editorializing through music and art.” 

Provide value, they will come!

And, they will pay handsomely for the privilege.  The key word here is value, in addition to perspective.  This was not a fluffy event.  No economists sharing flowery predictions of a hockey stick home price index magically appearing over the next two years.   No blame storming, not too much time checking the rear view mirror.  Just true grit discussion on moving forward, what that could look like and potential impacts for future generations.

Another fantastic feature at the event was the “Twitter-esque” audience interaction.  Each table had a laptop where the audience could anonymously ask panelists questions, make comments, sneer, jeer and engage one another on the topic at hand.  And, periodically the rolling dialog would be projected on the screens be it for a good laugh or an intriguing comment.

Predictions of failure

It’s my prediction that future events will attempt to emulate the format of Distressed Servicing 2009.  I also predict they will fail.   They will fail for a number of reasons, not the least of which is they will continue to sell the podium.  Of course, this is a widely denied practice, but I think we all know differently. 

At the end of the day content without relevant context does not provide value. 

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Content is King, context is Queen

Rather than focusing on selling booth space, sponsorships, ads, fun outings, or booking the Beach Boys to perform for the 25th time, plan the content.  Make it timely and relevant.  But, not six months in advance!  As fast as everything moves, how can a program created six months ago still be relevant?

Recipe for an amazing event

Here’s what made DS2009 so amazing

  1. Participants had to be invited to attend (hundreds of requests were denied)
  2. No sales people or Business Development were invited
  3. No trade exposition
  4. The attendee list was not distributed prior the event
  5. Sessions were sequential, rather than multiple and parallel  
  6. Presentations were meaningful, as opposed to thinly veiled (or blatant) sales pitches or product demos
  7. Content was current and highly relevant
  8. Sponsorship did not equal stage time
  9. Panelists were interviewed talk show style
  10. The audience could ask questions and interact with one another live via tabletop  laptops

By the way, this was not a lucky freshman attempt at an event.  EuroCatalyst has been hosting these events throughout Europe since 2002 and has developed almost a cult-like following.

BarCamps prove the hypothesis

Huge hat tip to Andy Kaufman, Todd Carpenter and the others that pioneered the BarCamp “un-conferences” that are so popular among agents.  I believe the popularity of the discussion-type forum demonstrates the appetite for open dialog and candor.

 So, Associations and conference organizers, what will you do to add more value?  How will you evolve?  If you continue to utilize the same tired template you may lose revenue and credibility as more progressive, passionate individuals like Toni Moss and BarCamps develop a stronger following.  More importantly, you will fail in helping move your members forward.   

Think about it.  If you offered enough, why were BarCamps invented? 

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Written By

Brandie is an unapologetically candid marketing professional who was recently mentioned on BusinessWeek as a Top Young Female Entrepreneur. She recently co-founded consulting firm MarketingTBD. She's held senior level positions with GE and Fidelity, as well as with entrepreneurial start-ups. Raised by a real estate Broker, Brandie is passionate about real estate and is an avid investor. Follow her on Twitter.

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Benn Rosales

    November 19, 2009 at 1:34 am

    ‘blanking’ Amen! There is a hunger for discussion which is why so many are flocking to conferences all over the country, and made to sound chic by con-goers, but it’s always empty with the tell tale signs of “the actions in the hallways.” Really? That says to me the conference was lame, but the conversation’s in the hallways were worth every penny, maybe we should just move the room to the hallways and get some real synergy happening.

  2. Daniel Bates

    November 19, 2009 at 7:06 am

    I thought the Real Estate Tomato’s 1st Virtual REBarCamp this week was a great (full disclosure – I work for the Tomato and spoke at the event). I hardly heard a sales pitch other than a 30 second introduction of who the speakers were. The information was fresh and relevant. Not only was it free and non profit, but donations to a charity were encouraged. I hear what you’re saying, I think the more specific a training event is the more opportunities it has to be well perceived by the target audience, but sometimes we do have to play to the common denomintor. The thing that I hate (and this has been 99.9% of all continuing ed classes) is when they dumb it down to the slowest person in the room and fail to provide any value for the people that attended looking for something more than they could find in 5 minutes of searching on google. That’s the benefit of multiple rooms, you can have a tech-savvy, beginners, brokers, and tech savvy room and let the participants select what to hear. I think we could do a better job in the future with identifying those rooms as such.

  3. Duke Long

    November 19, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Brandie,
    Just FYI, The Indiana Assoc.of Realtors has decided to use the first day of their 3 day conference in January to put on ReBarcamp Indiana. Myself @gregcooper and @rockplank are helping organize this event.The IAR has been well just unbelievable.They have totally embraced the concept.When we mentioned discussions, interaction, side conversations, jeans ,laptops, iphones, seo, twitter,facebook.They said “YES let’s do it”. I personally would have no reason to attend the old conference format because the obvious total waste of my time. Get me in a room let me meet some people ,brokers, lenders,title people who can help me with my business. I don’t want to listen to tax structures lobbying efforts and my state senator tell me how the government is “working to solve the problem.I hope the IAR event and events like it serve as a start for agents to get the Value from the associations they truly deserve. #justsayin

  4. Todd Carpenter

    November 20, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    NAR holds an annual conference (AEI) for state and local real estate associations every spring. This year, I will be leading a session with Jay Thompson and Hilary Marsh on, “How to hold an un-conference”.

    Even beyond real estate, I’m putting together an un-conference for association executives to help change their mindset about topics like these. https://unassociated.org . I hope to have the details in place to make it happen next spring in Washington D.C.

  5. Brandie Young

    November 20, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Hey Benn,

    Interesting paradigm shift, isn’t it? IMHO the “educators” have lost credibility in their ability to develop enriching content. While peer-to-peer networking is important, I believe we all need proven expertise/experts from which to draw knowledge. I would love that expert to once again be trade associations, as I whole heartedly believe in the concept.

    • Bob Wilson

      November 20, 2009 at 2:17 pm

      At NAR, the real experts, those agents making serious bank, were not there.

      I’m not sure people want education. They want a magic bullet and roam the halls looking for it, which is why you couldn’t swing a dead cat last week without hitting a vendor. Even the panels were more vendor than RE expert. One panel I saw had 3 vendor/consultant types and one agent. Another had a vendor that didnt have any experience at all on the given subject – just an opinion with nothing to back it up.

      NAR was a sellout last week.

  6. Brandie Young

    November 20, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Daniel,

    Glad you got some valuable info from that event. Sounds awesome. I doubt we will find a one size fits all solution, but I am hoping that we can see some change … Sounds like RE Tomato has a nice start!

  7. Brandie Young

    November 20, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Hi Duke,

    It’s great to hear you cheer for you IAR! And, while it’s great they embrace the concept of Bar Camp, what are they doing to bring more value to the event they organize?

    I’m not sure how much value I’d feel I’m getting from my dues if my association created a Bar Camp. Don’t get me wrong, I love the peer to peer interaction. It just feels like that’s a cop out, and they’ve swung their pendulum too far in the other direction.

    I think there’s a happy medium here – although I’m not saying I have the recipe. That said, kudos to the IAR for listening and doing something…

  8. Brandie Young

    November 20, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Hiya Todd,

    I’ve always admired your progressive attitude!

    Regarding your AEI event, awesome. Perhaps you can add a session on developing enriching, relevant content?

    I am excited to follow the progress of your Unassociated event. I think the challenge will be getting the right mix of higher-ups/industry big wigs to attend an educational event when they don’t realize they need to learn anything.

  9. Brandie Young

    November 20, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for chiming in. Sorry to hear you didn’t get much from NAR.

    I agree, people want a magic bullet, but there is no such thing and they need to get in touch with that reality.

    What you’ve conveyed here drives home my call for rich, relevant content .

    • Bob Wilson

      November 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm

      What I got from it came from the pros I sought out. I learned some great stuff on investment real estate, and had dinner with 4 agents where between us there was 100 years of experience. They would have been a fantastic panel.

      It is just unfortunate that NAR would rather talk about how to use twitter instead of how to sell, since at the end of the day, that is what we do.

  10. Duke Long

    November 20, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    The other two days of the 3 day conf. are Assoc stuff. They are providing the space and marketing help. The agenda and content (None of which the IAR is involved in at this point) is pure BarCamp. You have an interesting point. Remind me to answer your question after the event. Let the members of the Assoc. who attend decide Again thanks for bringing up the subject,I think it needs some air.

  11. Brandie Young

    November 20, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Bob

    You raise some interesting points. Sounds like what was important to you was info on how to effectively sell in turbulence. Who better than your peers to hear this from.

    I wonder if that, combined with the opportunity to hear from global economic heavyweights that can explain forward-looking trends in the economy, GSEs and others talking about the impact of loan mods and REOs would help you formulate a go-forward strategy to build/maintain a vibrant business?

  12. Brandie Young

    November 20, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Duke

    Thank you for providing your input, and I’m happy to hear you feel it’s a topic worth discussing. I will look forward to hearing from you following the event.

  13. Bob Wilson

    November 20, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Brandie, that wasnt what was important to me. What was important was to hear from those with real hands on experience and success in anything in the RE space. That wasnt what we got. We got consultants who have never sold a house and self proclaimed SM and marketing gurus talking more theory than fact as a platform to promote themselves. Real heavyweights would be good. That wasnt what NAR served up.

  14. Brandie Young

    November 20, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Bob, Maybe someone at NAR is listening … (yoo hoo)

  15. Todd Carpenter

    November 20, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    Bob,

    I’m with you. I always prefer hearing what actual agents have to say over consultants. Our convention department struggles with programming though because they rarely get bad evaluations from those who attend the sessions. I guess it’s good manners or something. If you would like to express in detail which sessions discouraged you, I’ll be happy to share that with the people responsible for developing the program. If you’d rather say it in private, my email is tcar@realtor.org.

    I’d like to extend this invitation to anyone else who attended NAR’s annual conference.

  16. Brandie Young

    November 20, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Todd,

    You make an excellent point… if the feedback is polite, you don’t have enough info on what’s broken to even consider fixing it. Beyond attendee surveys, I’d probably want to measure # of butts in the seats per session and variance in YOY registration. Beyond that, I’d probably poll realtors and agents that did not attend and ask why, If the answer was relative value, I’d dig a little deeper for specifics.

    Thanks.

  17. Ken Montville

    November 21, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    The average or even the slightly above average Realtor is not anywhere near “C-level” in knowledge, experience, creativity or curiosity. People don’t get to be “C-level” by entering a profession with such a low bar to entry and low expectations for longevity.

    Here’s my take on REBAR camps – I’ve been to four: They’re fun, they can provide interesting content and the networking is great (and I don’t even drink!). However, they tend to tilt heavily toward technology and people who know best about technology sell it or the services around it. REBAR camps tend to be a bit repetitive. Probably out of necessity. They’re in different locations all the time and they really target real estate professionals who are new to the technology and want to learn it – rarely the “C-level” type.

    I agree with your basic premise that pure content, rich and highly usable content, presented in a way that provides authentic and open sharing without the pressure to buy is a wonderful aspiration.

    As long as the real estate mainstream continues to promote postcards, refrigerator magnets, and tweeting your listing three times a day it ain’t gonna happen.

  18. Bob Wilson

    November 21, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Todd,

    On one panel, only one was an agent. What I saw was 3 other vender/consultants talk about how to do stuff. Fine, except they have no IRL experience doing what they suggested in my medium. They had anecdotal evidence and they had their own experience, which doesnt translate.

    For instance, the SM gurus are able to insert themselves into the real estate agent community online and use their techniques to sell to the community, then say “Hey, this works. Pay me and i’ll teach you”.

    The problem with that is that the same model DOES NOT WORK when it comes to a model for selling homes. There is no twitter community I can invade that is primarily all the homeowners in a given sub-division. It doesn’t translate to a successful biz model, even though there are always enough exceptions for people to sell it as the way to go.

    You also had a session where you had outside consultants talking about their opinions on listings. Smart folks, but no IRL experience. There are plenty of people within the industry who are not vendors that would have been far better in those situations, but they were no where to be found.

    IMO one reason why the average agent gets far more out of their franchise convention is that they here mostly from those in the trenches doing it at extremely high levels. Its hands on info that can be translated into far more immediate results.

    A few blocks away in the Gaslamp on 5th was an agent who has been one of the top agents in the US for the past 25 years who has made bank in every market cycle. I’ll bet if he tweeted he would have been picked to be on a panel, but alas he wasnt – too busy selling real estate.

    My suggestion is to go to some of top companies and ask who they have that could add value to a NAR session. Then find some of the top independents in different markets and do the same. That info would be readily available from the local boards. Find the folks who are killing it and get them – not just those who are famous for being famous.

    NAR is a trade group – focus on teaching your members the tricks of the trade from the craftsmen and the journeymen, as opposed to the apprentices, or worse, the vendors who only know how to demonstrate their power tools on a block of wood but couldn’t get hired on a real job site.

  19. Brandie Young

    November 21, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Hi Ken,

    I hope I’ve told you I always appreciate your perspective and the time you take to offer your insights!

    As far as NAR goes, I agree. You probably wouldn’t get a lot of C-level folks. I believe it differs for an organization like the MBA, or ABA. That said, there are Brokers who, especially as regional owners/partners could fall into the executive category.

    Interesting takes on the Bar Camps. Particularly your observation they tend to be technology-centric. It might be interesting as a follow up to the Bar Camps the topics were posted. They very well may do that, I don’t know. And, since it’s put on by volunteers how fair is it to ask them to do more?

  20. Brandie Young

    November 21, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    Bob,

    Awesome feedback. I’m sure Todd and other NAR folks appreciate your candor.

    Thought/question: I always find it interesting when people think you can only learn from others with apples-to-apples experience. I hear you on the examples you sited, and that sounds fair. But, what if it was a parallel situation – a service provider in relationship-based selling. Could you garner and nuggets from such a person?

    I’m just curious.

  21. Bob Wilson

    November 21, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Brandie, good question.

    Last week I was at NAR because NAR came to San Diego. Normally I would be in Las Vegas for PubCon, which is search and online convention that started with some webmasters sharing tricks in a bar. This grew from a few dozen to over a 1000 in 7 years.

    At PubCon you have sessions led by pros who are recognized experts on their subjects who have also been able to put into practice what they teach and have results you can point to as testament to what can be done. So when an Aaron Wall talks about SEO, it isnt just theory, but experience that has allowed Aaron to be quite successful. When someone mentions an SM guru, it is someone like Neil Patel who has made major bucks before he was 21 leveraging SM. You may know one of his businesses – CrazyEgg.

    These are the guys outside of real estate who NAR should be getting to talk about this stuff. The real pros. By the same token, you will find that some of these folks would tell an audience why certain aspects of SM wont work in some niches. They are not going to sell the silver bullet, but explain how different bullets shot from different guns should be used on different prey (my apologies to the vegans in the crowd).

    When I hear of agents spending close to $2k to someone to set up X # of SM profiles and a set of tapes to go with it, Im offended that these guys are so widely endorsed by the other so called experts in the field. Seriously, if you have to pay someone to set up a sm profile, what are the odds you will be successful with that?

    I see huge value in learning from others outside my niche. It is where I developed my SEO skills. When you have people who compete and win in online spaces that are far more competitive (and by competitive I mean the level of skill you are going up against) than real estate, then you learn a ton. These guys are the Donald Trump of negotiating, the Warren Buffetts of investing, and the Barbara Corcorans of real estate brokers. I didnt see many of those types – the uber skilled. and successful like a Gregg Neumann – leading these sessions.

    Condaleeza Rice is great, but Barbara Corcoran talking about taking $1000 and turning it into a $5 billion empire would have been worth the price of admission. That would have been educational and motivating.

    At th end of the day I just want my industry back. I am tired of being told by those who dont do what we do why we are to stupid to see our imminent demise. They should be careful what they wish for as they are mostly just leeches who survive on the life blood of those very agents and brokers they think are clueless.

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