SunStar's Melissa Murphy attended the 2019 Schwab IMPACT conference held in San Diego in November. She shared her experiences and observations.

What was your overall impression of the 2019 Schwab IMPACT conference?

Overall, I found the energy higher than in recent years.

Schwab puts on a very well organized, professionally run event. Modifications to the layout of the exhibit hall called “The Exchange” improved foot traffic for exhibitors. 

For example, one end of the conference space housed the key area where the general assembly would meet for keynote speakers. The other side included areas for dining, fun things like a customized t-shirt station, media studios and a shoeshine area.

In the evenings, there was a retro Gulf Stream trailer outfitted as a craft beer dispensary, which gave people a reason to go to the opposite end.

The layout was overall quite effective, with reasons to navigate the entire space.

The big conference “extravaganza” was well received. Schwab rented nearby Petco Park for an outdoor carnival and One Republic concert on the field.


Tell us about the Exhibit Hall

With more than 300 exhibitors, it’s tough to stand out.

Almost every exhibitor has handouts and tchotchkes so unless you’ve got a tchotchke that someone really wants or needs, there’s not a lot of differentiation.  Even if you do, and the attendees love your tchotchke, it begs the question of whether that will entice someone to even speak to you.

The Exchange is open throughout the conference, but there are only a few periods when sessions aren’t taking place. During those rare moments, advisors may pass through The Exchange, but of course, they’re under no obligation to stop at any booth at any time.

Some advisors view The Exchange as an opportunity for networking or for a chance to speak with specific exhibitors; some simply wander through, perhaps stopping briefly if something catches their eye.

There was a booth located right outside the keynote hall in what seemed like a prime location. Based on their position, every single person at the conference had to pass that booth to get to the keynote hall. I chatted with them and unfortunately, they reported few people stopped to speak with them. They said most people walked right past the booth into the hall as if they had blinders on.


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How can a firm stand out?  

Nothing stood out to me this year as revolutionary. The only booths that were remarkable were the larger ones with lounge seating areas. They provided an area for people to sit and chat, check-in with the office, make calls or simply rest their feet.

For a fund company with a small budget, this could be problematic. I’d estimate ballpark costs for a basic booth, travel and expenses to be $20k or more. To get any heightened visibility, like the kind that comes with a larger booth, I’d estimate the fee would be somewhere around $50k or more.

Some firms do dabble into offering something different – like host a magician, offer autographs by a famous athlete, an interactive game, or even a caricature artist.


What kind of attendees are present?

The conference is for RIAs (registered investment advisors). The fee to attend is not insignificant. In the past, you might get the founders of firms, other high-level decision-makers, or advisors that are considering spinning off from a larger broker-dealer to form their own organization.

That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore; it seems many firms are now sending their less experienced advisors to get CE credits, or to get exposure to the broader industry players and to learn. Those individuals are less likely to be decision-makers on investment products.


What are your observations about the Keynote topics and speakers?

The keynotes were amazing. Schwab does a great job booking speakers for the event who are big-picture thinkers. The presentations were insightful and educational.

Charles Schwab himself was there this year. He is promoting a book he’s written about his life.


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The other keynote speakers who really stood out were country music star Tim McGraw and presidential biographer Jon Meacham. Their presentation was fascinating, intertwining the history of our country with music.

Keynote presentations usually put forth an economist, a big-picture strategist from a large firm, or people formerly with the government who offer a lot of data and insight.


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Were you able to place your clients into good PR opportunities?

 Conferences can provide great PR opportunities as there is a robust media contingent present. CNBC, Bloomberg Radio, and many other publications set up remote studios. Several other media outlets are filming videos and podcasts, and print media is also in attendance.

It's a great way to leverage the investment of attendance by arranging interviews in advance. SunStar has cultivated many relationships through the years with a variety of journalists and publications. At events like Schwab IMPACT, we are able to arrange interviews for our clients ahead of time, so they are not only getting the benefits of conference attendance, but they’re also able to participate in media interviews.


In addition to the scheduled interviews, we are also able to make introductions for our clients to other members of the media that are present, which could result in future interviews.

For the average attendee, it’s unlikely that they would score a media interview that wasn’t previously arranged.


Are attendees getting the value they’re paying for?

Advisors looking for CE credits or looking for content on practice management can absolutely get their money’s worth.


How can fund companies get the most bang for their buck?

 If you want exposure to advisors, this is a great place for it. But, to get the most from the event you’ve got to be firing on multiple levels, and by that, I mean much of the work is done before you even show up.

If you’re going to exhibit, you’ll need to work on booth design, materials, and marketing pieces. It’s also smart to do some upfront legwork. Reach out to the advisors you’d like to see before the event. Set up meetings or events and let them know you’ll have a portfolio manager that will be at the conference and when they’ll be available.

For this and any conference, get the attendee list before you go. Review the list to see who you might already have a relationship with or who you want to meet.  Take advantage of the list and prepare to get the most from the event.

As public relations professionals, if I told my client we were going to show up and see which reporters and publications were there and “wing it,” it would be a disaster. Instead, we do the legwork upfront.

Putting in the energy to prepare for any conference will help you get more from your investment. It’s not about how to make a better booth, it’s about setting objectives and goals for what you’d like your investment to accomplish. Then creating and executing a plan to make that happen.


Did you learn anything new from attending?

I learned quite a bit at the conference. I learn when I meet new people and am exposed to new ideas and information. Whether it is directly applicable or not, it helps me do my job better to have a sense of what's happening in the industry and how it relates to the market and our economy

Schwab IMPACT is a great conference with a steep price tag. If you’re willing to put in the work before you go, you can make the most of it.


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