In Praise of Live Conferences

As a writer who has covered the mortgage business for many years, I like to think that I bring the industry a lot of what executives here need to know about some aspects of their business. When it comes to technology, for instance, I usually have a lot to say. But as fast as things are changing today, it helps if companies can get their executives out to interact with those from other firms that are also working hard to make sense of a rapidly evolving environment. For that, nothing beats a live conference. For a short period after 9/11, and then for the last two years or so, companies have found it more difficult to send people out to industry shows. For a while, there was a lot of chatter about virtual conferences. As a multi-media producer who is fond of podcasting, I saw a lot of promise in getting people together to discuss important industry issues over a distance. Indeed, over the past 12 months or so a number of publications have begun actively promoting podcasts, webinars and web-based video. A few companies have also stepped into the pool and produced some content. Interthinx, for instance, a company I work with, recently won a national award for its edutainment-based web video content. I wasn’t involved in the production. Leonard Ryan of QuestSoft, a man I don’t work for but really like, has been producing enjoyable video content during the holidays for years. But for all the advances I’ve been happy to see in social networking, online audio and video and general creativity in corporate communication, I don’t believe it will ever take the place of the face-to-face meeting. While attendance at industry events have been quite depressed over the last two years or so, I think that may be turning around now, as I’m hearing that this spring’s conferences have been better attended. This week, I’m in Chicago for the Mortgage Bankers Association‘s Technology in Mortgage Banking conference. This year, the show is co-located with the organization’s National Fraud Issues Conference. The buzz around the show is that about 900 men and women who make a living in the industry are on-site. That’s not bad for a show the organization was thinking about putting to sleep. I’m working on another piece for HousingWire where I’ll go into the good, bad and not so pretty, so I won’t waste time on that here. But I will share with you a couple of reasons that I think live events will always be important in our industry. The sessions are the first reason to attend. Having planned conferences in the past, I can tell you that some speakers can hear you tell them not to turn the podium into a sales tool and completely forget it by the time their session starts. Selling during a conference session never works and yet that’s one of the most common complaints I hear from conference attendees. But that doesn’t make the session less valuable, in my mind. If speakers aren’t good enough to provide the information attendees need and instead fall back on more familiar marketing speak, it’s up the attendees to ask the questions that will get them the information they need. By attending a conference that features sessions on a topic of interest, an attendee who is not afraid to ask questions can often get the information they are seeking. Sometimes, it doesn’t come from the speakers, but from someone in the audience who approaches the attendee with a better answer in the hallway outside. The other reason to attend live events is the exhibit hall floor. While lenders can often feel like they’ve been dropped into a shark tank, vendors will find a room full of competitive intelligence. The only drawback is that it might take a bit of creativity to get beyond the booth graphics because the industry isn’t big enough for an experienced executive to move about unrecognized. Most vendors don’t have to make a frontal assault on a competitor’s booth as there’s usually enough talk going on around the show to find out the details about everyone’s offerings. Getting this much information about a range of competitors outside of a conference would be extremely time consuming. My favorite reason for attending these shows might be surprising to someone who hasn’t worked in this industry before. Despite the trillions of dollars that flow through the home finance industry, the leaders are part of a fairly small group, most of whom seem to genuinely like each other. On the vendor side, at least, this group has proven, through efforts like MISMO, that they can work together to get things done. It makes for a pleasant industry gathering and one that seems unlikely to be replaced by virtual meetings any time soon.

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