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In a world of TED Talks, can credit union conferences compete?

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This could arguably be the busiest week of the year for credit unions, and it may also serve as a gauge for how the industry responds to some major issues that have come to light since the start of 2019.

This week, both the Credit Union National Association and the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions will hold their annual summer conferences – in Orlando and New Orleans, respectively – with combined attendance expected to exceed 1,700 people. On top of that, multiple state leagues and smaller trade groups are hosting meetings this week, along with the Credit Union Summit at SourceMedia’s 2019 Digital Banking conference in Austin, Texas.

This plethora of events comes at a time when more Americans than ever belong to a credit union, though the number of institutions in the industry continues to shrink at an annual rate of roughly 3.5%. A document from CUNA Mutual Group lists more than 110 conferences across the industry in 2019, though the company said the list is not all inclusive.

“We are in a wonderful time or a terrible time for conferences – TED Talks are free on the internet,” quipped Anthony Demangone, chief operating officer at NAFCU, noting that his group’s conference has shifted gears to better fit in with modern attendee expectations, limiting each session to no more than 45 minutes.

“The days of an hour-and-a-half session, forget about it,” he added.

While CUNA and NAFCU’s summer shows have always butted up close to one another, representatives from both trade groups could not remember a time when they took place simultaneously. They said this year’s timing was simply a product of the realities of conference planning, in which cities and dates are selected years in advance. CUNA already has its summer conference locations picked through 2024.

“We try to avoid [conflicting with other industry groups] when we can,” said Marlo Foltz, CUNA’s vice president of blended learning. “Not only from an attendee perspective does it affect the availability of them to go to NAFCU or CUNA, but we always look at our system partners as well. A lot of them have challenges trying to get to two events in the same week.”

Since many credit unions are members of both CUNA and NAFCU, some in the industry will have to pick which trade group they want to support this week.

While NAFCU is expecting about 1,000 attendees in the Big Easy, CUNA is expecting about 700 paid participants this year, which Foltz said is slightly below normal. CUNA attributes that to so many other events happening in the same week. She said the group also works with state leagues to ensure state-level conferences can piggyback on the national event. The League of Southeastern Credit Unions’ 2019 convention will kick off in Orlando near the end of the CUNA show.

Compounding the issue is location. In the past decade the two groups have held annual events in Boston, Seattle, Nashville, Denver, Las Vegas, Montreal, Honolulu and more, and both Demangone and Foltz said both groups put significant effort into selecting host cities.

“At the end of the day it’s not rocket science,” said Demangone. “You want to go to a place people will enjoy themselves and then deliver a fantastic product to them in that location.” Equally important, he added, is “creating a reputation that, for the people who show up, you’re going to take care of them – but that takes a lot of years and a lot of trust.”

Trust

That trust factor may need some repair. Perhaps the biggest story to come out of CUNA’s annual Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington earlier this year was a LinkedIn post from a prominent industry figure calling out sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior at credit union conferences. That post set off a firestorm within the industry, including calls from key leaders that CUs and trade groups must do more to stop that sort of behavior – not just at conferences but across the movement.

Foltz said CUNA has increased training for on-site staff about how to deal with those situations if they arise. Additionally, a code of conduct on the conference registration website has been expanded based on some of the issues that arose after GAC.

“If folks are experiencing inappropriate behavior, we’re encouraging individual attendees to reach out to the CUNA events team immediately, and our team will work with the venue and hotel security or local law enforcement to do what’s appropriate for the incident that’s happening,” Foltz said.

While NAFCU hasn’t changed any of its policies for this conference, Carrie Hunt, the group’s EVP of government affairs and general counsel, emphasized it has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of all kinds.

“We believe all of our conference attendees, staff members, and others that we work with should be treated with dignity and respect,” she said. “Anything less has never been and will not be tolerated, and we regularly encourage our staff to flag issues that arise so that we may handle each situation appropriately."

A NAFCU representative said the group would be willing to eject disruptive attendees from the conference if necessary and has done so in the past.

How much is too much?

But these are just two conferences out of more than a 100 over the course of the year. And with the industry dominated by small institutions – many of which might not be able to afford conference travel – are there too many credit union conferences?

“We’re not at that point now,” said Foltz, adding that over time CUNA has combined or eliminated some conferences and training schools when executives were getting those needs met in other locations.

One other factor, many said, is the economy. A continued strong economy means more – but by no means all – credit unions have the flexibility to travel for various events, and most agreed the conference landscape has expanded in the last decade after contracting as a result of the recession.

“My feeling is there are probably too many, but the truth of the matter is there are only too many if the people running the conferences don’t feel like they’re getting what they want out of them – most conferences break even and hopefully even make a profit,” said Geoff Bacino, a credit union consultant and former NCUA board member.

Bacino manages the Association of Credit Union Internal Auditors, which will hold its own conference in Denver this week, and his firm is also planning the Elephant in the Room conference in Washington later this summer.

“The big thing right now is education and training – any conference where you can have some kind of education and training to advance people’s careers, you’re probably going to find an audience for that,” he said.

Many credit unions build CUNA and NAFCU’s annual shows into their calendars for the year, he added, and the challenge for other conferences is to keep building their attendance and not hit a plateau.

Janet Mount, CEO of the $18 million-asset Vermillion Federal Credit Union in Vermillion, S.D., said she plans to attend NAFCU’s summer meeting this year. While Mount only attends one or two conferences annually, she said she has been a regular at NAFCU’s event for several years. As the leader of a small credit union, though, she pointed out that not only is it expensive to attend more than one event, but “in a small office if a person is gone it impacts everyone else in the office who has to cover for them.”

“There are plenty of conferences and if I looked I could probably find one a week,” she added.

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