Bankers will be the first ones to tell you their profession can be a bit dry. But six years ago, the Consumer Bankers Association (CBA) decided to completely revamp the organization’s annual events and find a way to make banking more dynamic.
The effort started with the consolidation of CBA’s eight annual conferences into one — a gambit that was controversial within the organization at the time, according to President and CEO Richard Hunt. “There was some hesitancy,” he said. “But at the same time, it signaled that at CBA we’re leaders in transformation.”
ELITE AND EXCLUSIVE
Originally, each of CBA’s eight member sectors — from mortgage banking to auto-loan financing — had its own meeting. That meant that CBA was in “conference mode” for nearly the entire year, Hunt said, sapping staff bandwidth and creating redundancies around everything from travel to F&B. Events were smaller, with about 800 bankers attending the meetings in total, and held in less desirable locations, with reduced star power among speakers. Members often had to choose just one of the conferences to attend, even though they might be interested in information across several sectors.
CBA’s solution was to combine the events into one three-day conference called CBA LIVE, which debuted in Orlando in 2011. Now, each of 11 CBA subcommittees coordinates eight hours of conference programming, and attendees can pick and choose their sessions, often cross-pollinating within the event. In addition to a more robust, integrated conference program, CBA LIVE has led to more opportunities for planning efficiencies, resulting in cost and resource savings, according to Don Neal, founder and CEO of 360 Live Media, which helps plan and run the event, including helping to craft its annual theme.
“Those eight events were not delivering the impact of one unified event,” Neal said. “Now there was the opportunity to create a much more elite, exclusive event.” That’s meant nicer, resort locations, more upscale hotels, and more dynamic programming. The results speak for themselves: Net overall attendance at CBA LIVE has increased by 160 percent since it first launched, and sponsor and underwriter revenue has gone up by 4,000 percent.
Exhibitors are particularly pleased, because they can access leaders from every banking sector at one time, Hunt said. In fact, CBA recently created a new type of sponsorship: the year-round partner. It’s limited to six partners who receive more personal interaction with attendees, both at CBA LIVE and during the year through webinars and dinners. CBA “has distinguished itself,” Neal said, “by using this event as a strategic asset.”
LIVE FROM PHOENIX
This year’s CBA LIVE drew about 1,300 attendees to the JW Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix on March 7–9 . The theme was “Leadership Unplugged,” and definitely wasn’t a snooze. “Banking is boring,” Hunt said. “It’s our job to punch our bankers in the nose.”
As part of the overhaul, CBA LIVE bans formal attire in favor of jeans. On the first day of the program, all CBA board, committee, and staff members wear matching shirts — to demonstrate unity, identify leaders in the organization, and let attendees know whom to ask questions. And instead of having one general-session speaker allotted a lengthy time slot, the lineup features several speakers at 30 minutes or less.
Another change: Oftentimes, speakers aren’t even bankers. “We want people who have had success in other areas, who have been disrupters,” Hunt said. “Many bankers say they come [to CBA LIVE] to make sure they’re still relevant in the next generation of banking.”
And the presentations are anything but traditional. They might feature a debate or a game-show theme, such as “Family Feud,” “This Is Your Life,” “To Tell the Truth,” and “Dead or Alive.” The information presented can be provocative. “Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to be a banker at our conference,” Hunt said, when presenters may be talking about disruption in the sector. “I’ve seen people squirm.”
TOO SMALL TO FAIL
Attendance at CBA LIVE has grown significantly, but Hunt isn’t looking for that to continue without limit. In fact, he’s getting close to capping attendance in the not-so-distant future. He thinks 1,500 attendees is about as big as CBA LIVE should get; this year there were more than 1,300.
“We’re striving to make CBA more of a boutique event,” Hunt said. “We want to associate ourselves with people with a great brand and substantive knowledge, and we don’t want it to be a cattle call.”
To that end, CBA LIVE has resisted moving to a conference center or other larger space in favor of staying in a hotel, where organizers can have more control over quality and logistics. CBA also wants to keep a one-to-one ratio between bankers and sponsors. “By making it more intimate, people will pay more to attend and to exhibit there,” Hunt said. “I’ve seen conference after conference die because they got too big.”