When thousands of top-performing financial advisers and life-insurance salespersons from around the world get together, you might expect there to be more than a whiff of competition in the air. But the opposite was true at the Annual Meeting of Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT), held June 10–13 at the Anaheim Convention Center, where a spirit of openness and mutual support was palpable. It didn’t even seem possible to walk more than 100 yards without hearing a friendly hello.
MDRT was founded in 1927 by a group of 32 life-insurance salesmen, all of whom had sold more than $1 million in policies, who began meeting regularly to share techniques and ethical standards. And although the group has grown in size and diversity since then – 5,956 high-achieving members from 58 different countries attended this year’s meeting – mutual support remains at its core, said Ray Kopcinski, CMP, MDRT’s director of meetings. Attendees who are competitors on a day-to-day basis, he said, “come together to share their success.”
MDRT also prides itself on being innovative. The organization was among the first, for example, to use now-ubiquitous IMAG technology to project speakers onto large, multiple screens, ensuring that there are no bad seats in the house for its trademark “Main Platform” motivational sessions, which draw thousands to hear top speakers. Of the many financial services conferences held globally each year, MDRT’s Annual Meeting “is the meeting to attend,” Kopcinski said.
It was almost inevitable, then, that as attendee engagement on the meeting’s traditional exhibition floor began to sag in recent years – “attendees would run in [to the exhibition], grab some tchotchkes, and leave,” Kopcinski said – MDRT would reinvent the entire experience.
Making a ConneXion
A light bulb went off when Kopcinski attended PCMA’s Learning Lounge at Convening Leaders 2011 in Las Vegas. The Learning Lounge, which has since become a recurring element at PCMA’s annual meeting, was both a structural and a design innovation, creating spaces for a series of short, focused experiences – including TED-style talks, hands-on demonstrations, and unstructured conversations – that expanded the ways in which attendees engaged with meeting content and each other.
It seemed a perfect fit for the MDRT culture, with its emphasis on peer-to-peer learning and innovation. So at its 2012 Annual Meeting, MDRT adapted the concept, keeping the focus on interaction and promoting engagement, and adding exhibitors into the mix. Kopcinski invited Convene to attend to see the Learning Lounge–style concept at work in the context of a different meeting.
MDRT’s modular “ConneXion Zone” replaced its traditional square-grid show floor, and shared the back half of an approximately 140,000-square-foot hall, behind registration areas and the humming MDRT “Power Center Store,” where attendees could buy books, videos, and MDRT-branded merchandise. The ConneXion Zone echoed some of the Learning Lounge’s approaches to configuring space, including using small stages and dividing circular areas into quarters so attendees could move easily between presentations.
Within the greater ConneXion Zone, there were two large circular areas, each divided into three sections for a total of six Speaker Zones, along with a “Big Ideas Theater,” outfitted with a large screen; a “Great Conversations” area, with sofas and chairs; and a Tech Zone, where hands-on help with using social media was offered. Thirteen circular “Exhibitor Zones,” each with room for four exhibitors, also were part of the space, many arrayed around the perimeter of the space, with a few placed in the center.
The ConneXion Zone was designed to function as a “meeting within a meeting,” Kopcinski said, with 260 scheduled short presentations mirroring the Annual Meeting agenda’s mix of sessions sharing business solutions, motivational sessions, ideas exchanges, and programs related to health and relationships. Because MDRT espouses a “whole-person” concept, Kopcinski said, presentations are aimed at helping attendees not just improve their businesses, but become better spouses, parents, and leaders in their communities.
Some of the most popular sessions were Q&A’s with select motivational Main Platform speakers, which followed short interviews conducted on camera in the Big Ideas Theater by hosts from Convention News Television. That footage, along with attendee interviews, was posted to the online portal MDRT Connect on MDRT’s website, which allows attendees to watch sessions and interviews they may have missed, and to connect with meeting sponsors and exhibitors.
Another draw was the ConneXion Zone’s Great Conversations area. All MDRT attendees have to reach a minimum level of yearly commissions to qualify to attend the Annual Meeting, but some attendees are identified at even loftier echelons of achievement – these higher-achieving members were among those tapped to lead conversations.
There were more than 50 “Focus Sessions” at the Annual Meeting, with audiences numbering in the hundreds, and zeroing in on topics ranging from underwriting and revenue-growth strategies to time management and succession planning. Many Focus Session speakers appeared in the more intimate spaces in the ConneXion Zone, both to offer previews of their topics and to continue conversations after their presentations.
The ConneXion Zone also added new opportunities directly targeted to MDRT’s international participants – nearly 75 percent of attendees are from outside the United States, reflecting the rapid growth of the insurance and financial-services industries in countries including China, India, and South Korea. MRDT’s presentations are almost all in English, with interpretation provided in more than a dozen languages via headsets. In the ConneXion Zone, two dozen sessions presented live in languages including Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean were filled to overflowing.
The ConneXion Zone was an ambitious undertaking, and the road wasn’t always smooth. When exhibitors heard that the exhibition floor was going away, “they weren’t happy,” Kopcinski said. But MDRT was prepared to “take it on the chin financially, because we believe in the concept.”
The First Run-through
With 52 slots for exhibitors, the ConneXion Zone was a sellout. But its execution wasn’t an unqualified success from the point of view of exhibitors, some of whom, Kopcinski said, “were not totally pleased.”
Although MDRT promoted the ConneXion Zone thoroughly, making announcements about it from the stage, in printed material and signage, through social-media channels, and via its meeting app, the power of “what used to be” seemed to make it hard for some attendees to fully grasp what was going on in the new space. “This is good,” one attendee from Maine told me, gesturing toward a lively discussion in the ConneXion Zone, “but I wish it could have been added to the exhibits” – apparently not realizing that Exhibitor Zone spaces physically outnumbered the spaces offering MDRT-generated content. Organizers made sure there was plenty of room for people to gather – sometimes, it seemed, too much room. Attendees, including me, often follow the crowd when choosing sessions to attend or exhibitors to visit – whenever and wherever a tightly packed knot of people gathers, I’m curious to know why.
When we spoke with Kopcinski a few weeks after the meeting, evaluation forms had not yet been compiled, nor had MDRT had time yet to conduct any one-on-one meetings with exhibitors. But the organization already was considering making changes to the ConneXion Zone for next year’s Annual Meeting, including adding presentation time for sponsors and tweaking the floor plan and schedule to create a tighter integration of the elements. “All in all, however, we are very pleased with our first ‘run-through’ with the ConneXion Zone,” Kopcinski said, “and feel our attendees were well-served with its offerings.”
One very satisfied attendee was Paresh Shah, a representative with the Forest Hills Financial Group, in Queens, N.Y., who just happened to be walking through the ConneXion Zone when he saw the opportunity to sit down and talk to the sales superstars in the Great Conversations area. A day later, he was still marveling at the opportunity to be on the receiving end of their wisdom.
Shah has been attending MDRT’s Annual Meeting for five years, and during that time, he said, his business has grown as a direct result of the ability to “grab somebody and sit down with them for half an hour.” MDRT introduces new concepts, Shah said, and “runs with them hard. Within two years, they become a model for everyone else.”
Sidebar: Prizing Creativity
How do you prepare first time attendees for a gathering like Million Dollar Round Table’s Annual Meeting, where nearly two dozen of the world’s top motivational speakers are scheduled to present?
At MRDT’s 2012 Annual Meeting in Anaheim, the answer was graffiti artist Erik Wahl, whose presentation, “The Art of Vision,” at the orientation session was so dazzling, it drew gasps from the audience. During an hour-long talk, Wahl told the audience how, after being told by a teacher that he wasn’t meant to be an artist, he put away his brushes and worked for 20 years in a corporate environment. He eventually failed miserably, and at a friend’s suggestion, turned to painting again. Eventually he developed the dramatic style in which he works today, frenetically applying paint to canvases using brushes and his hands to create images that reveal themselves to viewers only as Wahl adds the final strokes of paint. At MDRT, Wahl created a graphic image of the singer Bono during the time it took to play the U2 song “Beautiful Day.”
Wahl’s message is that everyone is innately creative – at corporate retreats, he’s been known to insist that any notes be taken with crayons. His emphasis on breaking through traditional boundaries extends to the unique way in which he distributes his artwork – none of it is for sale. He does donate pieces to charity; at a recent event, the singer Pink paid $10,000 for a painting of Marilyn Monroe, which Wahl created in three minutes.
When speaking, Wahl donates paintings to the organization that hired him, and then conducts “Art Drops,” hiding them around the meeting venue and broadcasting clues about where they can be found. At MDRT’s orientation session, Wahl announced that clues for the Bono painting’s whereabouts would be released via the MDRT meeting hashtag during the opening-night reception.
Wahl posted the clues on his Facebook page, and it took only two hints to lead Peter Winovich III, a financial adviser from Toledo, Ohio, to the Bono painting hidden on a stairwell in a nearby hotel. “I found it first,” Winovich later tweeted, “only sprinted 200 yards and 8 flights of stairs to get it, tho.
MDRT was founded on peer-to-peer learning – a principle that carried through to the “Tech Zone,” a laptop-equipped area within the new ConneXion Zone at MDRT’s 2012 Annual Meeting where attendees could drop by for hands-on training in using Twitter. The tutors were all MDRT members.
Who better to talk about the benefits of actively using Twitter at the meeting than someone who was already doing it? Liana Blum, MDRT’s website coordinator, recruited more than a dozen of the organization’s most prolific Twitter users to volunteer for short blocks of time during several “Tweet Team” sessions throughout the four-day meeting. And a large plasma screen displaying a live Twitter stream with the conference hashtag provided instant gratification to the new Twitter users.
Read more about how MDRT mobilized attendees to teach others how to use Twitter at the Tech Zone at convn.org/tech-zone.