Post Con

Sparks Fly for ABA’s Community Bankers

The American Bankers Association (ABA) held its 2014 National Conference for Community Bankers at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge on Feb. 16–19.




The conference is designed for C-suite executives, with the majority of attendees coming from community banks with less than $500 million in assets.



This year’s meeting drew 1,182 executives, up slightly from 2013, according to Christine Walika, executive vice president of ABA’s community bank group. Attendance suffered from 2008 through 2012 as a result of the recession and turmoil in the banking industry — read our Pre Con profile at — and although the uptick in 2014 attendance was minor, it’s the second consecutive year of increase and a sign of recovery, Walika said.

To continue the upward trajectory and encourage 2015 registration, ABA for the fifth consecutive year offered two-for-one pricing if attendees registered on site for next year’s conference — an incentive designed not just to boost attendance during the recession years, but also to encourage senior bankers to bring along younger executives and support their leadership development, according to Walika. In 2012, 35 attendees took advantage of the offer; in 2013, that number grew to 72; and at this year’s meeting, it doubled again, to 144. “People are familiar with it by now, and it’s really catching on,” Walika said. “Our audience is getting older and they’re all thinking about the next generation of leaders. We might take a little hit on the budget side, but it’s really helping to cultivate the next generation of bankers.”



Many of the meeting’s attendees came from the Midwest, Walika said, where bad weather partly explained the low attendance at ABA’s new pre-conference workshop. Focused on communication and speaker training, the program was designed for up to 40 people; only nine attended. “I truly believe we lost them to the weather,” Walika said. “If people came in early, they did not want to be inside.” Add to that the robustness of the full conference itself. “We pack a lot of educational sessions into three days. Adding another half-day I think tips the scale,” Walika said. “We’re glad we tried it, but we’re not going to do it again.”

A new speed-lecture session called “Spark!,” on the other hand, was “crazy” successful, according to Walika. In the one-hour session, six speakers were given five minutes and 20 slides to present “life-changing advice or an experience you’ll never forget.” Attendees rated the session 4.98 on a scale of 5, and every speaker received a standing ovation. “That was a day that we typically had a free afternoon and we were nervous about attendance,” Walika said, “but we had a packed room with over 300 people.”

The presentations were highly personal and moving, and Walika admits that it may be a challenge to repeat Spark!’s success. “How do you bottle that and do it again? We don’t know,” she said. “We can’t do the same question every year, so our challenge will be keeping it fresh and exciting with other topics and different speakers.”

Convene’s Pre-Con/Post-Con series asks meeting planners about their challenges and how they intend to address them (Pre-Con), and then circles back around after the meeting has occurred (Post-Con) to see how well they worked out.

Molly Brennan

Convene Contributing Editor Molly Brennan is a freelance writer and editor based in Highland Park, Illinois.