You wouldn't know it by looking at the sun-dappled courtyards, the palm tree gardens, birds of paradise, the sun-splashed hotels overlooking Disneyland and planners talking animatedly while scurrying through the wavy glass façade of the Anaheim Convention Center, but the mood among financial advisors during October's Financial Planning Association conference in Southern California was more subdued and serious than in years past, said attendees.
There were fewer freebies, pens and T-shirts being given away, raffles, and offsite activities. And those impressions were borne out by hard numbers. The conference attendance dipped this year to 2,100 from about 3,000 last year in Boston, said Marv Tuttle, the FPA's executive director and CEO. That mirrors a drop in FPA membership by almost 10% to 25,000 from 28,000.
"We hoped with the better economic conditions [more recently] folks would be coming out, but they're staying home and still hanging in there with the clients," Tuttle said at a convention press conference on Monday.
Tuttle said the conference numbers likely shrunk for a number of reasons. Financial planning firms that saw large revenue losses in the economic downturn have cut back budgets for travel, conferences and employee membership dues.
Mark E. Johannessen, the 2009 FPA chairman of the board, said his own firm (Harris SBSB, where he is a managing director) had to cut its staffers' travel budget to zero for fiscal 2009 (though it has jumped back up for fiscal 2010). The firm also had to cut staff, and asked three employees to drop FPA memberships because they weren't using the benefits.
"As a leader of FPA, I fought hard [at my firm] to maintain the status quo because I realize the impact it has on FPA. At the time, I was not comfortable telling my board colleagues we were going through this. ... I recognized the financial challenges FPA was under, but I also realized that I needed to make some tough business decisions [at Harris]."
Tuttle said membership has also suffered because the FPA and its coalition partners, NAPFA and the CFP Board, have taken a stance on regulation and fiduciary standards that some of its members can't abide by with their current business models.
But numbers are also likely down, Johannessen said, because the FPA is coming off a peak from last year's 3,000 in Boston, whose East Coast locale attracted a great many planners, he said.
In any case, the mood was more serious in Anaheim, and the panels more trenchant and sober, focusing on the opportunities that the changing economic environment has wrought for financial planners at a moment when the economy is improving, tax laws are in flux, and the market is turning upward.
One keynote speaker, Marci Rossell, an economist for CNBC with a comedic bent whose presentation was Jim Cramer-meets-Robin Williams, gave her take on possible economic recovery. "We are firmly in resolution phase, yet the economic recovery probably just began about six weeks ago, which makes it very hard to see."