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How Schwab’s IMPACT Still Brings It After 25 Years

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We recently got a chance to sit down with Torie Sandvig, who is responsible for all things related to putting on Schwab’s IMPACT conference, to past, planning and the reputation it has as the industry’s finest.  This year IMPACT celebrates its 25th year in Boston from November 10th through the 13th. For more information, follow @Schwab4RIAS or #SchwabIMPACT, or visit impact.schwab.com

Doug Heikkinen: Those of us that have been in financial services for a while have seen a lot of different conferences come and go. Charles Schwab IMPACT continues to be the conference that people need to go to. What are some of the secrets that you folks have done to make it special? 25 years, that’s a long, long time. There are some big companies, who have big conferences, that really have struggled. What do you do to make it fresh and make people come back year after year?

Torie Sandvig: I think it is that passion, that energy, that commitment that forms an incredibly dynamic team that together have the same end-goal in mind. I think staying fresh, staying innovative, staying out there with what is new and different is an ongoing mantra for us in all that we do.

We’re always out there looking at other conferences. We study other conferences. We go to other conferences, read about them. You always you learn something from every place that you go. It’s taking the best here, and the best there, and seeing how and if that can apply to something like IMPACT and to this audience.

It is everybody’s desire to stay new and different. I think none of us are particularly interested in just the status quo and not adding new and different elements. That’s what makes it fun to continue what we’re doing.

Doug: You have a pretty extensive process that you go through to make the decisions about the content don’t you?

Torie: We do. We have a very extensive process. We have a lot of people involved throughout the business, actually throughout the firm, as well. It’s an ongoing process. It kicks off quarterly, in the first quarter we sit down with the business and we say, “This is the direction that we hope to go in, yes, no, a little bit more of this, a little bit more of that. What are we missing here?” We go from there.

We’re constantly weighing in with the SMEs, with our business partners, about the direction and what we’re starting to offer on the content menu. That’s particularly as it pertains to education session content. It’s a little different for the keynotes. There’s 90 education sessions this year.

Doug: How do you make the attendee feel special or like you designed it just for them?

Torie: Actually, I think one of the most satisfying bits of feedback I ever saw on an evaluation form was from a gentleman who said, “I don’t know how you make me feel so special, like such an individual, at a conference of this size and magnitude.”

We try and create different opportunities for people to meet in smaller groups not in the masses of the 5,000. Clearly we have the regional dinners and some of those different social networking events. For example, in The EXCHANGE, we created a dining room.  We bring cohorts and groups of people, like-minded people, together there to use that space. We’ve created those lounges in the exchange, smaller gathering points as well.

This year we have a very, very defined focus on 3 communities that we are trying to foster and nurture and provide several opportunities for them to meet as communities and groups.

There are 28 ancillary meetings that take place around IMPACT things that you will never see in the program guide or on any formalized agenda. These 28 ancillary events are again different cohorts that are coming together for content. We create get-togethers for them. It’s a series of different communities that we focus on and that we try and build opportunities for. Then wherever possible, again, you can’t customize for 1,800 advisors, but wherever possible, we do. We try to. Then of course Schedule Builder. We have the Schedule Builder component of planning your agenda.

Working with attendees beforehand, before they get in to IMPACT, and calling them saying, “Hey, I know you’re coming to IMPACT, this session might be interesting for you, or take a look at this. You might want to consider this.” That hand-holding, and that high-touch connection with them, by sales before they even get to IMPACT, I think really helps them feel like, “Okay, Schwab knows I’m coming.”

Doug: Would you say that because you’re doing more on the exhibit hall, and you’re also doing more specialized meetings, the networking aspect has gone up the scale, as far as the importance?

Torie: That was certainly the intent of the evolution of what was the exhibit halls and The EXPO, now The EXCHANGE, was to make that the center of everything, so that people wanted to be there. That’s where you can get … Clearly you can get food. You can meet with the exhibitors. You have the showcases there, Schwab Center.

I don’t know if you realized that we extended that whole lunch hour to provide a longer period of time for the people to be in The EXCHANGE to have that time to network, because several years ago, more than anything, we’d get feedback saying, “I don’t have enough downtime. I don’t have enough time to connect with others.”

I think that has helped speak to that need. It’s clearly one of the highest priorities of IMPACT, to provide the forum and the venue and the opportunity for people to connect with each other in addition to all the education and all the meetings with Schwab and the employees there.

One thing we did, I don’t know if you remember again, years ago we set the regional dinners the second night. Now, we hold them on the first night by design so that people could, from regions, could right out of the gate see each other and connect with each other.

Doug: Do you find that attendees are torn to some degree where they feel like maybe they’re missing out on being able to go to some discussions, or panels, or presentations? Is there a way for advisors to, if they missed one that they wanted to go to, maybe get some of the information as far as what was talked about at all?

Torie: The keynotes, it’s not an issue with, but you’re talking about the Ed Sessions? I think that’s the dance. That is the fine line between enough content and maybe too much content. What we’re doing this year is we’re actually repeating sessions. We’re looking at what we think are going to be the most popular sessions and we’re going to repeat them twice.

You’re right, you can’t possibly go to everything. We added more this year as I said earlier. It’ll be interesting to see how those numbers are stacking up. I would prefer to have more to select from than not enough.

Striking that right balance is something that we’re very, very cautious about and intense on. This year, in Boston, The EXCHANGE is continuous with The General Session space. You have to walk through The EXCHANGE to get to the General Session. That has not always been the case. Last year that was not the case in Denver.

Doug: You are back in Boston this year. How far do you plan out these cities?

Torie: It was intentional to be back there. We’re booked out until 2024.

We worked very, very closely with Bernie identifying our pattern. Going East coast, going West coast, we added Chicago and Denver in the last few years, just to include the middle of the country.

We looked mid October to the third week of November. That’s our ideal time to do this. We’re in 14 hotels this year in Boston. You have got to get those nailed down too.

Doug: Last year I remember a couple things. Number one the photographer that would take a picture of the advisor, and put it on that grey backdrop, and you actually used those in advertisements throughout the course of the year.

Torie: The advisors loved it. There was a waiting line. We heard great, great stuff coming from that, that they enjoyed it. What we were hearing was they were taking those back and putting them in their offices and just talking about being independent and what that meant. Really using that … which is exactly what the intent of it was.

Doug: IMPACT itself has a bit of energy to it. Is that something you try to orchestrate throughout the 3 days because there’s a lot going on energy-wise?

Torie: Yes, you certainly take that into consideration. I think you want to start conference, build it, get to a peak, and then bring it back down. I think you really think about that with the keynotes and where we position the keynotes.

We position each of them in a different slot based on … what we want the mood to be, the sequence of the messages, and the keynotes, and depending on how they deliver, we certainly keep that in mind as we’re positioning them. Then the final Night, you kind of blow out with the Final Night.

Then Friday morning, half day, although we’re seeing more and more. It used to be years ago the attendees would really drop off on Friday morning. I don’t know if everybody’s getting older or what’s happened, but last year attendance on Friday morning seemed really strong.

Doug: Speak to social media, do you track a social media growth year over year? Are you finding that there are more and more advisors that are actually weighing in throughout the conference?

Torie: We do. We have seen an increase in advisors tweeting, and media tweeting for that matter. We do tracking of that. The last, I want to say 2 if not 3 years, we’ve trended which is always exciting to see that we’re up there in the ranks of content that’s out in the world from IMPACT. We think that has quite a lot of impact. We collectively think about the experience of IMPACT. I think in that respect, social media has become increasingly important. Also, it’s not social, but there’s CNBC’s presence as well and just the extent of what they broadcast from IMPACT is always interesting and pretty prolific.

Doug: Yeah, it’s amazing.

Torie: They work with us in advance to say who they want or what requests they may have. They’ve made some very, very pointed requests for some of our Ed Session speakers this year. Given the caliber of some of these speakers, and especially the academics from the greater Boston area, they’ve got their eye on several of them and have asked to interview them.

Doug: Lastly, can you share with us your favorite moment or speaker?

Torie: Well I’m not sure if I can say a favorite. I’m often delighted with the speakers that we put on the agenda that people don’t really know about going into IMPACT. I call them the stealths, the stealth keynotes. Condeleezza Rice really surprised me. It was after she was out of office. She was actually talking about education, and got a standing ovation. Benjamin Zander actually manages an orchestra and a symphony. He was a speaker on a Friday. Basically he had the whole audience up speaking and singing. That was kind of a surprise and delightful.

Torie: Tom, who was your favorite speaker?

Doug: When I was thinking of favorites, or just in general, my favorite experience, I loved that booth that you had in the exhibit hall where you had young people and typewriters. They would judge the advisors. They’d type something up about them that might have been a little tongue-in-cheek or something like that.

It was brilliant. People loved it. Every time we went by there was a line. Something like that was so cool and something that you remember for a long period. You’re always really good about finding those little, special things that make it different than any other conference you think of. I just don’t look forward to conferences as much anymore. I wouldn’t think about missing Schwab because there’s always something that happens, multiple things that happen, where you’d just be upset if you missed it.

Torie: I couldn’t have paid you enough to have said that. You could become our PR executive now. That was good. Thank you. I’m happy to hear that. That’s fantastic.

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