My Experience with Conference Planning

By Lauren Okum • November 16, 2016 • 0 Comments

Hello, ACOPA peeps! It’s early November, and I recently returned from the 2016 ASPPA Annual Conference, where it was great to see many of you! I had the honor of co-chairing the conference this year as we celebrated ASPPA’s 50th anniversary. After six years of conference planning, I’m retiring from that role… at least temporarily. It’s been such an incredible experience for me, and Norm asked me to share some highlights with you.

For background, I started my actuarial career in the large plan market and transitioned to the smaller plan market in 2004. In late 2007, I started my own business. As a sole practitioner, I needed to tap into technical resources. I learned about COPA, which combined with ASPPA shortly thereafter to form ACOPA. I attended my first ACOPA Actuarial Symposium in 2009, and I thought I found gold! Every session was applicable to my daily work; it was something I had never experienced before at a conference. I immediately became an ACOPA member.

The following year, 2010, was a big ACOPA year for me. I attended the ACOPA Actuarial Symposium in Las Vegas. I knew no one, so I was basically forced to network. At the first lunch, I walked into the room and searched for someone who looked nice and approachable. That person was Karen Smith. I sat next to her, completely unaware of the connections I was about to make. Within minutes, I was engaged in conversation with Rick Block and Mike Preston about the listserv. Mike was managing it, and he invited me to help. (I bet he doesn’t even remember that! We worked on it together a few years later.) Later, at that evening’s cocktail reception, I found Karen again. Karen introduced me to Lynn Young, who completely sold me on volunteering for ACOPA. (To this day, I cannot say no to her.) I joined Lynn for dinner, and she wanted to introduce me to a few others after dinner. Enter Tom Finnegan, Jim Holland, and Mary Ann Rocco. After a couple of drinks with that crew, I was recruited to be on the 2011 conference committee that Mary Ann was chairing. And it happened!

My conference planning began with the 2011 ACOPA Actuarial Symposium in Boston. It was so exciting to be part of the group, selecting session topics, writing session descriptions, and inviting leaders in the actuarial community to speak. I was making an impact on our continuing education, and it was such a high. My conference speaking also began at that Symposium, when Annie Brown Voldman asked me to speak with her on Accounting for Pensions (i.e., FAS). It’s also when Norm passed me a note during one of the morning sessions, asking me if I wanted to grab lunch. He and I became instant friends. By the next year, Kevin Donovan and I became good buddies as well.

In 2014, I joined the ASPPA Annual Conference Committee. That committee expanded my network significantly outside of ACOPA, both personally and professionally. In addition, I learned about many of non-actuarial retirement topics that are important to others.

Over the years, I have seen how our conferences have developed and changed to meet our attendees’ needs. First, we need to know what topics are important to attendees. We implemented a voting tool a few years ago that is like an addictive game where people get to choose the “better” of two topics. We tallied the results to help create our session topics. Second, we need to know who can deliver the topics well. This past year at ASPPA Annual, we created a mechanism that made it significantly easier for attendees to provide feedback. We received more than 1,100 evaluations (compared to about 150-200 in prior years), which will be extremely helpful to next year’s committee. Third, we need to create a format that will enhance attendees’ learning and retention. Studies have shown that the retention rate increases exponentially when greater there is greater interaction between attendees and speakers. (Yes, I admit, I’ve fallen asleep with my eyes open during some traditional lecture formats.) We have recently developed more roundtable sessions and added facilitators to promote dialogue during the sessions. I’m sure you’ll see much more of this interactivity to come! It’s still a work in progress, and the committees welcome any ideas.

In total, I was involved in planning the 2011-2014 ACOPA Actuarial Symposium and the 2014-2016 ASPPA Annual Conference. My experience with conference planning expanded my network, provided me with speaking opportunities, and extended the breadth of my knowledge of retirement plan issues. It was a lot of hard work, but it was incredibly rewarding. I would do it again in a heartbeat. Thank you, ACOPA.