250 individual testing sites. Close to 150,000 registrants. Political unrest and upheaval. It's all part of the Chartered Financial Analyst exam administered by the CFA Institute during one intense, time-zone-spanning 24-hour period.
Larger CFA test sites can have as many as 9,000 candidates take the exam on a single day in December or June. Outdoor tents are sometimes necessary to protect people from the elements.
On May 31, event specialists at CFA Institute, a global association of investment professionals with headquarters in New York City and Charlottesville, Va., were keeping a close eye on political demonstrations taking place in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. In less than 24 hours, several hundred people would be gathering nearby to sit for the CFA exam — a rigorous test that awards candidates the prestigious Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation — and CFA staff were concerned about how the protests might affect the safety of their registrants.
In many ways, this scenario is familiar to experienced meeting professionals. Whether it’s political unrest, a weather event, or labor issues, there are numerous emergency situations that can disrupt an event at the last minute. And having a crisis-management plan allows you to react decisively to even the most unpredictable situations.
But what made the situation in Istanbul truly noteworthy was the fact that, as tense and serious as it was, it was just one part of a much larger operation. While most contingency plans address how an event team can respond to an isolated weather disaster or political turmoil, few delve into how it might manage both at the same time. At CFA, however, wide-scale doomsday planning is the norm, as event specialists routinely prepare for the possibility of simultaneous natural disasters, war, political demonstrations, and more. Such is the complexity of its CFA exam — which is administered to tens of thousands of participants on the same day, at hundreds of sites around the world. “Whatever you see on the news,” said William Guilford, CMP, CFA’s director of exam administration and business solutions, “chances are we’re dealing with it.”
CFA offers the exam two times a year: the first Saturday in December and the first Saturday in June. While a weather event or violent protest might disrupt the test in one city, the show must go on everywhere else. Convene spoke with members of the CFA test center planning team before and after this year’s June test, to learn more about how the organization plans for the worst and hopes for the best on such a large scale. “Every exam, there are things happening that are completely beyond our control,” said Caroline Winters, director of test-center planning. “What we’ve learned is that we must do a really good job of controlling what we can control, and that puts us in a position to better deal with the unexpected.”
FROM AMMAN TO ZURICH
CFA is the world’s largest association of financial professionals, but it is probably best known for its CFA Program, a graduate-level, professional credential. The program includes a series of three exams that must be passed in sequential order to earn a CFA charter — a highly respected badge of honor that’s considered to give professional creditability to those who earn it. Twice each year, upwards of 100,000 candidates sit for the CFA exams. The Level I exam is offered at all sites in both December and June; Level II and Level III are also offered at all sites, but only in June. The average candidate spends five to six months preparing, yet only about 40 percent of test-takers pass on any given exam day. Upon failing, most begin the process again and register for the next year’s exam.
The intimidating fail rate and intense preparation don’t prevent an ever-increasing number of candidates from seeking the CFA charter. More than 146,000 candidates registered for this year’s June 1 exam, which was conducted at more than 250 test centers in 180 cities — from Amman to Zurich, and nearly every major destination in between. Not surprisingly, the largest test sites are located near financial centers, including New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing. These larger sites can have as many as 9,000 candidates sitting for the exam; the smallest test center might have just one candidate.
The planning and logistics of exam day are overseen by Winters, with the help of a 10-person team. Additionally, about 20 more staff from CFA’s exam administration and business solutions unit provide support with personnel training and security. CFA contracts with test organizations to hire an exam supervisor for each test center; that supervisor then hires and trains local testing personnel, using CFA-provided training materials. At the largest test sites, 600 proctors may be administering the test and patrolling the aisles. All told, according to Guilford, it takes nearly 10,000 contracted personnel to conduct the June exam.
The seven event specialists on CFA’s test-center planning team manage 25 to 30 test centers each, overseeing all contracting, vendor relationships, and trouble-shooting for those sites. To accommodate the growing number of Asian candidates, CFA recently added two Hong Kong-based event specialists. “There are a number of time-zone challenges when coordinating with Asia,” Winters said, “and there are also cultural nuances and differences that we wanted to get a handle on and hopefully prepare better for all our exams.”
On test day, CFA operates a command center at its Charlottesville headquarters, with specially trained staff available to answer last-minute questions from candidates and problem-solve issues for test personnel. With exam sites in almost every time zone on the planet, the command center is staffed around-the-clock for nearly 24 hours.
Specific CFA test sites are kept in strict confidence to prevent potential cheating schemes. Test venues around the world range from very large exhibition centers to universities, smaller-scale conference centers, hotels, and banquet halls. CFA creates a separate Event Specification Guide for each test center.
Although security concerns prevent CFA from naming specific test sites (the fear being that people could somehow infiltrate those sites and figure out a way to cheat — so difficult is the exam and so coveted the charter), Winters will say that venues range from very large exhibition centers to universities, smaller-scale conference centers, hotels, and banquet halls. When scouting venues, CFA’s event specialists evaluate a site’s ability to meet the organization’s very particular yet very bare-bones needs. “We are very nuts-and-bolts,” Winters said. “We need tables and chairs set up in a very specific configuration, we need easels to guide candidates to how much time is remaining, we need water stations, and we have to have heating, air conditioning, and lighting that is suitable.”
Because of the wide diversity of venues, test-day needs run from traditional audiovisual support to more unique services. “We might need a tent outside of a venue to provide an area for candidates to wait out of the elements before they are admitted to the testing hall,” Winters said. “Additionally, we have had to rent generators for venues in areas prone to blackouts.”
THE NO-GO DECISION
Throughout the exam-day planning and negotiating, CFA’s event specialists take their cues from an Event Specification Guide (ESG). There is a separate ESG for each test center, and each one includes contact details for the exam supervisor and the venue event manager; information about how each room will be set up; scope-of-work and contact information for vendors providing tables, chairs,