The American Bankers Association (ABA) will hold its 2014 National Conference for Community Bankers at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix on Feb. 16-19. ABA organizes “lots of educational conferences,” said Christine Walika, executive vice president of ABA's community bank group. “This is more for C-suite, for the executives of community banks,” which ABA very generally categorizes as banks with assets of $5 billion or less — usually located in smaller towns and communities throughout the United States. Community bankers make up a significant percentage of ABA's overall membership, and the conference focuses on the day-to-day management challenges for community bank presidents, CEOs, CFOs, and other top-level executives.
All of ABA's conferences have shown an increase in attendance over the past year, and Walika expects the same of the 2014 National Conference for Community Bankers. “We've come out of a pretty bad five-year run, with the economy and all the problems in the banking and mortgage industry, and just jobs in general,” she said. During that time, many banks didn't want employees to travel, but rather wanted them to stay in the banks “serving their customers,” according to Walika.
That said, attendance is still a challenge, because, like most small businesses, community banks tend to have limited resources. Walika has found that spending on travel and training is often the first thing to be cut during an economic downturn. “People are still trying to cut back,” she said. “They may have sent two staff members out in previous years, and now are only sending one.” ABA's goal is to try to sell the conference's training aspect, and to remind potential attendees that it's important to invest in education about the future of banking.
Several years ago, organizers began to notice that a large percentage of conference attendees were nearing retirement. “We realized that we needed to cultivate that next generation of bankers, the next generation of leaders,” Walika said. ABA implemented a program to entice bank CEOs and presidents to bring their “number two” — offering a two-for-one registration deal if attendees registered on site for the next year's event. ABA saw nearly double the number of people register via the promotion from 2012 to 2013.
In 2014, for the first time the conference will feature a pre-conference workshop for a separate registration fee. The workshop, limited to the first 40 registrants, will focus on communication and speaker training. A communications group will coach participants on interview techniques, recording and playing back mock interviews. “Lots of them have very inspirational stories about things they've done in their communities,” Walika said, “and we're going to train them on how to tell those.”
ABA also will implement a one-hour session open to all attendees and guests at the end of the second day of conference programming called “Spark!” — where speakers will give five-minute presentations on topics related to leadership, responding to a question like “What is the best leadership advice you've ever gotten?” The session is designed to be lighthearted during an afternoon that typically has been designated as free time for attendees. These lightning-style presentations will be, according to Walika, “almost like speed dating! Fun, and also inspirational.”