I made my first impression on the FPA community in the spring of 2019 when I posted on the FPA Activate page, complaining about what I perceived as a lackluster keynote lineup for FPA Retreat. That complaint haunts me to this day in, what I think might be the FPA Staff’s favorite karmic justice, as my testimonial about the quality of the event now sits firmly on the home page of this year’s retreat. Mea culpa, I was wrong about that one. That Retreat sparked a commitment from me that I’d do tour-de-FPA that year, and I subsequently attended Nexgen Gathering, which was life-changing, and FPA Annual, which was a reaffirmation that I had, as the expression goes, found my tribe.
I was devastated when COVID saw the cancellation of in-person FPA events for the next two years. While some replacement virtual events were held, an ingrained element of the value in these conferences is the “hallway magic;” something that virtual conferences simply couldn’t replicate. I was thusly delighted at the return of Retreat, Gathering, and Annual in 2022. There was a caution in these events: would they capture the magic? Had things changed? Would new ideas be well received in light of two years of pandemic trauma? Yet, they landed well. Retreat was a sigh of relief for many of us. Gathering embodied the same ignited high-energy community along with trying some bold new approaches to the delivery of the experience. Annual brought together some of the true financial planning brass in one medium. All was right with the world.
But here I sit, thumb-chattering away a brief history from the back patio of the 2023 Retreat, and I feel offput, perhaps disquieted. I’m hesitant to say how and why that feeling is to be described, lest I find myself repeating the mistakes of 2019, but I feel it must be said. It might be a bit strong to say it, but if not rotten, something smells off in the state of Denmark.
Lest I be accused of having nothing good to say, let me start with the positives:
- Some of the breakout sessions were the best I’ve ever seen.
- The venue was accessible and comfortable, and the effort and support by both FPA and venue staff were evident and obvious.
- There were countless high-quality discussions and many new friends made.
- There were a number of new faces and presenters that I was excited to see and enjoyed spending time with immensely.
I will attend Retreat next year, despite the problems this year that I am about to describe, and in fact, my personal commitment is to pointedly invite people to come to Retreat next year that I felt should have been here this year. I can easily be accused in this writing of not giving equal credence to the good as the bad, but I don’t know what else to say. The breakouts were great, the venue was wonderful, and the conversations were good. Moving on.
One More Stop
Oh, and let me just cut one objection off: Someone is going to say “you do better.” I can’t. I’m not a conference organizer and lack all talents therein; but as a comedian once pointed out: “I don’t have to be a pilot to recognize a plane crash.” Retreat wasn’t quite a plane crash, but there are things worth discussing. So now, let’s go ahead and discuss the issues.
Screaming Children and Deaf Parents
The expression “elephant in the room” normally refers to the deliberate ignorance of a gathering of people as to the ominous or important thing hanging over the gathering. Such an expression might be useful here as a more literal example, but ironically, as I title this section “screaming children and deaf parents,” I’m not referring to the literal children that were in some of the sessions (who were by far the best-behaved children I’ve literally ever seen in any setting, ever.) No, this analogy describes the behavior of some of the most distinguished adults at Retreat this year. There were a number of veteran Planners, people with decades of experience, well-recognized figures of financial planning, who acted like screaming toddlers or enabling parents ignoring the shrieking.
In more than one session or gathering, one planner or another would “ask a question”, to be followed by loud, lengthy pontificating that sucked the oxygen out of the room and left no space for dozens of others to engage or be involved. At one point in the transition between the end of a breakout session and an “under the trees” session to immediately follow in the same space, one of these Planners bloviated for so long and loudly that they were borderline shouting over the participants in the under the trees session.
To that point, the screaming toddlers were not solely to blame. Hospitable moderators (some of them the same toddlers case by case) ignored the analogous screaming and simply let it happen, in some instances encouraging it and enabling it rather than asking the toddlers to be mindful of the fact that the purpose of this breakout session or that under the trees session wasn’t for them to hold people hostage to their narcissistic soapbox speech. Further, some of these tantrums weren’t simply big personalities expressing themselves a bit too loudly, but were outright hostile to the speaker or panel. For Retreat to be a welcoming space in which ideas are shared and conceptions are challenged, there must be room to practice what Oscar Wilde called the “Oxford Manner,” the ability to play with ideas gracefully. This is impossible when the giant egos of veteran planners swell to fill the spaces they occupy, and no one checks them in turn.
Unconventional to the point of absurdity
Keynotes at Retreat are often a curious thing. My first Retreat in San Diego was marked by speakers who challenged us to think in unconventional and creative ways about the world around us. The Retreat in Austin leaned heavily toward tackling issues of equity and inclusion within the profession, which naturally challenges a gathering of some of the most privileged members of our society.
This year, however, the challenging of conceptions, experiences, and ideas overshot or missed the mark entirely. A “dining in the dark” keynote dinner the first night, meant to help the audience experience blindness and develop empathy for those with that condition, ran far too long and suffered from “guilt purging,” in which attendees “asking questions” instead took the opportunity to ask the keynote speaker for forgiveness for “that time they encountered a person with a disability and weren’t perfect in their handling of the occasion.”
Another speaker took the concept of “how the world works” and boiled it down to birthrates and population changes but in the tone and tenor of your most politically extreme uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. Think “Jim Cramer for Age and Race statistics.”
And the final speaker was, to be blunt, a godawful speaker. While that speaker touted strong credentials in the subject matter, it was a 90-minute experience in having the life sucked out of you by a person who clearly had no experience with public speaking, punctuated by nervous laughs, verbal tics, and the energy of an introvert trying caffeine for the first time and unsure of what to do with it. All of this to say, while Keynotes usually create a powerful experience and subject to drive the thinking and discussions of the audience to follow, every conversation I had after a keynote could be summed up as “What on earth was THAT?”
My final disappointment with Retreat this year is something not under the control of the organizers, speakers, or staff. It was the absence of people who should be here. It does not go unnoticed that some of the most powerful and passionate voices of our profession were conspicuously absent when they had attended before, but were either at a marketing conference instead (it does look cool, I’ll admit), or simply expressed when asked that they didn’t feel it was worth the time and money to attend.
Retreat is not formally a thought leadership conference, but it is nevertheless a gathering of leaders. It is both curious and frustrating to then recognize that many leaders that should be at Retreat simply aren’t, for whatever reason. If Retreat is to be, and continue to be, a gathering of leaders, its value must be unquestionably obvious. “How could you not be there?”
Summing it Up
Retreat has a history as a place where some of the best and most powerful ideas in financial planning come into being. This year, I’m sad to say, that the right mix of people, speakers, personality, and restraint, were absent to create such a positive mix. As mentioned before, I’ll be at Retreat again, and it’s my mission to personally invite people that I think should be there. But Retreat must be better for it to be meaningful, or it’s just going to fade into obscurity as a gathering of overly privileged financial planners (of which I am one, don’t think I’m counting myself apart), lacking in the self-awareness to meaningfully continue to grow the profession.