All successful ventures start as a germ of an idea, including TMA’s most efficacious conference, the Distressed Investing Conference (DIC).
Fifteen years ago, during a break at a non-TMA conference, then-TMA Global President Colin Cross, Executive Board Member David Mack of the Pathfinder Group, and I wondered why TMA didn’t put together a conference that could be a real difference maker to replace the organization’s Spring Conference. Interest in that event was fading, along with its profitability.
With any new venture there are initially many unknowns. Limited resources, including staff bandwidth and funds, appeared daunting to some, which led to some contentious discussions as we considered the idea. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do not got where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Back then, I was president of TMA Philadelphia/Wilmington and a member of TMA Global’s Executive Board. I believed then, as now, that if you offer something new and fun, people will give it a try. The success of TMA’s regional conferences had proven that. But given that support for a new conference was far from guaranteed, Colin, David, and I believed we had one chance to make a successful presentation to convince TMA Executive Board to give the Distressed Investing Conference a try.
The conference needed to be fresh. Because the Spring Conference was struggling, the same old approach would not work. Determining when to hold the conference was also important. With crowded calendars, finding the right time of year was critical. We also needed a hook to attract potential attendees and create buzz. Finally, a detailed budget with upfront cost estimates was crucial.
We knew we had to create a concrete vision, plan, budget, and timeline. Some of the considerations included the following.
Timing. We believed a conference early in the year would offer the best opportunity for success. The remainder of the year offered few options. April had the ABI conference and religious holidays; golf outings and vacations would begin in May and run through the summer; and the fall and the winter months were filled with annual conferences and holiday parties.
Holding the conference early in the year offered another benefit: there would still be plenty of room in firms’ meeting budgets, as opposed to later in the year, when there might be more scrutiny as those funds dwindled.
Venue. The location had to be attractive and easily accessible. Considering our dead-of-winter timing, we thought the location also should offer some relief from the cold for those from the East Coast and the Midwest. Las Vegas fit the bill on several levels. There are plenty of direct and reasonably priced flights from all parts of the country on most major carriers. No matter your budget, there is plenty to do, whether or not you gamble. And average daytime highs are in the 50s early in the year in Vegas.
Coincidentally, the Wynn had opened just a couple of years earlier in a case of serendipitous timing. Most people had never visited the facility, and a new hotel that carries plenty of cachet is always a good hook to attract interest. The TMA team was able to obtain excellent pricing for the event as well.
Content. The content offered was certainly one of the most important factors. At the time, TMA conferences and events didn’t include a significant number of private equity (PE) firms, so centering the conference around PE offered members access to constituencies that weren’t part of their traditional TMA experience and expectations.
Our Conference Committee members had significant contacts in the PE sector, and we determined that most panels should have one or two participants who were directly employed by PE firms or specifically engaged with PE funds. We also needed keynote speakers with name recognition who wouldn’t crush our limited budget. Both, we believed, would be critical to the conference’s success.
Most of the initial discussions were positive, but some board members were hesitant to support a new conference, mostly due to the amount of effort involved and the potential cost exposure. However, it was no different than considering potential risk and reward for any new product launch or service offering.
Cost management, especially during the initial years of a conference, is critical. The event was budgeted to make a modest profit, but TMA could absorb a small loss, if it came to that. But if there was hope for holding Distressed Investing Conferences going forward, that first one had to be a winner. As friends in the private equity sector have said, if the first fund doesn’t succeed, no one will take your phone calls to try to build a second fund. It was critical to negotiate flexible room blocks, food and beverage minimums, and other guarantees. After robust discussions and well-reasoned and relatively modest revisions to the conference plans, approval was granted.
During the months leading up to the inaugural conference, we could feel things coming together, and all the trends were positive. It felt like watching the stock price for a newly launched public company move relentlessly upward as we saw weekly and cumulative totals for registrations and sponsorships not only surpass budget projections but far exceed expectations.
Probably the greatest indicator of that first conference’s success was that during the board meeting held immediately prior to the event, TMA announced that it already had confirmed that the Wynn would host the second annual Distressed Investing Conference.
Since that initial gamble, the Distressed Investing Conference has grown into TMA’s marquee conference. Staying relevant by adapting to current events and industry trends is critical to long-term success for all organizations, companies, and conferences, too. Over the years, a popular joint networking reception with SFNet was added to the conference lineup, along with the Capital Forum. The conference continues to grow, attracting new attendees and sponsors each year.
From start to finish, developing the first Distressed Investment Conference took about 10 months, a relatively fast track. In successful entities, there are rarely any wallflowers, and though support for that first conference was not unanimous, its success was the result of smart people pulling together.
For all of us in the turnaround world who confront difficult situations, it’s no surprise that some of the greatest successes come about when we navigate through tough terrain. I look forward to seeing you at another successful Distressed Investing Conference at Encore at the Wynn, February 9-11.