Pensions conferences are about more than food, booze and sex, says PTL managing director Richard Butcher

As I write, I’m having a short time out from an exhausting Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association investment conference. 

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This is, of course, one of the plethora of pension events that occur throughout the year – it’s almost possible to go to one every week (although, in the case of this one, I should declare an interest: as a non-executive director for the PLSA and chairman of its DC Council I think this and their annual conference are particularly good).

But are industry conferences in general worth it?

In his 2013 book Power Trip Damian McBride, one of Gordon Brown’s spin doctors during his time as prime minister, wrote that, unless you were a platform speaker, party political conferences all about an excess of food, alcohol and, occasionally, sex. In the pensions industry there are, I think, other benefits.

Armed with learning, trustees are able to make better decisions

For a start, a conference is about learning, pure learning - as Sir Francis Bacon said, knowledge is power. Armed with learning, trustees are able to make better decisions.

There is, though, more than that. Trustees invariably have a full suite of advisers surrounding them to help them make decisions. Good bad or indifferent, however, all of these advisers have a flaw: knowingly or not, they have an agenda. This could be explicit and intentional or subliminal, the latter based on perhaps subconscious personal preference or prejudice.

It may not lead to better decisions but it will lead to better decision making

Whichever way it is, the trustee is at risk of being led by the adviser’s partially blinkered view of the world. This may not be harmful but then again, a conference is an opportunity to hear the views of others and while these others may be subject to their own agenda it doesn’t matter. A wide range of views allows the distillation of a central or average view. Better armed, a trustee can then challenge his own advisers in an informed way, neutralising the advisers’ agenda. It may not lead to better decisions but it will lead to better decision making which should lead to better decisions.

In a similar vein, conferences give trustees an opportunity to meet new people. They might meet others like them to share stories and experiences with – again better arming them with collective knowledge. They will certainly meet other advisers – to the benefit set out above, but also introducing the potential for competitive tension with their own advisers. This will keep their advisers honest, keen and competitive.

 To get the most from conferences you need to go with an open mind, a warm welcoming handshake and, perhaps, an empty stomach

Many service providers or other industry players use conferences to launch new products or research. Going along and being willing to talk gives the trustee the chance to be at the cutting edge of developments as opposed to some months behind, to fit their meeting cycle.

Finally, there’s the opportunity for esoteric learning.

I was once at a plenary conference session where the speaker was a heart surgeon. I had nowhere else I needed to be and was happy to be sat in the warm twilight of the auditorium. His talk opened dramatically, grabbing my attention and kept me hooked for the full 45 minute duration. I was genuinely sorry when he finished speaking.

Although what he had to say had no direct impact on the work that I do, I did learn much about heart decease which has a peripheral impact on the discussions I have in relation to longevity. It was an interesting and useful session. I’ve been to many more, just like that, since.

At the beginning of this blog I asked whether conferences were worthwhile? In my view the answer is ‘yes’, but to get the most from them you need to go with an open mind, a warm welcoming handshake and, perhaps, an empty stomach.

Richard Butcher is managing director of PTL