By Cyril Tuohy
First-time risk managers and insurance executives attending the annual convention of the Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc., are likely to be impressed with the size of the conference.
The scale of the booths crowding the exhibit floor is one thing. To a first-time attendee, the sheer number of booths and their configuration could spawn the conference profession of RIMS show floor guide. Another indicator of the conference's size and depth is the professional achievement level of the session speakers. Just as intriguing are the variety of educational sessions.
RIMS the conference is a draw, but so are the opportunities for networking that the host cities present away from the show floor.
"With over 400 exhibitors, delegates continue to cite the exhibit hall as one of the top reasons for attending," said RIMS Executive Director Mary Roth, in a statement emailed to Risk & Insurance®. More than 10,000 risk and insurance professionals from around the world attend RIMS every year, and U.S. convention cities compete fiercely for RIMS' business.
Among the myriad outlets, for many risk managers it is the exhibit floor that is the undisputed king of the networking venues. Long-time risk managers and colleagues routinely run into one another on the exhibit floor, marking the occasion with high-fives and hugs.
Where else can risk executives salute the captains of the insurance industry within a span of two or three days?
The volume of foot traffic and the buzz coming off the exhibit floor are unmatched at any other RIMS-sponsored event. With the bulk of the presentations taking place on the exhibit floor, and the ubiquity of the Internet stations, there's no better place for risk managers to "plug back into the network."
"Between scheduling meetings, dinners and lunches with vendors or prospective vendors, most of my focused interaction tends to be at RIMS-sponsored events and the exhibit hall," said Wayne Salen, director of risk management for Labor Finders International, a temporary staffing company based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
This year, the convention will be held in Philadelphia, which many consider to be an ideal destination. The Pennsylvania Convention Center, at the intersection of 12th Street and Arch Street, is located in the middle of Center City.
Hotel rooms are plentiful, first-rate museums and the Constitution Center, which can host large crowds, are within walking distance, as are dozens of good restaurants. The last time RIMS held its convention in Philadelphia was in 2005.
While even the most reclusive of risk managers would sanction a vital and robust exhibit floor at the industry's premier convention, there's no doubt that managers today have a lot more networking options beyond the bustling exhibit floor than they did a decade ago.
Rise of the 'Cafe Societies'
In 2002, in response to client demand, Marsh hosted its "Marsh Cafe," and with it was born a networking alternative to the traditional outlets of the exhibit floor and off-site meetings. The café, located a few steps from the exhibit floor, was a hit and has been a fixture at RIMS every year since then. This year, the Marsh Cafe will be celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the Marsh Cafe has become an "essential" part of the broker's line-up of networking events, said Gary Grose, senior vice president and U.S. marketing leader for Marsh. Marsh plans to keep the cafe open from Monday, April 16 to Wednesday, April 18. At this year's RIMS convention, the cafe will be located in the ballroom, one floor up from the exhibit hall.
In the chronology of networking events, the trade show exhibit booth came first, Grose said, and has evolved over time based on client feedback to better meet risk managers' needs. This feedback, including a call for improved networking opportunities at RIMS, also led to the launch of the Marsh Cafe in 2002.
Following the success of the cafe, Marsh launched its RIMS client breakfast in 2003 in Chicago. The breakfasts, which have drawn more than 1,000 attendees in some years, feature their own guest speakers. This year's breakfast will be held from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. at the Philadelphia Marriott. Marsh is keeping the name of this year's speaker under wraps.
The breakfast lets out 15 minutes before the first RIMS sessions begin. "We don't want to have things that are drawing away from the purpose of the meeting itself," Grose said.
Perhaps not. But as one long-time risk manager and former RIMS board member noted, it was just a matter of time before the other major brokers followed Marsh and launched their own client meetings.
Every risk manager who spends an hour in a sponsor's cafe, either adjacent to the exhibit hall or at a nearby hotel means one hour less that they might have spent in the exhibit hall. Just as "Off-Broadway" theater productions are an industry unto themselves, are the off-exhibit floor networking opportunities creating a parallel networking universe?
"I don't believe that what you are witnessing is a distractor for the RIMS conference," said Joseph A. Restoule, principal of Restoule Risk Management Ltd. and a former president of Risk and Insurance Management Society. "I think it enhances the networking opportunity for the participant in an environment conducive and in close proximity to the conference."
Aon's "Clientopia" meetings, which are held in a hotel a few blocks from the convention meeting hall, are also expected to draw large crowds.
This year, the meetings will be held in the Westin Philadelphia Hotel, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesday. Aon's financial institutions practice breakfast is planned for Tuesday, April 17, between 7:15 a.m. and 8:15 a.m.
Big sponsors organizing events typically brief RIMS officials, so networking events receive either formal or tacit approval by RIMS.
"Companies interested in holding meetings during our event are encouraged to contact RIMS' conference department to minimize scheduling conflicts," Roth said, in the email.
Last year, Willis Group Ltd., the world's No. 3 broker, opened the Willis Hub and Coffee Bar. The London-based broker, with a major presence through its booth on the exhibit floor and a three-hour-long cocktail party before the big Monday night concert, will host the hub and coffee bar again this year.
The hub and coffee bar will be at the Marriott Convention Center on Market Street, three blocks south of the Pennsylvania Convention Center where the show will take place.
George J. Haitsch, head of Willis Risk Solutions, said the hub and coffee bar offers Willis clients an "opportunity to network in a more relaxed setting," particularly for risk managers who don't want to attend the show proper.
"There is a contingent of risk managers who don't sign up for RIMS but they want to come to Philadelphia because they want to tap into that complement of market leaders," said Haitsch, the former risk manager for the technology company SAP and a long-time RIMS attendee. "But they've perhaps gotten beyond some of the educational offerings or are trying to optimize their schedules."
"There are a lot of different strategies and everyone has their own individual approach of what they want to get out of RIMS," said Haitsch, who has been attending RIMS since the early 1990s.
As private networking events proliferate off the show floor, maintaining a presence on the exhibit floor remains in some ways even more important, insurance marketing veterans said. "When you're not there it's noticed," said Michelle Middleton, senior vice president and commercial marketing manager for Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, a major sponsor at RIMS.
Exhibitors don't have to have the loudest, craziest, brightest or biggest booths, she said. Sponsors, she said, only need a presence to "reinforce your brand and your commitment to clients and producers."
Even in the darkest days of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, Chubb felt it was time to represent strength and stability, and to reinforce to risk managers and brokers that Chubb was a brand they could count on over the long haul.
Cheryle Tuttle, director of business development with CSC, one of the largest technology vendors at the conference, said that the exhibit floor remains the most convenient place for risk managers to meet.
"They want to break out of a session and then go to the floor and meet, and move on," she said. "Others are not sure of their timing," so it's convenient for CSC to be in one place throughout the length of the five-day show, she said.
Sending clients to hotels for private meetings isn't as convenient as risk managers have to find their way around an unfamiliar city.
"The show floor gives a lot more exposure to a lot more people," she said.
CYRIL TUOHY is managing editor of Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 1, 2012
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