By Matthew Brodsky
The first thing you might see after you walk through the modest lobby of the Sheraton Burlington Hotel & Conference Center and turn left at the fireplace is a glass-enclosed indoor pool. If it's August, you will also see dozens of insurance people milling about.
Turn left at the restaurant, with the indoor gazebo, and follow the hallway to the conference center, and you will see many, many more of them; some of them in business suits and some of them in golf shirts.
For everyone associated with the Vermont domicile and the alternative risk transfer space in general, the annual conference of the Vermont Captive Insurance Association has become a pilgrimage of sorts--and, as with any pilgrimage, sacrifices are endured, but the rewards are far greater.
First, the sacrifices. There is the cramped exhibition hall at the Sheraton that spills, not only into the hallway but into a nondescript hall on a completely different floor. There is the near impossibility of finding a room at the two business-class establishments on Lake Champlain, and nearly every other hotel in the greater Burlington area also fills with conference attendees.
Then, there are the conference-associated lunches, dinners, drinks and the official reception -- which occur anywhere but at the Sheraton.
And, finally, there are the day's worth of sessions that are 15 minutes off-site -- and uphill -- at the Davis Center at the University of Vermont.
In other words, attendees at this pilgrimage can feel inconvenienced and crunched.
The company line, per Richard Smith, president of the VCIA, goes like this: "I actually wouldn't put it that we've outgrown the Sheraton. Clearly, we fill the Sheraton to the brim, without a doubt."
Industry veterans put it this way. "I think that, certainly, the growth of the conference has outpaced the growth of the Sheraton," said Julie Boucher, U.S. Captive Solutions practice leader and the managing director of New York-based Marsh.
Steve Bauman agreed. He is senior vice president and head of Captive Services at Schaumburg, Ill.-based Zurich Global Corporate in North America, and currently a conference platinum sponsor.
"We're a victim of our own success," Bauman said.
For Bauman, Burlington is to the captive universe as Davos is to the global economic landscape. The crux of the comparison is inconvenience in the name of relevance.
If you don't buy the grand geopolitical comparison, Boucher made an insurance analogy: VCIA is like RIMS, only more accessible.
Want up-close attention from your international fronting carrier? Want to become acquainted with the global head of your captive management firm? Want the chance to shake the hands of risk managers at the biggest corporations or the newest captive owners? Want to meet with the governor and legislators who help to make onshoring as attractive as it is?
These people have no time at RIMS, or don't go at all. At VCIA, these meetings are possible, if not probable.
"It has become a must-attend event by risk managers and all of those involved in the industry," said Dan Towle, director of financial services in the Vermont Department of Economic Development. "The annual conference brings together arguably the greatest concentration of captive insurance intellectual capital in the world."
Of course, attendees also are exposed to downtown Burlington's local socioeconomic diversity as they escape the confines of the Sheraton to imbibe and dine at one of the open-air cafes on Church Street. That means a heavy concentration of scraggly UVM hippies, French-Canadian tourists in tanktops and flip-flops, and tattooed, pierced and, perhaps, homeless teenagers with their homely dogs.
"It's really part of the experience of being in Burlington. ... It kind of fits the open nature of the domicile and the way it works," said Kevin Heffernan, divisional senior vice president, strategy leader-captive design and management, at Itasca, Ill.-based Artex Risk Solutions Inc. "People are ready to talk about business ... in a casual environment."
And now we come to the rewards of this great August pilgrimage of the captive faithful. It is how the VCIA annual conference has been able to pull off an intimate conference that is as relevant as the one held by the Risk Management Society Inc. or, dare Bauman say, a mini-niche-Davos.
Part of it is that VCIA understands the space crunch and works with the Sheraton to deliver with the resources at hand.
The hotel has partnered with VCIA for years to host a successful event, said Michelle Herman, director of sales and marketing at the Sheraton, and she said the management of the venue looks forward to continuing to do so in the future.
Part of it is that VCIA has learned to find alternate locations for certain events.
"They've become very, very creative," said Boucher. "All things considered, they've struck a really good balance."
Boucher attended one of VCIA's major balancing acts: its "pre-conference" educational sessions, hosted at UVM for the past few years.
It may be uphill if walking, but the conference provides a convenient shuttle service from the hotel to UVM. That, combined with the mix of risk managers, colleagues and clients who attended, the productive excuse to visit a beautiful campus, and the educational content -- "all packaged together, it was a very nice experience," she said.
The VCIA's Smith called the events at UVM's Davis Center "very successful" and admitted the new venue gives the conference breathing space (though he claimed they could fit the Captives 101 and 102 courses at the Sheraton if need be).
Smith added that the association "will try to use [the Davis Center] as much as possible."
EXPLORING THE MOUNTAIN
VCIA has also explored other alternative locations for the conference--and not just for a session or two, but for the entire show.
The association recently considered the Stowe Mountain Resort as a potential site, according to Smith, not because it's bigger but to try a different facility in a new ambiance after being at the Sheraton for nearly two decades.
At the time, VCIA polled members and attendees about the prospect, and people were excited and intrigued, said Smith. The financial crisis and resulting Great Recession, however, left the VCIA board no choice but to shelve the plan.
"Hopefully, with the economy improving, the board and staff will look at it periodically," Smith said. "I think, at some point, we would like to give it a try."
Boucher recalled how VCIA invited industry experts to look at Stowe with them to gain their input. Her impression was there would be other challenges besides economic uncertainty, such as transportation, she said.
Or, as Heffernan explained, "The advantage of the Sheraton is the ease to the airport."
In fact, the Sheraton shuttle might take less than five minutes to make the loop.
Anywhere in Burlington proper is no more than a 15-minute cab ride from the airport. The airport to Stowe is nearly 38 miles, according to Google Maps.
Plus, many attendees prefer the inconveniences they know.
"There are many that don't want to move it out of Burlington," Towle said.
Still, there is precedent.
Boucher will have been to 24 VCIAs in a row this August, and one that stands out in her memory--one of the very first--was held at Stowe. Maybe 50 people attended, max.
Only as it grew did the conference move to Burlington and the Sheraton.
That irony, perhaps, sums up the Vermont captive conference: It doesn't really matter where the conference is held as much as that everyone who is a who's who in captives--or wants to be--attends.
Just keep in mind, if you want a room at one of the lakeside hotels, book at least eight months in advance.
MATTHEW BRODSKY is editor of Wharton Magazine.
July 24, 2012
Copyright 2012© LRP Publications