The National Association of Plan Advisors (NAPA) hosts one of the largest annual conferences for financial advisors and, unlike some others, it is relatively narrow in focus. It attracts all kinds of advisors and industry professionals but offers relatively niche sessions and lectures, such as on the use environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in 401(k)s or how to incorporate Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) into retirement plans.

This year, the NAPA 401(k) Summit (April 15–17) returns to Nashville and WealthManagement.com chatted with Nevin Adams, one of the conference co-chairs, to get a preview of it.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Wealthmanagement.com: For those who haven’t attended the NAPA 401(k) Summit, how is it similar and different from the rest of the conference circuit advisors attend?

Nevin Adams: We call this the nation’s retirement plan advisor convention for a reason. It was, I think one of the first, if not the first, such conference specifically for retirement plan advisors. In fact, this is our 17th. There were 401(k) summits before there was a NAPA (National Association of Plan Advisors).

The NAPA 401(k) Summit is responsible for a significant amount of funding for the ongoing support of the National Association of Plan Advisors.

That supports our successful advocacy on behalf of things like needed modifications to the fiduciary rule, the rejection of “Rothification” as a means of taking money from retirement savers to fund other budget priorities, and our ongoing active negotiations with state regulators who are today seeking to impose their own fiduciary rules and state-run retirement programs for private sector employers. These registration fees don’t wind up in some private equity firm’s bottom line, nor does it simply act to keep a conference company in the business of running conferences.

I think you need only look at the number of registrants–the growth in those registrations–to see the proof of that commitment.

WM: Can you describe NAPA members and conference attendees? I’m told the crowd is a caring one–people that are passionate about and advocate for retirement planning in general.

NA: Yes. In fact, that might be the only way to describe them in general, because they run the gamut when it comes to size of practice, experience, education, wirehouse, RIA, independent. But they all work with retirement plans, and they are passionate not only about what they do, but the difference that it makes in real people’s lives.

WM: How many advisors are expected to attend?

NA: Approximately 1,100, and that’s a record. (In total, there will be approximately 2,200 attendees.) That’s up more than 20 percent from last year’s record attendance.

WM: You’re one of the three co-chairs of the conference, how far in advance does planning for it begin?

NA: We actually conduct a debrief with the steering committee the same day the conference ends where we’ll assess what seemed to work, what was a problem or an issue for folks, what comments everyone has heard from people during the event. So, it literally starts the same day.

The formal process with the next year’s steering committee (we rotate about a third of the members off each year, keeping strong continuity, but also bringing in fresh perspectives) starts later–in June most years. That’s where things like the theme, potential agenda topics, and keynote speakers are discussed. Ahead of that we will have compiled and shared attendee survey results from the prior year’s event.

But then we’re working on site planning and such years in advance. We’ve already chosen locations for 2019 (Las Vegas) and 2020 (Tampa, Fla.). Our events team is actually heading out to Vegas in two weeks to begin laying the groundwork for next year.

WM: Are you involved in choosing or recruiting the presenters at the conference? What’s that process like?

We have an interesting, and I think distinctive approach that helps us avoid some of the issues you see at so many conferences where the presenters are uneven, slip into thinly-veiled sales pitches, and–perhaps the worst–a “pay to play” process that essentially guarantees a firm that pays a certain amount of money a spot on the agenda, or as a keynote.

For us, it starts with the agenda: A list of topics that is literally voted on by NAPA’s members (via an interesting “cage match” process of asking folks to choose between two competing topics, then two more, etc.). Those topics are further screened by the steering committee, a group that is truly integral to our planning process. Each steering committee member picks and/or is assigned one or more of those topics; they are then either designated as the session “owner,” or the committee recommends someone for that role.

Only after the topics are selected—the things that advisors have told us they want to hear/know more about—do we turn our attention to speakers. Every speaker, every panel member is chosen based on the personal recommendation of someone on that steering committee, based on their demonstrated knowledge, and speaking experience. Our session owners take their job title seriously. They know it’s on them to deliver the best informative conference experience for our attendees.

WM: What are some of the topics advisors are most interested in right now? Does the conference reflect that or have other things come up since the summit was planned?

NA: Because of our agenda-focused process, we feel that the conference largely reflects that, and our speaker selection is such that when there are emerging developments they are able to bring that into the discussion.

Some things have changed, of course—the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision on the fiduciary rule, for example—but our Hill to the Summit keynote with American Retirement Association CEO Brian Graff will be a great opportunity for folks to catch up on the latest there. But just in case, every year we generally hold back a couple of slots on the agenda until later.

WM: How else has the conference changed over the years?

NA: I was a speaker at the first five summits, and was in pretty regular attendance even before I joined ARA and NAPA. It’s certainly gotten bigger, and that is both gratifying, and yet it creates a number of logistical challenges, both in terms of managing things like the workshop sizes and fostering the level of interactivity that we try to emphasize.

Our conferences team has always been top notch, landing great venues, working out those logistics, the things that are so important, but that everyone takes for granted (until they don’t go as planned).

On the networking/interactivity front, it’s clear that the summit “After Dark” events—which we did for the first time in 2017—have already become a highlight, and something that everyone looks forward to.

But I think what has really changed over the last several years is how, and how seriously, our planning process works on the agenda development and speaker recruitment. Our steering committee is all volunteers, all top-notch industry professionals who have been working together not only to develop, but to refine and strengthen our agenda. I can’t say enough about just how essential those individuals have been to the continued, dramatic success of the NAPA 401(k) Summit.

WM: Any places or things you would recommend to attendees in Nashville?

NA: There are lots of great things in walking distance of the conference venue. Broadway, of course, where you can literally just walk down the street and go from one great music performance to another. There’s much more than country music, though the country music there is awesome. There are a lot of great restaurants, too.

There’s also the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Old Opry, steamboat rides on the river, and the Predators are back in the hunt for the Stanley Cup, though I’m sure it’s going to be tough to get a ticket.

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