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Conference Attendance Makes a Comeback


More than six months after last fall's terrorist attacks brought business travel to a standstill, and volatile markets resulted in slashed travel budgets at many fund complexes, mutual fund conferences - those sessions full of pundits speaking about industry trends - are making a comeback.

After September, many of the conferences, which are often hosted by specialized promoters, were canceled or postponed. Conferences had declined in frequency by as much as 40%, estimated Elizabeth Powell, a spokeswoman for the industry's chief lobby group, the Investment Company Institute of Washington.

But in recent months, companies have started promoting a wave of new get-togethers. Forecasted attendance for some of the biggest events in the business is on par with, or only down slightly, from previous years, organizers say.

Executives suggest that fund complexes are working with new budgets in 2002 and are allotting more money for travel to business events. In addition, some say the public's fear of flying in the wake of Sept. 11's hijackings may be subsiding.

"You slowly see it picking up," said public relations consultant Dan Sondhelm, who had to cancel a press event in New York City's financial district on Sept. 11 and ended up joining a massive exodus of people who hiked uptown. "People are interested in these events again, and I think that they'll get back to normal assuming there are no more events that cause fear."

That's good news, because the industry thrives on the ability to network at such conferences, said Sondhelm, who runs an Alexandria, Va., firm called Sunstar.

The National Investment Company Service Association of Wellesley, Mass., which had to reschedule two events and cancel one after Sept. 11, said attendance at its conferences has rebounded markedly.

Attendance numbers "have exceeded our expectations," said the organization's director of education, Kathleen O'Halloran. NICSA's February Operations Conference in Florida attracted 650 executives, roughly the same attendance as in previous years, she said.

In addition, O'Halloran said attendance has rebounded at the three-hour breakfast seminars she oversees nearly each month. After Sept. 11, attendance at some of the events had declined to as few as 17 people. In recent months, the number has climbed back to its typical range of between 30 and 35 executives, she said.

Chicago fund researcher Morningstar, which is planning its 2002 Morningstar Investment Conference for June 24 through 26, said it expects no drop in attendance at the event, which usually draws about 1,000 executives. "We're on par with where we were last year," said spokeswoman Martha Conlin Moss.

And Jennifer Koretsky, senior marketing manager at New York-based Institute for International Research, which is known for promoting financial industry conferences, said that attendance at her company's events bounced back quickly after Sept. 11.

As much as any other factor, conference promoter Gail Eissenstat said that conferences started popping up again after January because "people want to get back to business [and] getting to conferences is one way to achieve that."

"The [conference] market ... is bouncing back because people need information," said Eissenstat, who is putting together a July conference on sub-advised funds for Financial Research Associates of Santa Cruz, Calif. "The conference business isn't going away."

But there's at least one indication that industry conferences may not have returned to their normal levels. Powell said the ICI's upcoming General Membership Meeting, from May 22 to 24, is expected to attract slightly fewer executives than in past years.

The event, probably the biggest of the year, typically draws 2,000 attendees, Powell said. "Although most major fund complexes plan to send executives to this year's event," instead of sending five people, they might be sending four, she said.