Choosing the Right Trade Show
November 12, 2019

In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of preparing for a trade show. I had a chance to put my own advice into practice shortly thereafter when I attended the truly excellent Excel 401(K) show in Dallas. Because trade-show ROI can notoriously difficult to quantify, it is often one of the first things to go when belts and budgets need to be tightened. 

As an exhibitor, I’m usually paying anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 for my booth space, plus another $1,000 shipping, $500 (minimum) in booth furnishings, and $1,000 in personal travel expenses…and these are only the dollar costs. The opportunity cost for my time out of office is often equally pricey, especially if I’m sending multiple people to a show. 

Let’s dive into the Top Four Considerations which make a show a “must attend” as opposed to a “could lose it if I had to”… How do we evaluate which shows to keep and which are destined for the chopping block? I generally look at four key metrics; New Business, Existing Business, Competitors, and Referrals.

New Business

This is the number one driver for an exhibitor like me. Do I think that I’ll make enough new connections at this show to fill my pipeline, and then convert them into clients, to pay off the show? Evaluating potential new business generation from a trade show is a combination of two functions: The number of attendees at the show, and the quality of these attendees.

Number of attendees

You’ve got to have a critical mass of people. 100 people aren’t going to cut it. 300 is about the absolute minimum I’ll even consider, and even then, the exhibiting price had better be pretty low. 700-1,000 attendees is where I like shows to be.

Quality of attendees

This critical component is often overlooked. Are the people I can expect to meet with at the show capable of buying my products? I’ve found that when I’m considering a new show I can often request a list of the attendees from the previous year’s conference. Even if you can’t get names, at least get a combination of company+title. What I’m looking for here are people with purchasing authority, or who may be senior influencers with my buyer.

Since I often sell to exhibitors, I include them in this category. One of the items that make a show a slam dunk for me, specifically, is when someone who actually signed one of my contracts is going to be at the show in person. Not only does that mean we can grab some coffee and strengthen our relationship, but also means that there may be others like that person in attendance.

Existing Business

A subscription-based business like mine grows on new sales but survives on renewals of the existing book of business. When considering a trade show, I will always look at the list of exhibitors from previous years (and, as noted earlier, the list of attendees) and do some quick math. Any show which has high-level representatives from 1/3rd or more of my existing client base is a must-attend.

Competitors

Sometimes, you can get lucky and just let your competitors do the homework for you! Any show that is hosting two direct competitors is something I’ve got to be at too. If there’s only one competitor, I’ll give it a good look, but there are definitely shows with a single competitor that I’ve taken a pass on.

Exhibiting at a show where one of your competitors is not only allows you to take advantage of their homework, but also lets you be on hand to answer that important question; “how are you different from X”. Some attendees might not know that there is another option out there, and others may be interested in seeing your different approach to solving the same problem. Be sure to be able to clearly articulate your value proposition and what makes you different.

Referrals

Of the 100+ shows I’ve exhibited at over the last 16 years, every single one has had some downtime when the exhibitors could mix and mingle with each other. When that happens, we almost always talk shop, and three questions consistently come up:

  1. How has your foot traffic been this show?
  2. Are you guys coming back next year?
  3. Where else do you guys exhibit?

Some of the best shows I’ve found are the ones that were recommended to me by my fellow exhibitors. New shows are always popping up, and as we discussed earlier, there is a significant expense associated with exhibiting. Getting the “seal of approval” from other exhibitors who are trying to reach the same audience I am is a big green flag that a new show is worth my time.

Trade shows are a critical part of the sales process for both individual subscribers and enterprise-level accounts. Making sure that you can select the right show to attend and that you maximize your time there (https://www.judydiamond.com/blog/making-the-most-out-of-trade-shows/) is essential  for every sales manager.

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Making the Most out of Trade Shows
October 15, 2019

Trade shows are an essential part of the Employee Benefits industry. They function as meeting places where brokers, carriers, and other players in the space can interact. As I am freshly returned from Source Media’s “Benefits Forum & Expo”, I thought it might be useful to dive into what goes on at these shows and how to get the most value out of the experience.

In my 16 years with Judy Diamond, I’ve attended about a half dozen shows per year, on average, giving me roughly 100 shows under my belt. For someone in my position, there are two distinct and very separate show elements; the exhibit hall and the content sessions.

The exhibit hall is a big open ballroom where various vendors (usually anywhere from 40 to 150, depending on the size of the show) buy booth space and set up shop, putting up booths with fancy graphics, giveaways, and literature about their offerings. The goal of the exhibitor, generally, is to interact with the attendees (though some exhibitors are just as eager to interact with other exhibitors).

The content sessions are held in smaller rooms and are often hyper-focused on a single topic. Some examples from the Benefits Forum and Expo include “What the future of value-based care means for employers”, “HRAs: a new wave of opportunity”, or “Understanding mergers and acquisitions in retirement plans”. The sessions are most often populated by a panel of industry experts and moderated by someone from one of the Sponsoring/exhibiting companies.

With the basics out of the way, let’s dive into how to get the most bang for your buck out of a show.

Preparation

Most shows will provide the exhibitors and sponsors with a list of attendees before the show. Such a list usually contains name, title, and company but no contact info like a phone number or email address. Shows also make their list of exhibitors public, so you know who is going to be there. Step one for every show is looking over those lists and identifying the people and companies you want to connect with. You have to go into these shows with a plan… you can’t just show up and hope that you’ll get those meetings you want. Reaching out ahead of time on LinkedIn or even through company directories/websites can mean the difference between a productive show and a waste of time.

Making the most out of the Exhibit Hall

When I go to one of these shows representing Judy Diamond, I am most often there as an exhibitor in a booth. While it’s true that the attendees at the show are good prospects for JDA tools and data, our best source of potential clients are the other exhibitors. Here are some do’s and don’ts I’ve picked up along the way.

  • DO be respectful of the exhibitor’s time. If they are engaged in a conversation with a potential client, keep your distance. In that same vein
  • DO step away when an attendee comes up to their booth, and let them conduct their business
  • DON’T drop your card into their bowl to try to win a prize if you are not a potential client.
  • DON’T rely on your memory. When you get someone’s card, flip it over and jot down a note or two on the conversation, especially if it’s a good lead or you have a follow-up action.

Content Sessions

If you’re interested (as I often am) in the content sessions, it also helps to map out where you want to be and when. The full agenda of a show is usually available many weeks before the event itself, and there are usually multiple sessions available at every timeslot. Figuring out what you want to see will help ensure that you arrive early enough to get a seat. I can tell you that there is nothing more annoying than having to stand along the back wall for an hour because you got to the Keynote session 2 minutes after it started.

Trade shows can have a tremendous impact on your business, and when you execute a show well it can be one of the strongest marketing investments you’ll make. But if you take one thing from this post, let it be that simply showing up is not enough. You can’t just hide behind your table all day and hope that good leads simply walk up to you. Do the homework, set up the meetings, attend the sessions, and you will leave that show with a fat pipeline and a better understanding of your market.

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Back-to-school: 403(b) Plans
September 16, 2019

At the time of this writing, it is mid-September. The air is beginning to chill, the leaves are starting to turn, but most importantly your kids are now back in school. This makes it the ideal time to talk about 403(b) plans, the savings vehicle most commonly used by teachers (and others in the not-for-profit space) to save for retirement.

If you understand 401(k) plans, you mostly understand 403(b) plans as well. 403(b)s are Defined Contribution plans where the participant’s money is tucked away for tax-deferred growth. Traditional Defined Benefit pension plans for teachers are critically underfunded, and many states have been forced to cut benefits for future retirees. Depending on a DB as a primary source of retirement income can have devastating consequences (just ask the auto workers), which brings us back to 403(b) plans.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are approximately 20 million eligible 403(b) participants (both educators and non-profit employees) across the country, which suggests that there are probably about 200,000 403(b) plans. We don’t know what the actual number is, because of one of the most significant differences between 403(b) plans and their 401(k) cousins: ERISA status.

ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, provides participants and plan sponsors with certain basic protections and safeguards. The problem is that not all 403(b) plans are ERISA-qualified. In fact, most of them are not. Let’s examine what makes a 403(b) plan ERISA qualified and what that means.

The “default” setting on a 403(b) plan tends to be that it is not ERISA qualified. To qualify for an exemption from ERISA, a 403(b) has to meet certain criteria. There are a lot of them, but it mostly boils down to 3 things:

 

  1. Participation in the plan is completely voluntary
  2. The only form of plan contribution allowed is the employee deferrals. In other words… NO EMPLOYER MATCH.
  3. The employer doesn’t become too involved in plan administration

 

The first item on this list is pretty self-explanatory; you can’t force people into the plan or mandate participation. Items 2 and 3 are actually variations on the same theme, though I broke them out here as separate items because I’ve seen #2 trip up a lot of employers. Essentially, in order to maintain an ERISA-exempt 403(b) plan the sponsor has to stay as far away from the plan as possible. The role of the sponsor in this situation is to set up the plan, hire a good TPA to manage said plan, and run for the hills. The more involvement a sponsor has in the 403(b), the more likely it will be that the 403(b) loses its ERISA exemption.

Running an ERISA-qualified 403(b) plan is not a bad thing, necessarily. The upside is that ERISA-qualified plans are generally exempt from state laws because they’re governed by federal ones. This, of course, is super useful if you are a non-profit with employees in multiple states. Sponsors of ERISA-qualified plans can be as involved as they want, making decisions on plan design, dropping in employer matches, and generally ensuring the plan stays in compliance. Both sponsors and participants are also protected by the weight of ERISA. For Sponsors, this means that they are protected from liability for losses arising from the investment decisions of the participants (as long as they meet ERISA 404(c) requirements). For participants, it ensures transparency into fees and other aspects of plan administration, courtesy of the Form 5500 ERISA disclosure document. The downside for a plan sponsor is that now they’ve actually got to file a 5500 and comply with all aspects of ERISA.

Speaking of 5500s, just how many 403(b) plans out there are actually filing? Here’s a look at the number of ERISA-qualified 403(b) plans over the last six years.

You can see from the chart that the number of ERISA-qualified 403(b) plans is declining (though in the interest of full disclosure, the 2018 number is an estimate based on the ~40% of 2018 filings currently available). By my estimate, this means that of all the 403(b) plans out there only about 10% are ERISA-qualified.

There are a number of possible, even probable reasons for this decline. In 2012, the Department of Labor clarified its position on whether or not an employer match is enough to subject a plan to ERISA (yes, it is). This caused some sponsors to unexpectedly find themselves with an ERISA plan they didn’t want, and some have been remodeling their plans to regain an ERISA exemption. Additionally, the introduction of the fiduciary rule has given rise to more TPAs who offer a full, turnkey solution, which is exactly what a 403(b) sponsor needs if they want to be exempt.

So as you are attending “meet the teacher” and “back to school” sessions, make sure you ask your children’s educators about their 403(b) plan. Unless, of course, you work for the school district, in which case you may be inadvertently waiving your ERISA exemption.

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Cracking the Modeled Premium Code
April 08, 2019

I’ve been working with 5500 data for the last 16 years. In that time I have come to appreciate both its value as well as its limitations. One of those limitations has always been how to handle multi-line insurance policies. This is one of those things that is perhaps better explained with a visual. Below is a typical insurance policy found on a 5500.

Data Collection Methodology

These insurance policies (commonly known as “Schedule A’s”) are created, filled out by the insurance company, and sent over to the plan sponsor to be filed along with their 5500. The insurance company checks off the boxes, as we see above, to indicate what kind of insurance coverages are offered as a part of this policy. So far so good, right? A problem arises in that although there can be many different coverages, there is only a single dollar figure to represent the premiums collected by the insurance company.

Why is this an issue? Looking across multiple policies to figure out how much an insurance carrier is collecting for a specific type of coverage is impossible. How much dental coverage does MetLife write? We don’t know and we can’t know. It is too often mixed in with life coverage. The situation gets even worse for big carriers like Aetna and Cigna who offer health insurance as well as life, dental, etc…

Breaking the Data Apart

After years of grappling with the issue, we finally found a solution. With the help of some friendly insurance carriers who prefer to remain nameless, we developed a model that allows us to break apart these multi-line policies. We call these “modeled premiums.” Our testing shows these models are accurate to within 10% of what the carrier themselves recognizes in premiums. We’ve successfully modeled premiums for Health, Life, Dental, Vision, STD, and LTD coverages.

Modeled premiums have been live in our Group Insurance tool for nearly a year. Because of their popularity, at the beginning of Q2, 2019 we put them into our Brokers and Carriers Market Share database. Having the ability to recombine modeled premiums by the broker, across every 5500 on which that broker appears, gives us an entirely new way to assess the market share of brokers. Want to know who sold the most dental in California? Which carrier sold more dollars of group life coverage east of the Mississippi? Now, finally, we can tell you.

Because this has been my project for the last few years, I took the first whack at producing some original research on the subject. It includes a state-by-state and industry-by-industry breakdown of the change in overall ERISA-spend year over year, modeled out by each of our six lines of coverage. Here’s a sneak peek at one of the tables:

 

To download the complete report, for free, simply click here: https://www.judydiamond.com/slide-deck-state-of-the-industry/. For more information, contact us at 800-231-0669

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