Interview: Fall Conferences
Updated: Oct 27, 2022
We recently had a chance to sit down with Brendon Sanger, Vice President of Growth & Development at ELM and a 27-year veteran in Higher Ed, to talk about how the conference network has changed.
Q: With your role at ELM mainly focusing on relationships, you have a healthy understanding of the Conference circuit. With COVID essentially shutting down face-to-face conferences, what were some of the ways you have maintained relationships with schools over the past two years?
Brendon Sanger: We were fortunate to have been early to the Zoom revolution and used it for about a year before Covid hit. Virtual meetings were indeed not new to us with a partially remote workforce. That made us very comfortable helping our college partners adjust to more virtual meetings, training, and even social events. But we also know that it just isn't the same. Nothing virtual can genuinely replace a handshake, a hug between old colleagues, a conference exhibit hall conversation, or sitting in someone's office on campus and understanding what they are going through day-to-day. We tried to fill the void with phone calls, postcards, hand-written notes, and small care packages as reminders of conferences missed but I think the limited face-to-face interaction affected all of us in the industry. It is evidenced by the camaraderie and joy we see at conferences that have returned to in-person.
Q: How many conferences does your team go to every year?
Brendon: I wish I could say all of them. With a small team, it certainly feels that way in some travel seasons. Unfortunately, we can't get to all of them due to a combination of responsible budgeting and simple logistics making that impossible. We try to put the team in areas where they at least have the opportunity to meet with every one of our campus partners who choose to attend and all the campuses who haven't (yet) chosen to utilize ELM (an industry-leading service that is FREE to schools...have I mentioned that?). So, I would say about 45-50 conferences in a year.
Q: How have conferences changed since they started being in person again?
Brendon: There have been a few iterations of change since conferences started to return. At first, they had a cautiously bubbly atmosphere. People were delighted and simultaneously tentative about being back in groups. That combination of attributes understandably made those early in-person conferences less conducive to business conversations and more focused on just re-connecting. More recently, there has been a positive turn toward maximizing business and strategy conversations at these events. School administrators are being asked to do more with less. Conference committees and associations have started to embrace the Associate Members as a more dominant part of the learning opportunity at a conference. Spending time in the exhibit hall provides attendee access to a room full of industry experience, solutions, ideas, choices, and efficiencies they desperately need. It has been a great transition.
Q: What are some observations on how the industry treats travel and in-person conferences going into the Fall?
Brendon: Budgets and staff are both stretched incredibly thin. The number of conferences returning to in-person is fantastic, and I sincerely hope the attendance supports them. But I also believe that more than ever before, attendees will be closely evaluating ROI at any conference and making hard choices about how much value their presence will return to their campus, office, or company in exchange for the time and money spent.
Q: What are some of the objectives you have going to these conferences, and how do they differ from other attendees?
Brendon: Our travel priorities are to connect, learn and help. We aim to connect with as many school administrators and colleagues as possible, understand what challenges they are facing and what new developments are happening on campuses or with our partners, and ultimately find ways to help. Those high-level priorities probably don't differ all that much from many attendees. But being not-for-profit offering services that are free to schools does give us the luxury of having no competing priorities. We want to help as many schools and loan providers as possible to become more efficient, reduce day-to-day administrative tasks, and ultimately allow more time for schools to focus on the real reason we all do this: the students and families.
Q: We hear that many financial aid professionals are retiring, leaving positions, or changing roles. How will this be addressed at the conference circuit in the Fall?
Brendon: They certainly have. And for a while, campuses were going into crisis mode in reaction to that fact. There was an impulse to stay heads-down, trying to weather the current staffing shortage instead of considering long-term efficiencies. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it's fundamental to human nature. With unemployment at an all-time low, many may realize that the staffing shortage is just the reality of our foreseeable future. Similar to what I mentioned us starting to see in the Spring, administrators may travel to these Fall conferences on a mission to find efficiencies they haven't considered before. They will think large and general questions like: "What can we do better?" and "What can we outsource?". Answers to those questions, the large and the small, can be found at these conferences.
Q: What are you looking forward to this Fall regarding the fall circuit?
Brendon: That's an easy one. The people. The people in this industry are special, and the energy shared at in-person conferences is a tremendous boost. We had a taste of it last Spring, but it feels like this coming Fall will be the total return. I'm looking forward to getting back out there and seeing people face-to-face.
Q: What are some key tips you have for new financial aid professionals entering this industry?
Brendon: This may not be a popular answer in some circles, but I would say "Rock the Boat". Change can be uncomfortable, but innovation doesn't happen without it. Question things that haven't been questioned in a while. Don't mistake a strong personality with experience for someone who must have all the answers. The answers change. You can be the person who finds the new one.