The U.S. has administered upwards of 305 million COVID-19 vaccine doses. Around two-thirds of us are going out to eat and seeing family and friends. In other words, the country is opening back up. Many Americans are beginning to ease into in-person gatherings and travel. And on the professional side, workers across industries are considering conferences to attend this summer.
As we hurtle back towards a semblance of normalcy in the events space, now is a great time to reconsider the conference model. As any professional in the space knows, conferences in the mortgage industry are plentiful. Still, many of these events are similar in terms of setting, structure, and speaker line-up.
While returning to pre-pandemic habits like the daily commute or going into an office, we’re reexamining pre-pandemic habits. In the same way, we should think through what we like—and don’t like—about conferences in the mortgage space.
We recently talked to NEXT Mortgage Events Co-founders Jeri Yoshida and Molly Dowdy on our Clear to Close podcast. The conversation ranged from using events to create a more inclusive industry to creative ways to make conferences more unique, meaningful, and fun. While interesting at any time, this discussion is especially intriguing right now. In returning to in-person events, we want to make sure we’re hosting (and attending) value-filled sessions. We want to use these conferences to build a better industry by giving voice to diverse, thoughtful perspectives.
This is what we learned from Jeri and Molly about how to create better events in the mortgage industry today. Heading back into the physical event world, we’d be wise to keep these pointers in mind.
1. Cater events to all guests (and pay attention to the details).
When Jeri and Molly set out to found NEXT, they had little experience in the events space. What they did have was knowhow about typical industry conferences and their narrow focus towards a male audience. Men headed up the vast majority of sessions. Event planners didn’t consider details like the physical distance between conference rooms, which could affect women in less-than-comfortable shoes.
“What we wanted was an experience where women executives could network with each other and learn from each other. The time had come for a meeting like NEXT,” said Jeri.
Jeri and Molly, using feedback from other women who commonly attended events, began to construct a thoughtful conference model. They wanted to cater the experience to the attendees. They aimed to create an inclusive environment that paid attention to details most conference planners might not notice. For instance, they grouped event rooms more closely together. They planned spaces for women to be able to show up and be comfortable and professional.
“Some of the things we had to think about and did intentionally were so minute that you wouldn’t think about if you hadn’t been in our shoes—literally,” Molly recalled.
2. Showcase the industry’s diverse talent and leadership.
Slowly but surely, the mortgage industry is changing. Major lending institutions like New American Funding (NAF) are building workforces that mirror the populations they serve. Of the 4,900 employees at NAF, 60% are female professionals and 46% are people of color.
Despite gradual progress, the lending space (and the financial sector in general) has a long way to go. According to a study by Deloitte, women made up 21.9% of leadership roles in financial services firms in 2019. By 2030, that number is expected to grow to 31%—progress but far from parity.
The mortgage events space has long mirrored this inequity. Speakers at conferences are by large majority white and male. Networking events frequently feel like “boys clubs.” When women are featured, it’s often to discuss stereotypically “female” topics like work-life balance.
This dynamic, among many others, creates a self-reinforcing cycle of power and influence in the industry. When women and other underrepresented groups are left out of networking opportunities and fail to achieve visibility at big-name events, they’re more likely to be passed up for promotions and more.
“Our vision for NEXT has always been an industry comprised of companies with senior executive teams that are representative of the people that they serve,” said Jeri. “That’s the only way you’re going to get any sort of balance and fairness to create the products that these people they need.”
Changing borrower demographics
In short, the mortgage industry needs to showcase diverse professionals in its events. That’s not only because those perspectives will make a richer workforce, but because leaders should represent the people they serve. In 2019, for the first time ever, more than half of the U.S. population under age 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Within this demographic, Latino or Hispanic and Black residents together comprise nearly 40% of the population. This trend is only accelerating.
If lending institutions hope to cater to their end consumers, they need to employ people who mirror those customers. It simply makes business sense. Showcasing this diverse talent at industry events is a solid step towards supporting that change.
3. Rethink networking opportunities.
A major reason conferences are so popular in the mortgage world is the networking. Some call it the “smallest big industry” because of how it runs on relationships. And that’s why it’s critical for events to get it right when it comes to building those connections.
Many mortgage conferences boast popular networking events that draw large crowds. Still, many of these events are either superficial, where attendees briefly exchange information, or center around drunken nights reminiscent of frat parties. While there’s absolutely a place for social bonding within the conference setting, it’s time to rethink the way networking is presented.
Creating a culture of lasting relationships
To build a culture that celebrates lasting bonds instead of just business card swaps, events should support an atmosphere that facilitates meaningful conversation. This means creating spaces that feel intimate and intentionally adding casual time to connect into the schedule. Good networking is also in the details of drinks offered, foods served, and even music played. Gearing these elements towards women and other underserved groups is key to attracting these demographics and making them feel comfortable.
“We wanted to create that female equivalent of the golf course where ideas are exchanged in passing,” commented Jeri regarding networking events at NEXT conferences. In the context of NEXT, that translates to higher-end drinks, the opportunity to win Tiffany’s bracelets, and a high lender-to-vendor ratio.
Not sure how to meet the needs of various types of conference attendees? Just ask. Feedback is a vital element to ensuring women and other professionals feel at home networking and learning at each event. For example, NEXT’s deep understanding of female executives is felt in each element of networking events, and their audience notices: Each of NEXT’s segments has achieved a Net Promotor Score (NPS) between 80 and 94 since inception, a rare achievement in the mortgage events space.
4. Prepare for a virtual/in-person hybrid future for mortgage events.
Many of us in the mortgage industry are excited to reunite in person at events this summer and fall. Still, professionals are being more selective about the conferences they plan to attend in person. That sentiment may never change.
“I think the new norm is going to be a combination and a hybrid going forward,” commented National Association of Realtors (NAR) CEO Bob Goldberg. “You will have as many in-person meetings as you can because our industry is all about working with and meeting people—people love to hug and smile and be with each other. That’s where this industry is. But I think you’re going to also have a very strong combination of a virtual meeting that utilizes technology.”
Specifically, the mortgage industry will benefit from continuing to offer the option of virtual events, but making those events competitive with an in-person experience. This can be achieved through the use of new technologies and an emphasis on virtual happy hours and networking spaces.
“I think we’re going to be able to stand up with a much livelier, more engaging, entertaining and educational event than the virtual capabilities allowed a decade ago,” commented HousingWire publisher Clayton Collins. “Time will tell with execution and engagement. Do we and can we step up to a product that people actually want to continue with, even after we’re able to get on planes again?”
For NEXT, virtual events have been unexpectedly popular—and Jeri and Molly don’t plan on discontinuing that option even as in-person conferences start back up. They’ve used feedback, such as suggestions for more breaks so no one misses content and plenty of time to socialize, to make the virtual conference a success in its own right.
Leveraging events for industry change
Regardless of format, the women of NEXT continue on their mission of building a diverse community that champions inclusion and growth in the mortgage industry.
“There’s plenty of room for more voices in our industry,” commented Molly. “There are multiple viewpoints that are never expressed that are just as valid and even more important as the same viewpoints we see expressed again and again.”
Whether virtual or in-person, Jeri and Molly are just getting started showcasing women leaders and giving platform to the industry’s talented, diverse voices of tomorrow.