by Kinley Welly | June 01, 2011
But some conferences are thrown curveballs in the form of catastrophic events that impact how attendees will work in the year to come. Such is the case for planners of insurance meetings, for whom events like the earthquake in Japan and the flooding of the Mississippi River are not just tragedies to read about in the newspaper, but disasters to be quickly incorporated into the content of their events so that insurance agents can learn to do their jobs better. 

Feeling the Heat
The Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc. (RIMS) runs its Annual Conference and Exhibition each April/May, and although much of the conference schedule is set long before the event, a select group of “Hot Topic” sessions remain open, pending both submissions from members and world events that would be of value to discuss with attendees. 

“We spend the summer going through submissions and selecting programming. At that time we try to hold open two to three [agenda] slots, of 140 or so, for Hot Topics as they present themselves,” says Scott Beckman, vice president of claims for ISMIE Mutual Insurance Company in Chicago, and vice chair of the programming committee for the RIMS Annual Conference and Exhibition and chair for next year’s conference in Philadelphia. 

“We never close the doors to these sessions. We can’t say, this year we’ll only have two sessions, or three. You have to give yourself flexibility to say that this topic is worth adding,” says Beckman. “You have to ask, ‘Is the subject matter not covered in any other sessions? Can we help guide them? Has the subject matter not had much exposure yet?’ You lose the essence of what a Hot Topic is if you include something that people will say they’ve heard about for three or four years. You can’t compromise the essence of these sessions.” 

The approach of the RIMS programming committee translates well to other verticals—establishing most of the material, while determining a set of sessions devoted to timely material as the event nears. And sourcing speakers at the last minute—perhaps the biggest reason to avoid leaving sessions unsettled—has not proved a problem for Beckman and his associates. “You build your database and build relationships, and you know who has done certain things in certain industries,” which establishes a good base of experts from which to draw. 

For this year’s conference, two Hot Topic sessions were well underway: “If You Must Let the Bedbugs Bite, Make Sure You’re Covered” and “War Zone Insurance and Risk Management.” 

After the earthquake occurred, “we got together and had the discussion of whether we can pull this together in a three-week time period and create a session that we think would be very well attended,” explains Beckman. At that point, the programming committee explores “who would be the subject matter experts who could speak best on this? Then we start to put a session together,” says Salvatore Chiarelli, director of meetings and events for RIMS.

This year, “The Insurance Implications of Japan’s Devastation and its Global Impact” was added as a third Hot Topic session—it did not replace a planned session. “We want to serve the membership and give them something really timely. We are trying to give a learning experience,” says Beckman. 

And as it happened, the president of RIMS was in Japan at the time of the earthquake, working with local members. He agreed to speak at the 
session, offering his unique perspective on the disaster and aftermath. 

Because of the experience level and depth of knowledge among members, they are often an excellent resource for session content. Chiarelli says that members “often come to us and say they would like to coordinate a session” on a particular topic or event, and if the members’ ideas for session content match with the type of information RIMS is hoping to offer, then the two parties proceed. All in all, “it comes together fairly seamlessly.”

Do What Can Be Done
RIMS was not the only insurance group able to hear firsthand accounts of the events in Japan at its conference this year; the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America Inc. was set to have 11 insurance agents from Japan attend its annual Legislative Conference and Convention in April, just weeks after the earthquake and resulting tsunami. 

All of the attendees who were planning to come to the conference were safe, and while some were unable to attend, eight of the expected 11 made it to the event. “They felt like they needed to be there—like it was important to come,” says Lauren Batch, manager of events and international memberships for the group. 

Although session content remained as planned, the disaster was addressed during the conference, and a $10,000 contribution was made to relief efforts via a disaster relief fund.  

“This fund is a great way to show our ongoing support as an industry for victims of disasters and to assist independent agents, industry colleagues, and others during their greatest time of need,” says Dave Evans, executive director of Trusted Choice Disaster Relief Fund, which makes cash grants to insurance industry members to cover costs and damages associated with natural or man-made disasters. 

“We have an international membership base, and our Japanese insurance agents donated money to help with relief efforts when Hurricane Katrina happened, so when the earthquake in Japan happened, we wanted to reciprocate,” explains Batch. At the conference, the chairman and president/CEO presented a check to the Japanese agents and one of the agents said a few words. 

For Batch, this meant simply adding a brief opportunity to speak to the day’s schedule—nothing elaborate was necessary, but the impact was substantial; attendees were able to take a moment to understand the magnitude of the event and how it impacted individuals, which is really the heart of what insurance meeting attendees will deal with in the coming year.