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Politics & Money

Business conferences that speak to us well

A lot of what I’ve been talking about in this column over the past few weeks has been about how we, as an industry, communicate with those parties that impact our businesses, employees, partners, regulators, legislators and borrowers.

Much of the time, as it turns out, it doesn’t look like we put a great deal of thought into what we communicate before we send it out there.

The traditional communications model requires that a sender and a receiver both be connected via the same medium. At least the two parties have that in common. Sometimes, I wonder if we can hope to get much more than that in our industry. It seems that everywhere I look I see examples of people in our industry attempting to communicate ideas that are important to them in ways that make absolutely no sense to me or the people they are targeting with these messages.

Sometimes, I think it just comes down to a matter of perspective. If the two parties are starting at such extreme distances of opinion, it can be really, really hard to create messages on either side that will have an impact on the other. Like attorneys making laws using a micro detailed-oriented perspective instead of a big picture view or industry professionals (say brokers or appraisers) speaking rationally about things that impact their income negatively, sometimes we’re just not capable of seeing the forest for the trees and therefore can’t communicate a path through the woods.

Most of the time, if we invest a little time in thinking about the message we really want to communicate and about the impact and results we want that message to produce, we can do a fairly good job of getting the right message out there. I once read that good writing is a result of clear thinking. I think that pertains equally well to communication through any other channel. Investing a bit of time to clarify our thinking is an excellent first step in effective communication.

The next step is choosing the channel or medium we’ll communicate through. Today, we have a lot more media than ever before. My team is at the Mortgage Banker’s Association’s technology show this week, and we’ve been sending news out to our friends via Twitter since the show started. There are other New Media channels our industry will be exploring in the future. But one medium that won’t be going away soon is the live business conference.

Communication takes place on so many different levels at the live conference that it’s almost impossible to track. People are meeting in hallways, elevators, exhibit halls and in session rooms. They rent suites, host lunches or dinners or parties and even charter boats for evening excursions. But the staple form of communication that the live conference is built around is the conference session. I find this to be, fairly consistently, the lowest value form of communication that goes on at a live conference. But it shouldn’t be.

When you are spending more than $1,000 on a pass to get into sessions at a major industry show, you would expect, I would think, to have some important questions answered, to learn something that will make you more successful, maybe even to be surprised by something. I have found that this happens rarely in our industry. The best evidence I have for this is the large percentage of attendees that show up at an industry conference but don’t even bother to buy a badge.

Not all conference sessions are content challenged, to be sure, but those that are, are usually led by speakers who either can’t talk about what they do for compliance reasons or because the executive on the panel doesn’t have direct knowledge of that part of the business, or they speak about their success in such a specific manner that it doesn’t address the larger issue and therefore doesn’t apply to most of the attendees. These are the guys who will go on at length about how they integrated their system to a major investor’s technology in a very short time frame and for a very reasonable amount of money without telling you why they performed the integration in the first place. Yes, we understand that you’re a really great company and have smart people working for you, but why was your approach the answer to the larger problem the session promised to address?

Of course, one hurdle that every conference session must overcome is the fact that there is only so much information we can share with each other without making it look like we’re limiting competition or fixing prices. There are specifics we just can’t get into in our business conferences and that’s probably good. But conference planners should still strive to put enough solid, actionable information into every session to justify the price of admission.

I think the reason why that doesn’t happen very often is because the way we choose conference sessions is flawed. Back when I was setting up conferences for Thomson Financial, my editorial director would come into my office, tell me the type of conference he would like and then give me a deadline for setting the agenda and inviting the speakers. It was a great exercise because it was always a show centered in one of my beats, and I already knew most of the hot topics the publication’s readers wanted to know about.

It wasn’t perfect, because I didn’t know every possible speaker and there were probably some hot topics that would get left out. Later, when the company moved the conference department to another business unit and then asked people who knew nothing about our industry to set up the shows, it got a lot worse.

When someone is trying to set an agenda for a show focused on something outside of their area of expertise, pretty much the only thing they can do is set up an online form, try to get as many session proposals as possible and then use an advisory council or some other informed body to winnow them down into a decent agenda. In my experience, this hasn’t really resulted in that many great conferences.

So, how can we do a better job of providing real value in the sessions of our future business conferences? One way would be to let the people attending the conference vote on the sessions and the speakers. If you pay the fee, before a certain time, you get to select three sessions from the list of those that were vetted by the conference planners. Those sessions with the most votes get on the agenda, with the highest voted sessions earliest in the show. Time frames would be challenging because you’d have to offer plenty of lead time, but it would almost certainly increase the number of attendees interested in coming out for a show.

Would it make every conference great? Probably not. What it would do would be to give the people footing the bill for the event a voice in the information presented to them.

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