02/05/2010

New Venue Tops Conferencegoers' Wish Lists

The American Securitization Forum's annual conference won't return to the Washington area if industry players get their way.

This year's version of the event, "ASF 2010," took place Jan. 31-Feb. 3 at the Gaylord National Hotel in Oxon Hill, Md. By the time it wrapped up, many of the summit's 4,400 registrants had come to the conclusion that a change of venue should be on the agenda for 2011.

The main reason: Most feel the winter gathering should take place in a warmer climate, preferably somewhere with more places to entertain clients.

So where would market participants prefer to go? Many are calling for a return to Las Vegas, where the conference took place the four previous years. Some suggest Scottsdale, Ariz., where it was staged for two years before that as the successor to a long-running confab put on by Strategic Research Institute.

ASF, meanwhile, has posted a brief survey on its Web site in which conferencegoers can weigh in on 16 possible cities for next year's conference. It's under the "Featured Events" listing at americansecuritization.com, and an e-mail version is slated to go out to 2010 attendees today.

ASF executive director Tom Deutsch said the feedback he receives will ultimately determine next year's location, and that a decision is likely by the end of February. Arizona is already out of the running, however, as there are no hotels in the state that can house such a large assemblage.

As for Washington, it didn't help that temperatures during this year's event never rose above freezing or that it snowed all four days. The heaviest snowfall came the evening before the conference concluded on Wednesday, prompting some to leave early.

Being about eight miles from Capitol Hill came with another downside: The presence of lawmakers and regulators loomed large for sector professionals growing weary of increasing government scrutiny. While most conference participants said they appreciated the input of federal officials who participated in virtually every panel discussion, some felt they were being scolded at times.

U.S. Assistant Treasury Secretary Michael Barr, the keynote speaker, drew complaints that he unnecessarily politicized his address with warnings that the Treasury won't let the industry escape new regulations. "That guy sounded like he was running for president or something. Who does he think he is, Obama?" one banker said.

The presence of government types, 250 in all, also put a damper on behavior that would have seemed routine in the past - as some conference participants chose to play it safe from an entertainment-spending standpoint. Rating agencies even barred their staffers from attending big parties thrown by the likes of Bank of America. Their fear: Food and drinks served at the shindigs would violate SEC rules prohibiting them from accepting gifts worth more than $25 from clients.

Deutsch said that while some delegates go to the conference for activities and functions, most go for business meetings. He added that an ASF survey in November showed overwhelming support for a Washington destination. "I do think there is a tremendous amount of support for a location like Washington that is strictly business," Deutsch said. "In an economy that has a 10% unemployment rate, conducting business is exactly what our industry needs to concentrate on."

The Gaylord National Hotel itself also drew some grumbling. Vendors working booths in the building's first-floor exhibition hall complained that attendees bypassed them to congregate on the second and third levels, near where many panels and one-on-one meetings were taking place. Many also headed for seating on the ground level, where shops and bars are located.

The only real source of traffic for vendors was a Monday evening cocktail reception in the exhibition hall. "If they hadn't done that there would have been a revolt," one vendor said.

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