The Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Annual Conference opened November 13 with the association’s unique “un” trade show—The Network. With no elaborate booths or collateral to get in the way of conversation, nearly 650 planners and hospitality partners gathered at the Grand Hyatt San Antonio to launch this year’s meeting experience by getting right down to business, meeting old friends and new partners at simple tabletops.

“Having the Network kick off the event gets everyone excited,” says Thrivent Financial's Dan Young, CMP, 2011 Conference Chair and FICP Past Chair. “They see their friends, get some business started, and that excitement rolls into the opening reception.” This year, Hilton Worldwide sponsored the opening evening event at Sunset Station—a Mexican fiesta with authentic food, dancers, and musicians.

In his welcome remarks November 14 FICP Chair Todd Zint, CMP, CMM, spoke to the conference theme, Partnerships Driving Results, by acknowledging the meeting industry’s recovery while encouraging the planners and suppliers in the audience to “remain steadfast” in leveraging their partnerships with each other.

Zint, vice president, meetings and event marketing, NFP, reviewed FICP’s ambitious goals for 2011, particularly in the area of membership. FICP saw a significant increase in membership in the past 12 months, welcoming 130 new members to drive total membership above the 500 mark. As part of the assocation’s outreach, Zint and FICP Executive Director Steve Bova, CAE, attended two of the industry’s biggest trade shows, IMEX Frankfurt and IMEX America.

One of FICP’s strategic priorities for 2012 is technology, Zint said, and at this year’s meeting that push is already in evidence. The first-ever Technology Showcase has brought together several vendors and FICP’s technology adviser, Stephen Nold, president of Tarsus Advon, to present hands-on sessions throughout the day November 14.

Even more interactive are the efforts by redbutton.tv to get the crowd tweeting—sharing thoughts and opinions to the hashtag #FICP11, which are scrolled live on screens in the ballroom and the “Buzz Lounge,” where attendees can get a crash course in social media from redbutton.tv’s energetic staff. Even attendees without Twitter accounts can get in on the action, entering and posting comments from computer stations and watching as those comments join the #FICP11 Twitter feed. Redbutton.tv’s “Button Pusher” Sam Stanton points out that for companies with privacy concerns or a majority of attendees who are not on Twitter, redbutton.tv can set up the whole system as a closed network, with comments entered at computer stations or from a conference app on attendees’ own smartphones.

Speaking of mobile apps, FICP created its first conference app with support from AllianceTech. It’s just the basics this year, including social media links, updated agenda information, news, and—hot off the camera—FICP’s new membership recruitment video. Perhaps the best comment in the video came from Steve Bova, who has worked with many organizations in his career as an association executive. “Every association thinks it is unique,” he said, “but this one truly is.”

Givng an association update to the gathering, Bova talked about FICP’s solid financial footing and its value to members, who pay less than $500 to attend a meeting that costs between $2,500 and $3,000 per attendee to put on. Making up the difference are FICP’s loyal sponsors—hence the importance of the Buy FICP campaign, which encourages planners always to consider FICP’s hospitality partners in their meeting buying process.

An evening event at San Antonio’s renowned Knibbe Ranch, a working cattle ranch owned by five generations of the same family, rounds out day two of the conference. The evening is sponsored by Marriott International, which as an exclusive partnership with the Knibbes to cater events on the property.

FICP’s annual conference runs through November 16.