TD Ameritrade’s 2010 National Conference is still about three weeks away but its buzz is preceding it. People get excited before big conferences though nobody can ever explain precisely why they go to TD’s conference or any other. On a stand-alone basis, glitzy speakers, pithy classes [in windowless rooms], chicken lunches and acres of marketing booths offering free pens are not enough. But if it’s all thrown together artfully — and enough people of influence show up — RIAs come away with a sense that three days away from family and businesses was well worth their time and money. The TD conference has always had one ingenious aspect to it. It occupies a space on the calendar where it is neither competing with the events of other custodians, industry organizations or anybody’s plans for vacation travel. It is also held each year in a sunny place in the dead of the winter. This year TD isn’t resting on those laurels, and this article shows what I mean by that.

TD Ameritrade Institutional had its national conference in Las Vegas last year but it bet much bigger on its 2010 event in Orlando, Fla., by plunking down mega-speaking fees to bring both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The idea is to use the ex-presidents to draw a critical mass of financial advisors and other industry providers to one place, where TD Ameritrade is the host. It can be credited rightfully by those advisors with promoting the vital exchanges of ideas and good will.

The event runs from Feb. 3 through Feb. 5 at the Rosen Shingle Creek resort. TD has about $100 billion of assets in custody from about 4,000 financial advisors.

So far TD’s gamble appears to be paying off.

Double the rate

The Jersey City-based asset custodian is registering advisors for its 2010 event at double the rate it did for the same event held last year in Las Vegas, according to Paul Zettl, managing director of institutional marketing and corporate events for TD.

“It’s definitely running ahead of our plan,” he says. “The interest has been just incredible.”

Zettl adds that he doesn’t expect that attendance by RIAs will end up doubling the 900 RIAs who showed up for last year’s event. But he does believe that it’ll finish significantly higher. As a point of reference, there were 1,200 RIAs who attended Schwab’s IMPACT 2009 conference in September.

TD is also experiencing a jump in the exhibitors who sign up to promote their services in the booth pavilion, though Zettl declined to give any specifics.

700 registered representatives

In part the final attendance depends on invitations that TD just sent out. The custodian asked 700 registered representatives to come as guests to its conference.

Also last-minute was the signing of Terry Bradshaw, the ex-Pittsburgh Steeler, as an extra speaker.

The atmosphere of TD going all-out to bring RIAs a big event amid lackluster economic conditions is commendable, according to Joe Anthony, senior vice president of financial media relations for Gregory FCA Communications of Ardmore, Pa.

“I applaud their efforts to be aggressive when other people are confused about whether to invest in marketing themselves,” he says. TD is wise to spend aggressively on marketing as the number three custodian in the industry, he adds.

The Investment Management Consultants Association also reports a healthy increase for the conference it just held in New York.

“Attendance is up about 6% from last year’s conference,” says Beau Ballinger, spokesman for the Denver, Colo.-based group from the event last week. “We have more than 850 attendees here, 750 of which are individual advisor, consultant, etc. attendees. The others include sponsors, exhibitors, press, speakers, etc.”

Supreme leader

Here are a couple of ways that TD is leaving little to chance in terms of making a splash with its conference. It is bringing a supreme leader of the TD ecosystem, Ed Clark, down from Canada to speak. He is the CEO of TD Bank, a shareholder with a 45% stake in TD Ameritrade, and this is the first time he has spoken at the company’s national event. Clark will speak on global banking.

For the first time TD has a hired a general session speaker, Joel Bruckenstein, an industry technology consultant and publisher of Virtual Office News, for its pre-conference workshop.

Still observers say that headline speakers are really only the icing on the cake.

“I don’t think you have to get uber-expensive speakers,” Anthony says. “In the end they have to produce useful content or people will put it on the back burner the next year.”

Michael Wilson, director of marketing for Morningstar Advisor Solutions, and a conference registrant, agrees.

“I think the big-name speakers are helpful to draw people to the conference, but is not the real reason people attend,” he says. “It might be what they talk about when they tell their friends or colleagues about the conference, but I think the real reason advisors attend conferences is that they are looking to broaden their knowledge of investing, marketing, technology solutions, etc.”

Track record

On the other hand, Bill Clinton has a good track record of drawing RIAs. He drew big crowds to Schwab’s 2004 IMPACT conference a few years ago — without help from the Florida sun, Anthony notes.

“That was a cold November week in Philadelphia,” he says wryly.