I’m back from Vegas and exhausted. But not for the reasons you think.

I attended the AICPA’s Advanced Personal Financial Planning conference — or as I’ve taken to calling it, my annual cram session. This is the most intensive technical conference I attend, one that plies me with the knowledge, network and new ideas I need to get my clients ahead in the New Year.

Over three days there were over 22 hours of content in four different tracks (wealth management, investment management, practice management and retirement/elder planning) with 60-plus sessions from some of the leading thinkers in their fields. See: The killer cheat sheet of just where RIA clients stand after the near-cliff experience.

With speakers like Michael Kitces, Roger Gibson, Harold Evensky, Dr. David Kelly, Carl Richards, Bob Keebler, Jim Shambo, Wade Pfau and more, you can’t help but feel challenged by the material. If you are looking for a boondoggle, this isn’t it.

As Bob Veres, publisher of Inside Information, has said, “the people that put this conference together are not afraid to challenge the attendees with material that might be over their heads.” See: Joel Bruckenstein and Bob Veres part ways to do their own conferences.

CPA pride

The buzz at the conference was high for many reasons. First, this conference has been growing 10% to 20% steadily over the last five years or so and the energy and momentum can be felt in the air. Advisors packed the hallways and seating areas discussing the sessions.

Second, there is an intense pride in the CPA community about providing financial planning services that creates a strong sense of willingness to share.

And finally, as the first conference of the year there is always a sense of fresh-start energy amongst the crowd.

Global perspectives

David Kelly of JPMorgan Chase & Co. Inc. kicked off the conference with a keynote presentation. Kelly never fails to share interesting slides from his famous Guide to the Markets that make for clear and compelling points. He discussed why he thinks Americans are overweighted in fixed income and why equities are undervalued, among other topics.

Reva Bhalla, leading expert on Middle Eastern, South Asian and Latin American affairs for Washington, D.C.-based Stratfor also spoke. http://www.aicpaconferencematerials.com/sec/?select=speaker&speakerID=4304

Not too 'Vegas-y’

The conference grew by more than 30% this year with around 1,100 attendees participating, the highest in its 26-year history. And as Michael Kitces of Kitces.com has been quoted as saying, “The conference has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years and is now what I would consider the premier advanced technical content event for financial planners.”

The conference was held at the Aria in Las Vegas, the same place as last year, and it’s already been booked for the Aria next year. For those of you that have not been to the Aria, it is a top-tier hotel, yet is the least “Vegas-y” of the Vegas hotels. It’s neatly located in City Center and close to everything, however, it is nice that you don’t need to go through a smoke-filled casino to get from your room to the conference area. Further, the conference area is bright with lots of sunlight so you don’t feel like you are indoors all day.

“I got more good information in this one meeting than in any two combined since, well, the last AICPA Advanced PFP conference,” says Veres.

Non-CPAs welcome, too

That’s by design, according to Scott Sprinkle, the conference chairman. He and the conference committee set out every year with a single goal: Ensure that every attendee walks away with at least one new advanced planning idea. That’s no small feat, given the audience — which includes CPA/PFSs, CFPs, CFAs, RIAs, estate attorneys and other professionals who manage some of the most complex financial plans in the country.

The AICPA’s Personal Financial Planning Section has opened up its doors to non-CPAs in recent years due to the demand to receive the member-only resources. Bob Keebler and Michael Kitces were on hand to give presentations hot off the presses that helped attendees navigate how the introduction of the American Taxpayer Relief Act on Jan. 1 and the enactment of the new 3.8% Medicare surtax impact planning going forward.

ATRA and the new surtax have added more complexity to the tax laws than I have seen in my career. You now have to consider five layers of complexity (regular tax, alternative minimum tax, Medicare surtax and reintroduction of the phaseout in itemized deductions and the increased 39.6% bracket — which also throws in a higher capital gains rate — in conjunction with running multiyear scenarios to gain a clear picture of the tax landscape. See: RIAs see mostly silver linings in the wake of Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare.

Tax laws have become much more complex and the integration of tax planning with your client’s investment, retirement and estate planning strategy is critical to achieving long term favorable outcomes. Now that we have some clarity on the income and estate law, it is important to educate clients and create multiyear plans to manage the multiple income tax thresholds, varying sources of taxable income and the return of the phaseout in deductions at certain income levels. See: Advisors need to deliver a reality check to clients about 2013 tax changes barreling down the pike.

“The importance of tax planning being integrated with your client’s overall personal financial planning has always been a focus of the AICPA’s Personal Financial Planning Section and is even more significant today with the increasingly complex tax environment. This conference emphasized this aspect and the key role that CPA financial planners take in working with their clients,” said Lyle Benson, CPA/PFS, CFP, chairman of the AICPA’s Personal Financial Planning Executive Committee.

Ask the tech experts

The sold-out exhibit hall was a great place to explore and learn as well, since I view technology as one of the most critical elements to success in my business. I was most impressed with the technology exhibitors, including companies such as PIEtech, provider of MoneyGuidePro, AssetBook Inc., Redtail Technology Inc., Junxure and Total Rebalance Expert.

And nothing beats having unbiased experts such as Joel Bruckenstein and Bill Winterberg on hand as speakers to ask their advice. See: What Messrs. Bruckenstein, Drucker and Veres cooked up in a Chicago airport hotel.

Another highlight was the social-media tutorials led by a social-media expert from the AICPA who was on hand to show attendees how to use Twitter and other social-media platforms. See: Seven things advisors need to know about social media.

It seems that the AICPA Advanced PFP Conference is what the industry was lacking, which explains its growth: A conference with strong technical content and comprehensive, rich education from the nation’s best speakers coupled with an engaged social environment to foster networking and community in the profession. Next year’s conference is scheduled for Jan. 20-22. Once again, the Aria in Las Vegas is surely going to be the place to be.

_Michael Goodman is the president of Wealthstream Advisors, Inc., an RIA he founded in New York City. Michael is passionate about continued learning and advancing the profession. _