By John San Filippo
Finopotamus had the opportunity to sit down with the organizers of SymEast, the eponymous conference hosted annually by SymEast, one of three independent Symitar Episys user groups to host such a conference. The other two groups are SymCentral and SymWest. On hand for the discussion were Joel Forbess, CEO of Kimberly Clark Credit Union in Memphis, Tenn.; Waltnita “Neets” Brown, vice president of deposit operations and e-services at Charter Oak Federal Credit Union in Waterford, Conn.; and Stanley Weschler, director of core systems at Andrews Federal Credit Union. All three volunteered countless hours to make the event a success.
A Long Time
Not one of the interviewees could remember exactly when the SymEast conference was launched. “No one can pinpoint when it exactly started, but it’s around 24, maybe 25, years ago,” said Brown. “I’ve been on the SymEast committee for 15 years.” Weschler has been on the committee for 14 years, while Forbess has served three years.
“We don’t have titles,” added Brown. “We’re just committee members.” Brown’s first involvement with the conference was as an attendee when her credit union was shopping for a new core processing platform. Her credit union eventually chose the Episys platform. That was 21 years ago.
“That first conference I attended was much smaller than the ones we have today,” said Brown. “Every year we get bigger and bigger and try to outdo ourselves.” This year’s event, the first regularly scheduled SymEast of the COVID-19 era, attracted more than 80 credit union attendees and more than 45 vendor exhibitors. It’s pre-pandemic peak, Brown noted, was more than double the number of attendees and around 60 exhibitors.
Weschler said that most attendees likely come to the conference for the same reasons he does. “I look at these conferences as an opportunity to speak to the vendors that we engage for solutions and have that one-on-one conversation, to look at vendor solutions, to compare solutions and to meet other credit unions who have similar problems, similar successes, and to collaborate,” he stated.
“I also think that this conference is more intimate than SEC,” added Brown. SEC is the Symitar Educational Conference, an annual national event hosted by Symitar’s parent company Jack Henry & Associates. She said because it’s a smaller event, SymEast attendees have greater access to vendors and Symitar representatives alike. “We're going to sit down at the bar, we’re going to have a drink and we're going to talk.”
Networking is key, according to Forbess. “Over the years, it's helped my credit union a lot because you have a chance to spend more time with people,” he said, adding that he especially gets value from talking to current users of exhibitor products he’s considering. “You get to hear the stories from them – the good and the bad and the ugly.”
Brown added that SymEast is uniquely welcoming to exhibitors. “Everyone is treated the same,” she noted. “Whether you're a vendor or you're a credit union attendee, you all go to the same events and eat the same meals together. Exhibitors are welcome to all the social events, too. I think at other conferences there's a line that gets drawn.”
The COVID Interruption
“We were scheduled to be in Atlanta in April of 2020,” Brown explained. “We canceled three weeks before the conference. I mean, we pushed it to the limit. Luckily we've been dealing with the Hyatt for years.”
Brown said that SymEast books it’s venues five years in advance. Factoring in the 15-plus year relationship, Hyatt allowed the organizers to cancel without financial penalty if the group promised to return to Hyatt properties for future events.
The committee never considered pivoting to a virtual event. “We've all attended virtual conferences and we know that they just don’t work,” said Brown.
“We reached out to the vendors,” added Forbess, “but they weren’t interested.”
“Unless I can physically be away from my desk, I'm going to have to work,” said Weschler. “That just takes precedence.”
When 2021 rolled around, April was out of the question due to the pandemic. However, with the pandemic dipping, the committee saw a window of opportunity in November of 2021 and scheduled an off-cycle conference that month in Louisville. That conference happened as planned, but attendance was understandably low. Brown said that some people opted to stay home rather than comply with the mask mandate that was in place at the time. Speaking of this year’s conference, she added, “It's scary because every week there's something new and you don't know if you're going to go back into pandemic mode.”
“Next year, hopefully we'll be back to a hundred percent -- back to normal numbers,” said Brown.
The group agreed that new exhibitors are always welcome at SymEast, but noted that they need to act early. “We always sell out our vendors,” said Brown. “We always have a waiting list for vendors.” She added that exhibit prices are so reasonable, even moderate booth success usually justifies the expense.