SymWest: The Organizers Tell All
By John San Filippo
Finopotamus was onsite in mid-April for SymWest, the eponymous conference hosted annually by SymWest, one of three independent Symitar Episys user groups to host such a conference. The other two groups are SymCentral and SymEast. Finopotamus had the opportunity to sit down with the conference organizers to discuss their efforts past, present and future. On hand for the discussion were KayCee Murray, SVP of IT and Facilities for Numerica Credit Union in Spokane Valley, Wash.; John Ryan, Director of Information Services for SELCO Community Credit Union in Springfield, Ore.; and Michelle Hatton, VP of Business Solutions at Solarity Credit Union in Yakima, Wash.
Three People, Many Hats
Asked about their individual roles, Murray, is the de facto leader, noted, “I develop the agenda and print the name tags. Michelle is responsible for all our emails. John always organizes the various events. We have a spreadsheet that we work our way through, with each of us taking on tasks as needed.”
“I handle the hotel contracting,” said Ryan. He added that this year’s planning included an unexpected change when the group realized it had originally scheduled SymWest for the same week as the Corelation user conference in San Diego. While this didn’t necessarily create a conflict for attendees, the organizers didn’t want to force potential exhibitors to choose between the two events.
A Long History
The organization, now known as SymWest, started as the Northwest Symitar Users Group. This group started out holding quarterly user meetings, each hosted at a credit union, about 18 years ago. Shortly thereafter, industry veterans Ray Rounds and Jim Holden, who both worked at Credit Union of Southern California at the time, organized a similar group called the Southwest Symitar Users Group.
Somewhere around 2010, the two groups decided to merge. “We partnered up, combined the two groups and decided to call it SymWest,” said Murray. By this time, the group was down to only two meetings per year.
“For a little while, we continued to do two meetings each year, but we soon cut that to one per year.” Each annual SymWest meeting takes place in a different city at a hotel or other meeting venue. This year’s event attracted about 70 credit union attendees and 35 exhibitors to The Graduate hotel in Eugene, Ore, which is down from a high of 110 attendees and 45 exhibitors pre-COVID-19.
It’s All About the Networking
“The most important thing for us is to create lots of opportunities for credit unions and vendors to network with each other so that we can help each other – figure out how to get past the common issues or come up with creative solutions to whatever it is,” said Murray. She added that one popular feature of the conference is called “What’s New at Your Credit Union?” This takes place during the opening general session, during which each attendee is invited to stand and present the various projects they’re working on. This helps attendees identify peers with common interests and issues.
“It's a really great place for new Symitar credit unions to get introduced to the community and learn a little bit more about Symitar from that perspective,” added Ryan. “It’s also important to me that we keep a laid-back feel that’s not too ‘corporatey’ or business like. That creates more of that community feel.” He noted that everyone – attendees and exhibitors alike – is invited to every session and every social event.
“Even the happy hour tonight is sponsored by a group of vendors, but everyone's allowed to participate, even the other vendors who may be competitors of the hosts,” said Hatton. “We're creating those opportunities for people to connect and network.”
Hatton also pointed out that SymWest isn’t strictly a technology conference. “We also try to keep a good balance between having things for technical folks as well as operational,” she noted. To this end, the breakout sessions follow two tracks: technical and operational.
And Then Came COVID
Like all other event organizers, SymWest faced unexpected challenges due to the sudden onset of the pandemic.
“We were all contracted to be in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, for our 2020 event,” said Murray. “It was scary because we’d already put out a lot of money for that event and COVID didn’t seem to hit very hard in Idaho. We weren’t sure how the venue would respond to a cancellation.”
In the end, the group had no choice but to cancel the event. Ryan said the venue was very understanding and accommodating. This led to the group rebooking for the same venue for SymWest 2023.
The group hosted a one-day virtual event in 2021 with mixed results.
According to Murray, when the group booked the 2022 event, COVID seemed somewhat under control, but that was before the winter surge. “We looked into event insurance at the time to see what there was for Covid and it was not helpful at all,” she said. The group chose to forge ahead regardless.
It seems that SymWest has hit on a formula that works. “We like to really embrace west coast casual,” concluded Murray. “That's our identity.”