11 Ideas to Organize an Event Family Offices Want to Attend

Lots of event planners and anyone raising capital want to attract family offices. But how?  

I’ve identified a range of best practices that I’ve seen other organizations use in serving the family office community, in roughly declining order of impact:

1. Advertise that the event is strictly gated to family offices, and detail how you curate.  Many family offices think like Woody Allen- “I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” Tabor Capital’s website is a good example of surfacing the metrics showing how actively their attendees are allocating. The Family Office Association, Family Office Exchange, and TFOA are membership networks, so their incentives are set up to strictly gate members, although at the same time they have an incentive to grow their member base. This is particularly important given the potential for fraud in the family office world

Ironically, Adrian Zalucka of Family Wealth Report observes, “Depending on the objective of the event, it might be worth allowing guests to remain incognito, so long as the organiser verifies their background is genuine and qualifies them to participate.”  She observes that verification of bonafides is difficult in the family office space because information is often hard to verify, so having lengthy experience in the space matters a lot. 

Bill Sullivan, President, Family Office Exchange, said, “We are very selective in our selection of new members. We go beyond just demographics (the median investable assets of members is $500 million and over 60% operate a business). We pay careful  attention to whether they will be a fit in our community. FOX members are continuous learners and enjoy networking with others to share best practices and achieve impact with their wealth.” I asked him how he assesses fit, given the typical discretion of the family office community. He said, “We spend a lot of time up-front understanding the prospective members’ challenges and assessing how we can help them solve for their issues. Evaluating if they will be a good fit for the network is the most challenging part. But it’s no different than hiring new employees and determining if they will be a good cultural fit. The more you do it, the better you become at it. Keep in mind that a majority of our new members are referred by existing members, so we typically get some insights from peers who know them well.” I asked him what makes for a good fit. He said, people “who are curious and life-long learners. We’re not a good fit for individuals that already have all the answers. “

Chris Shen, cofounder, RevereVC, observes, “While Western families tend to really build out the administrative, tax, and estate planning aspects of their family offices, most family offices in Asia start as  deal engines that seek yield, burnish the family’s core assets, and oftentimes (in line with the entrepreneurial streak of these families) are seen as a completely new line of business for the families, who do not see significant upside in machinery, real estate, etc., or more importantly, don’t have the requisite succession planning in place to continue to operate these businesses. There is also an interesting phenomenon that has seen Asia family offices hire investment teams, get licensed, and then convert to regulated asset management entities or funds that bring in third party capital that are usually within that family’s network.” This raises an issue of whether you want to include as attendees family offices that are also asset gatherers. Whatever your criteria are, I recommend internal consistency, or you’ll end up offending someone.

2. Keynote speakers who are members of the family office community. It’s attractive to include authors and celebrities as speakers, but even better are well known people from the family office community. And even better, if those members have relevant domain expertise. For example, DC Finance is one of the few family office conferences with a focus on investing in technology. One of their recent speakers was Billy Draper, a 4th generation tech investor from the “first family of venture capital”. Also relevant are mass media celebrities (actors, musicians) who are also investors: Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, and many others. Zalucka recommends testimonials from named principals at known family offices to build trust with new guests.

3. Ideally, event is sponsored by a single family office. Chris Shen said, “The ultra, ultra wealthy in Asia generally won’t do events with strangers and certainly won’t attend family office events (in-person or virtual). They have their own events where they’ll host a small group of peers and may bring in a fund manager or two to discuss ideas – a new take on a “pitch” meeting. I’d also add that the avoidance of events is also due to some sort of language barrier, security element or general focus on keeping a lower profile for these patriarchs/matriarchs. They’ll dispatch their senior chief of staff or investment team, or even the next gens. A lot of the next gens have inherited this discretion from their parents so rarely try to market themselves, and keep to their circles as well.”

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4. Unusual experiences. Money can buy almost any product, but not any experience. Offer people the chance to experience something unusual, e.g., the Milken Institute hosting George W. Bush at one of their events. Context Summits recently offered a morning workout session at their conferences led by a former competitor in American Ninja Warrior, a perfect example of offering simultaneously a health-conscious bonding experience plus an unusual experience. Opal Group’s Family Office & Private Wealth Management Forum begins their conference with an annual Regatta Cup race.

5. Discussion of sensitive topics. A good rule of event planning: don’t offer any content which is readily obtainable via Google. At one family office conference, I moderated a panel of next-generation family members. I made a point of discussing (with advance approval) sensitive topics such as: 

  • What did you like and dislike about how your family brought you up, and what do you want to do the same and differently in raising your own children?
  • How and when do you decide to get involved with the family business? 
  • How can you be a responsible shareholder, i.e., why and how can you educate yourself in the best way possible?
  • As a young person, how do you present your ideas to the family and have them take you seriously? 
  • How do you handle relationships with in-laws?  
  • Who do you define who is in the family: spouses, divorcees, adopted children, estranged cousins….
  • One principal suggested, “Who am I? Where do I come from? What is my story? Where do I want to go? How to make my plans and values consistent?”

6. Strong moderation. Many moderators ask softball questions, particularly if they’re service providers selling to the people they’re moderating. I personally like academics or other people with a strong research background as moderators, because they tend to ask better questions. For family and by family is ideal, if you can create get the right people. For more on this, see How to organize a conference (and panels) that add value.

7. Formalized self-introductions. Family office members are sometimes hesitant to talk too much about themselves. To help ameliorate this, you can organize private get-togethers, with a moderator who requests each family to introduce themselves. 

8. Highly customized gatherings. Certain family offices may express a desire for a tightly defined gathering. I’m the Founder of Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of NY, now the largest angel network on the East Coast. We hold monthly pitch nights for our members, plus regular educational events, tightly focused on the interests of East Coast angel investors. One family office principal said, “A select small group with bios and personal introductions can work when there is a common area of interest. There needs to be a compelling reason to ‘out’ your wealth. If you have old money, you don’t talk about it, you let people find out subtly, if helpful.”

9. Health-conscious environment. The family office community are exactly the population which eats organic, hires a private chef, works out regularly, and is sensitive to the long term benefits of paying attention to your wellbeing. When organizing in-person events, I recommend serving people health-conscious food, organizing group workout sessions/jogs, and making sure the hotel has a high quality gym. For more, see How to Keep Your Conference Attendees Alive. At the same time, you can also organize a raucous party.

10. Play to peoples’ passions. For example, many people in the family office community are interested in art, so numerous family office organizations host their Miami conferences alongside Art Basel Miami. One principal said, “Really wealthy people have substantive problems that others with the same problem can understand. Ironically, for some, the wealth can be isolating. For example, I would find it offensive to chat about my role as a board member with my friend who is working to pay the mortgage.”

11. Pick a logical venue for your target audience, assuming your event is face to face and not virtual. Some family office events pick convenient locations in business areas, e.g., midtown Manhattan. In my experience, these tend to attract more of the younger people, and/or people who are still working full time as opposed to retired. Others pick exclusive, expensive locations, which will require numerous attendees to fly in — think Miami or Aspen. This tends to attract more of the retired/semi-retired. Both options are fine, as long as the agenda is aligned with the attendees’ interests. 

Victor Park, CEO, CapitalIntroductions.com, suggests, “Consider small family office dinners sponsored by a presenting company or fund. Family offices don’t mind being pitched, as long as the family offices significantly outnumber the Fund/deal personnel that will be at the dinner.” (It appears the link itself from above is missing its final “s”).

Zalucka observed, “My ideal format would be a hybrid event truly bringing together live and virtual audiences. This is a complex task to pull off and best practices are still emerging. A hybrid format offers great flexibility for both the organizers and the attendees, who can cut out travel and join only the sessions they really want to. We are also creating a variety of meaningful networking and peer sessions, which can be both less awkward and more efficient when held virtually.”

12. High percentage of agenda devoted to meeting other attendees, not speakers. Sarah Shewey, Founder, Happily, said, “Plan for equal parts presentation time to networking time – that’s where the real magic of attending a family event becomes apparent. When meeting virtually, try a few rounds of breakouts with 4 people max for 10-15 minutes, and invite everyone to share a social handle in the chat for followups after the event.“

13. Lastly, privacy. Tim Friedman, Founder, PEStack, and Venture Partner with Versatile VC, said, “Best practice would be to not sell the contact details of your members / attendees to IRs, and if you do, be transparent about it! Lots of these single family offices are intentionally private and want reassurance that attending an event won’t lead to their names being added to a database which leads to hundreds of unsolicited calls. Privacy is important. There were times at Preqin where we would add a new family office to the database, and they would get hammered by so many fundraising professionals that they would call us and beg for their details to be taken down. It doesn’t matter how specific the family office is about their investment criteria or outreach preferences, many IR professionals will ignore all of this, if there is even the tiniest chance of getting an investment.” 

Further reading: 

Published in Venture Capital Journal. Thanks to Greg Weyerhaeuser Piasecki and some anonymous sources for thoughtful feedback.

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