What a week in San Francisco! I had been waiting with baited breath for the launch of the Mid-Sized Retirement and Healthcare Plan Management Conference. Our new format—which combined the individual retirement and healthcare programs we’ve run for 20 years—seems to have hit on all cylinders. We are very proud!

For those of you who have attended our prior conferences, rest assured that the educational base of these programs has not changed. Through our own research and that of others we have spoken with, we learned there was a lot of interest in being able to attend a single program that would deal with issues in both of these benefit areas.

There was a strong mix of sessions on retirement plan management and health/welfare plan issues. The first three keynote sessions focused on the retirement plan world, while the next two were healthcare based. The issues were wide ranging, with an overlap from some of the behavioral finance topics. (For instance, inertia is a difficult issue to overcome in both retirement plans and healthcare programs, and there were plenty of examples of ways plan sponsors can combat that problem.)

The Supreme Court hearings on the healthcare laws were also widely discussed. Although no one can say for sure what the outcome will be, as you’d expect there is a great deal of interest and divergent opinions. I joined in a number of discussions during our networking sessions on this debate…wine definitely helped!

There was also a pretty strong interest in the 408(b)(2) and 404(a)(5) fee regulations. It will be interesting to see what happens when the first set of reports from the new regulations start getting delivered to plan sponsors in July.

Our keynotes got off to a very strong start, with Gerry Mullane, a Principal at Vanguard’s Institutional Investor Group, delivering our opening address. Gerry’s topic was Benchmarking Trends in DC Retirement Plans. He previewed some data that will be included in Vanguard’s 2012 How America Saves market research report. Gerry has an incredible grasp of the information contained in the reports. Particularly revealing was information that showed that although auto-pilot programs are very effective, they can have the unwanted effect of lowering overall contribution rates if they are designed improperly. This is a very important piece of information for plan sponsors to keep in mind to make sure they are implementing auto-pilot programs correctly.

(If you’re a market research junkie like I am, you really owe it to yourself to read Vanguard’s reports. Although the 2012 version won’t be out until June, prior versions are available on their website.)

Following the morning workshops, Vince Giovinazzo gave the lunchtime keynote address on Plan Design Inflection Points: Enhancing Participant Outcomes. Vince is the CEO and founder of 401(k) Advisors. I’m very proud that Vince said that I was only the third person ever to pronounce his name correctly when introducing him. (OK, I admit, I messed it up during my morning introductory comments, but at least I got it right the second time around!) Vince’s talk was right on point. He used a number of different references to illustrate various strategies for getting employees to participate—and how to get them to participate at reasonable contribution levels. Experts—including Vince—say that a 12-15% contribution (employee & employer) is a reasonable level for people to save if they expect to be able to accumulate enough funds for a comfortable retirement. If employees are starting late, that number probably needs to be even higher.

Tuesday morning opened with David Gray from Charles Schwab. (I love David’s title—Vice President of Client Experience!) David completed our keynote journey around the retirement plan world with his presentation titled “Evolving the 401(k) Plan.” David first took us on a look back through the old days of balance forward accounting and defined benefit plans and walked us through DC plan history up to today’s plans. He gave his thoughts as to how ETFs and index funds may play a significantly bigger role in DC plan investment lineups in the future.

At lunch on Tuesday, Dr. David Kaplan, a partner with Mercer, gave an overview on How We Make Choices. This session covered topics relevant to both retirement plans and health/welfare programs, and provided numerous examples based on behavioral finance studies. David showed how too many choices can confound participants, and although choice may sound like a good thing on the surface, it can actually induce unwanted behavior.

Finally, on Wednesday morning, Jerry Frye, the founder and President of Benefits Services Group, provided our closing keynote, Change Before You Have To: Use Strategic Data Analytics to Drive Your Company’s Success. I’ve known Jerry for many years, and on more than one occasion he has been described as “a benefits rock star.” Jerry knows more than anyone I’ve ever met about the operations of the U.S. healthcare system and the ways that patients’ journeys through the healthcare system are frequently mismanaged. This of course has a direct impact not only on the life of the patient but in the expenses that their healthcare program will have to bear.

In addition to the keynotes, we received great feedback about our workshops. There were 44 breakout sessions split between healthcare and retirement plan issues. They covered just about anything participants wanted to explore in greater detail on just about any topic you could think of.

I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say everyone left exhausted; it was a pretty intense two and a half days. From the evaluations we’ve received, participants definitely thought it was worthwhile and that the new format was structured just about exactly right.

I want to again thank all who attended, and a special thanks to all our sponsor partners in these programs. We love hosting these and we learn from our attendees every program we run. We are incredibly fortunate to have such a loyal group of alumni and sponsors.

I look forward to seeing many more of you at our next program in Chicago, June 5-8. Until then, I’ll be posting on this blog. Feel free to leave a comment through the blog or to contact me via email.

Mark Friedman

Conference Chairman

PS For those of you who saw the pictures of the pigeons perched atop the tv in my hotel room, a reminder…close those sliding doors when you leave a room!