Avatar, a glimpse into the future

3 Mar 2016

Avatar, a glimpse into the future

Last Thursday morning I created my own avatar but I was neither blue, nor visiting Pandora and falling for an ex-marine.

I was visiting a City conference centre smartly dressed with perfectly coiffed hair and collecting financial product literature courtesy of Panacea Adviser, which is claiming the UK’s first virtual financial services conference.

As for real me, I was sitting at my desk in my home office (read = spare room) in a hoody and tracksuit bottoms about to discover what it was all about.

By nature I am a cynic, a mild Luddite and not in any way a member of the gaming community. Which gives me more in common with many IFAs than I would ever care to admit. But it also made me a perfect test candidate for this virtual conferencing malarkey.

Meet your avatar

Having created my ‘look’ for the day, and entered my details into my business card, once inside, I heard a ‘ping’ and realised I had a couple of messages from people already at the event saying hello. As I was engaging in the real time ‘chat’, at one point I realised I was standing right next to them. Or rather, my avatar was standing right next to theirs.

That was when I realised the beauty of the search function. Vastly better use of time than at real conferences where often you bump into people by chance, this allows you to navigate directly to your selected target.

This is either done by walking around the centre or by ‘teleporting’ directly to them. Some may refer to this as virtual ‘stalking’, but hey, it worked…

With hindsight I might have asked for a delegate list in advance, but as the other delegates’ details ‘beamed up’ above them as they came within eyeshot, it was still better than having to randomly spot someone to try and spy their name badge, which may or may not be worn, at a conference in real life.

You could also teleport directly to product information by topic, head directly to a certain provider’s stall, or land in the auditorium for the video events or the live Q&A area.

All the multimedia gave the opportunity to share via the usual social media platforms to invite discussion and promote the event.

Panacea called on the services of San Francisco-based production company Hyperfair to bring ‘Retirement Choices 2016’ to life.

With key sponsors from the product provider community including Aviva, BNY Mellon, Canada Life, GAM, Just Retirement, M&G and Royal London, the conference layout was much like any other.

There were stalls, stands, screens and tables manned by smartly dressed (virtual) ladies and gents with lots of people wandering around not really quite sure where to head next.

Roger Edwards of the eponymous marketing consultancy told me (virtually) that he felt like he should be running around shooting people, one woman told me she was concerned about her avatar’s bad hair day, and I kept walking into walls, and people. Others noted the lack of virtual buffet and bar.

But once the comic relief wore off and the novelty factor subsided, I found myself comparing the event to the many financial services conferences I’ve attended over the years.

While free of the mints, (good) pens and the USB sticks I tend to favour in terms of corporate giveaways, I did have a ‘bag’ which I was able to fill up with product literature, which took a number of formats: interactive fund factsheets and manager videos, literature on personal or workplace pensions with microsite pop-ups, key checklists on tax year-end, animations about the decumulation challenge.

Time and budget better spent

The breadth of media different content types was impressive. We’ve all been to conferences where iPads are laid out or nice shiny plasma screen showcase the latest corporate video, but you don’t necessarily find them, or have time to wait for the person ahead of you.

This puts everything in your hands, on your timeframe, without having to travel the length and breadth of the country.

A couple of the videos didn’t have ‘chapters’ listed or timestamps, so if you weren’t sure of the content you either had to watch the whole thing or do it by guesswork – which might have put off those who were particularly time-poor, or just view it from your bag later.

So this was a bit of a test bed, but during the conference people enjoyed it: far better use of time, better analytics, more practical gathering of marketing materials.

A few notes, as always: what do you do with ‘the bag’ at the end? Can I jump out and back in again or do I need to re-enter every time? How do you know who is there to connect with?

Do we think this is the norm for the adviser community? Or are we still going to be heading off to the ICC or the Celtic Manor every few months?

Panacea Adviser’s founder Derek Bradley said: “I suspect by the end of the decade technology will see virtual conferencing become the norm, but what technology cannot influence is the industry’s vision and willingness to engage.

“Technology is something that financial services can often be accused of being slow to embrace, that will change along with the reducing age demographic by the end of the decade.”

*A report by Sam Shaw on the event appeared in Professional Adviser 2nd March 2016

Setting the record straight

As a specialist annuity provider, Just Retirement has had a turbulent time since George Osborne decided to thrown a “hand grenade” at the pensions industry, as Steve Martell, the group’s Director – Development, Intermediary Sales describes it.

Yet with hindsight, Martell believes the freedom of choice now offered to the at-retirement market has done the provider a favour in simply accelerating its growth and product development plans, yet he concedes it’s shock factor.

“Ironically it has probably helped our product development capability because it has just accelerated the plans we already had underway, but we perhaps may not have wanted it quite so quickly.”

Martell believes providers will tend towards a blended product offering, but is confident that secure income providers expanding into the drawdown space will be a far easier challenge than the reverse situation.

“We think we can play in that market.  The challenge will be far easier for a secure income provider with their intellectual capital to bolt on a drawdown offering, but how does a provider of drawdown suddenly create the ability to deliver secure income?”

However the real fallout of March’s Budget announcements and the devil of detail, as revealed this month, will take effect from April and potentially six months after that to really show its impact, he says.

While the provider is responding with new product types, for those not fortunate enough to have access to a financial adviser or some form of financial intermediary or guidance, he does liken the newfound pensions freedom to a ‘loaded gun’.

“It’s slightly disturbing if, as we heard recently, that pensions are now comparable to ‘bank accounts’ because that’s like handing someone a loaded gun and putting their finger on the trigger and saying fire it whenever you like. If they have advice then fair enough, but if they don’t…” he warns.

In-depth consumer research carried out by Just Retirement recently suggested four key themes characterised people’s retirement solution needs: accessing their solutions in a ‘one-stop shop’; having at least some degree of secure lifetime income – even for the wealthy; the ability to dip into their savings at some point in the future; and stable, steady investment outcomes.

With this in mind, while the higher value savers may be well looked after by advisers, Martell spies a huge opportunity for the mass market – those with lower pots of £100,000 or less – suggesting some form of “advice factory” may become more commonplace.

“Although no one seems to have worked out how to do that yet,” he says.

Befuddled by the fall in pension savers exercising the open market option – especially given their newfound freedom, Martell says the mandatory pensions passport concept would be welcome.

“The industry needs to break the dominance of the holding providers. Yet so much has happened so quickly, it will require a lot of intervention. We had a business model that was predicated on organic growth and we’ve had a hand grenade thrown in to precisely where our growth will come from.”

While Just Retirement’s strategy looks set to embrace the more flexible landscape, suggesting it is no longer black and white in terms of the types of solutions offered by any one provider, annuities still hold relevance, he insists.

“If you understand the financial consequence of waiting, then that is fine. If you don’t, the common sense approach is that if you definitely need secure income you should take out an annuity because you will only end up buying the same thing in a year’s time anyway, when yields could be even lower.

 Sam Shaw