Science & Technology



Wall Street banks get a surprise: Investors like virtual events

Jeran Wittenstein and Aoyon Ashraf, Bloomberg News on

Published in Science & Technology News

When the pandemic hit in March, Wall Street banks scrambled to switch their long-standing investor conferences to a virtual format. They're now luring more people than traditional conferences -- perhaps obvious given how easy it is to log on -- but the popularity is even surprising people who organize them.

More than 5,000 people logged on to a virtual technology conference hosted by JPMorgan earlier this month, more than twice the draw for a typical in-person event. Citigroup's global energy and utility conference set an attendance record with 550 people, double from the year before. UBS's health care conference last week saw registration surge above 30%.

"People have been surprised by how effective the virtual world can be," said Erica Moffett, Oppenheimer & Co.'s head of research marketing services.

Of course, it's a bit early to declare the end of in-person conferences. While investors are flocking to the virtual ones, one explanation is that they have little choice -- they can't get on an airplane or find a hotel. And some participants who do log on aren't big fans anyway, bemoaning the loss of networking and subtle personal clues. (Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, also hosts investor conferences.)

Matt Hawkins, who invests in the cannabis industry, is on the fence about the whole thing. While he finds virtual conferences useful and remarkably easy, he said there's a big drawback: He isn't able to "kick the tire" on a potential transaction.

"Pulling the trigger in a new investment for us is almost impossible" without meeting management face-to-face and visiting production lines, said Hawkins, managing director at Entourage Effect Capital.


The big attendance numbers seem to belie the hoary notion that to entice people to invest in your company you need to shake hands, look them in the eye and observe body language. That would be a relief for Wall Street firms anxious about whether this time-honored piece of their business -- connecting corporate executives with potential investors -- could survive in a social-distancing world.

For many, virtual conferences are at least a respite to the drudgery that in-person events can entail. Randy Smallwood, chief executive officer of Wheaton Precious Metals Corp., attended in April the World Gold Forum, traditionally held in Zurich, for the first time only because it was virtual and didn't require travel. He said he ended up having relaxing one-on-one meetings with representatives of 14 funds he wouldn't have normally met.

"I hate to say this, but when you are at in-person conferences, it tends to be more like speed dating," Smallwood said. "It's a lot more rushed compared to the virtual conference that I was on."

Oppenheimer had to quickly convert its health care conference, the firm's biggest, into a virtual event in March, just as infection rates were spiking across the U.S. Moffett acknowledged she wasn't confident the remote format would work, a big worry given how conferences are "an exceptionally vital and critical part of our business," she said, but feedback was positive.


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