The following document is an approximate, but not exact, transcript of the Operational Leaders podcast conversation between host Terrance J. O’Malley and guest Cosimo Montagu.
Please support the production of this podcast by downloading the Cosimo Montagu episode.
Welcome to the Operational Leaders podcast featuring leaders and innovators in the investment management industry, where we discuss the business of running the business with host and top industry executive Terrance J. O’Malley.
Terrance O’Malley 0:21
This week’s guest is the Editor for the GAIM Ops event series. He leads the team’s research and development of content on the operational side of the alternative investment business. And over the past several years, he has become known as one of the industry’s top conference planning professionals. Please welcome Cosimo Montagu.
Cosimo Montagu 0:42
Thank you. I’m flattered and honored to be here with you.
Terrance O’Malley 0:46
So here we are, the third week in April. And we’re supposed to be at the beach!
Cosimo Montagu 0:48
Yes, indeed. GAIM Ops Cayman, the big one.
Terrance O’Malley 0:51
But you’ve rescheduled the event. And you’re set for the end of September – September 29 to October 2. And of course, we’re wishing you the best of luck with that. In the meantime, I bet you’re pretty busy.
Cosimo Montagu 0:58
Oh, absolutely. Yep.
Terrance O’Malley 0:59
So that’s not the only thing you do during the year, is it?
Cosimo Montagu 1:02
No, that’s right. So as well as GAIM Ops Cayman, there’s GAIM Ops West, which is out in California, in mid-October 19 through the 21st, this year.
Terrance O’Malley 1:11
New location for that?
Cosimo Montagu 1:12
New location. Dana Point, on the coast, which is very exciting. So we’re looking forward to that. And I run two other financial services events as well as the GAIM Ops events.
Terrance O’Malley 1:21
So how did you get involved in this side of the business?
Cosimo Montagu 1:24
Yeah, so really, it’s as anything, it’s just a bit of a journey. So I studied history and philosophy originally, at University, so not finance guy at all. But post University, ended up doing a few different jobs in policy. I ended up working with the UK government for a little bit, working for a few think tanks. And especially with a think-tank work, just found it rather dry. Reading government records, analyzing government records, doesn’t have that people side of things. So I was really craving a bit of that. And a friend actually recommended to me conferences is really good way to, you know, have the policy with the people sides.
So interviewed. Gave it a go. Worked for a number of years on the Basel III and the Basel IV banking regulatory events after the financial crisis, which was a really interesting time to get into financial regulation, seeing the shaping of the new regulatory regime, you know. Worked on all the too-big-to-fail banking regulation, development of that fundamental view of the trading book, other topics.
Moved to the US for life. You know my wife is setting up a business over here in headhunting. So we moved out with Informa, the same company that runs GAIM Ops, kindly sent me over here to launch the U.S. events on the banking side. And then my predecessor, Tira Grey, who ran GAIM Ops before me was leaving. And I’ve been sitting alongside her working on different events, and the opportunity to run GAIM Ops came up and who wouldn’t jump on that. So I’ve been doing it ever since, you know, so coming up on three, four years doing GAIM Ops now.
Terrance O’Malley 2:55
How do you get up to speed on the topics and the people in the business?
Cosimo Montagu 2:59
Yeah, it’s a good question. Really, it’s just talking to as many people as you can. And so my process essentially about eight to seven months before the event, you start doing the research, right? So what that looks like, essentially is just hundreds of calls to as many people as you know in the industry, as many people as you’re referred to – COO, CFO, CCOs, ODD people, general counsels – to basically just say, what’s on your agenda? You know, what are you thinking about? What are you doing on a day to day basis, what’s keeping you busy, what’s on your radar? And you kind of, from that, you get a good sense of the overall trends of kind of what’s going on and most importantly, what people are really grappling with. Because that’s what you have to build a conference agenda around. So yeah, a lot of calls but that’s the fun part. Basically just get to spend a half an hour having a call or a coffee with a series of incredibly interesting people and just picking their brains on what’s going on. That’s great. I love that part of the job.
Terrance O’Malley 3:56
So if we talked about just the GAIM Ops Cayman conference, which you have each year, late April. When do you start making those kinds of calls? When do you start getting in touch with people?
Cosimo Montagu 4:07
So for GAIM Ops Cayman, I will start in October, you know, October of the year before. And it could even feasibly start earlier than that, because it takes a good couple of months to get as many calls as you want to really have a sense of where things are. So you’re not just leaning on the same old topics year on year. And then you know, they’ll be a good two months or so just pure research built in before I then even start trying to draft an agenda. Because you find if you try and start drafting too soon, you rely on old topics too much. You really got to try and get a sense of what’s changed.
Cosimo Montagu 4:39
Sometimes that takes a bit of drawing out of people, often on a call the first thing people say to me like, “Oh, you know, everything’s the same.” So really? Pretty sure we’ve had some large regulatory changes or there’s been some changes in emphasis. So yeah, it takes it takes a while. That being said, unfortunately, I never have, there’s always the other conferences. So I’ve got this cycle of when I’m researching one [conference] and I’m in the lead up to another, so I’m prepping panels or, and maybe I’m doing some of the logistical things leading up to another one. But yeah, a good couple of months of just getting to chat to people, which is fun.
Terrance O’Malley 5:09
So your conferences are typically three days long. What kind of challenges does that present?
Cosimo Montagu 5:15
Really, I mean, it’s the number of speakers for me personally. Obviously, I have a wonderful team who works with me to work with the hotel, organized logistics. I oversee it as the editor just to make sure you know, everything’s on track. But for GAIM Ops, there’s GAIM Ops Cayman, there’s 150 speakers. So, I like to know everybody fairly well. So it’s a question of making sure everybody’s happy. Everybody’s feeling prepped and ready and coordinating with that many speakers. It’s just natural that a few have to drop out in the run up. So it’s making sure you’ve got people who can fill those spaces. So it’s quite a juggling act. –
Terrance O’Malley 6:00
You mentioned a minute ago, the changes in topics. Some topics are probably fairly standard, others do change from year to year.
Cosimo Montagu 6:09
Absolutely. Yeah. As much as I try to not always have a panel on SEC exams . . . .
Terrance O’Malley 6:14
The latest on SEC exams.
Cosimo Montagu 6:15
Or the latest trends on ODD. I will not include it on a draft agenda because I’m trying to make space for something else. And then people inevitably say, “Oh, where’s the topic on this?” Right. Okay, I’ll put it back in. So yeah, there are some perennial topics, but things do change. I think it’s been interesting in alternatives because there’s not been a big regulatory change like we had with when I was doing the banking regulatory conferences. Every time around the conference, it was different. There was a new regulation. It was evolving. There was something different to talk about. With GAIM Ops, obviously, there’s not been that big regulatory change, but there are always new SEC priorities within the industry that evolve a lot. The increase of private equity and private credits. Obviously, this year, the explosive of ESG, which was just bubbling away, up until now and is really shot up on people’s to do lists rather than just as the hot topic. So, and just how the industry is adapting to obviously, the [interest] rate environment we’ve had to the challenging environment for fees. So there is an evolution. It’s about catching some of the subtleties of that, and what that means for everybody in the industry.
Terrance O’Malley 7:24
And some of the things we may see in the future involve access to private markets. You mentioned ESG, we’re like to see more of that.
Cosimo Montagu 7:33
Yeah. Yeah, ESG. So when I’m structuring an agenda, and when you’re looking at a conference agenda, what I really recommend doing is trying to separate out the hot topics and the “to do” topics. And this is often how I structure research call, is I’ll start by asking somebody what’s on your to do list, you know, what are you thinking about? Because that’s really the bedrock of the conference, right? It’s what you’re doing on a day to day. It’s how do I compare notes with my peers on what makes up 80% of my day.
But there’s also the hot topics which you have to make sure are embedded because that’s really what’s coming. That’s the interesting stuff. You can’t get too heavy on that. Because ultimately people need to do their day job well, right. So in terms of ESG, it’s a really good example of this because for the last few years, it’s been a hot topic. It’s something that you have a keynote panel on, or a breakout panel for people to kind of say, “Hey, here’s a little bit the trend. Here’s what we’re thinking about from some front runners in the space, bit of food for thought for you to think about, it’s coming down the line.” But as of the end of 2019, it’s just exploded into a to-do topic. Everybody is now writing ESG policies, thinking about [whether] they’re going to sign up with the UN PRI, thinking how they’re embedding this in their trade processes, wondering what questions they’re going to get in ODD and how they’re going to respond to that. It’s a real thing that’s come from that kind of off topic to the to-do list.
Yeah, other areas. Obviously private equity and private credits, you know, given the growth of assets they’ve had, we’ve really been working to include them in the GAIM Ops agenda, make sure that the content is relevant for them. And we have a nice, you know, peer group of professionals from that space at GAIM Ops as well. I think it used to be the case that GAIM Ops West was a little bit more of the private equity conference. And GAIM Ops Cayman was more traditionally the hedge fund events. But we’re really seeing a blurring of those lines now. So you have almost equal numbers of each type at both events these days.
Terrance O’Malley 9:31
So just sort of playing this as part of the cycle, we talked a little bit about the topics planning, kind of getting ideas of what should be part of the upcoming conference. So we are about, what, two-four months out? So what happens as we get closer to the actual day, what are some of the logistical issues you start to deal with?
Cosimo Montagu 9:51
Yeah, so really now it’s about, for the agenda, just filling any last little gaps in panels and things and then from making sure things ready. So about a month or a month and a half out from the event, panels start getting prepped and that’s quite a big I think because you know, you’ve got 40 plus panels that you have to coordinate. The coordinators have to organize them, their calls, so everybody’s happy. So that’s quite a big logistical thing.
But obviously, there’s a bunch of onsite issues as well. Obviously, we have a number of sponsors with us at the conference who help us put it on. There are parties, there are dinners. It’s making sure things are ready, boats are going to pick people up and take them various places. There’s a lot of that that’s working with the hotel to make sure that they’re ready. They know how I want the various rooms set up because obviously I have different formats for different types of topics – more interactive, AV etc. So making sure the hotel’s prepped with all of those. So those are the big things obviously and other bits and bobs like signage and things.
We are, really, it’s those logistical things at this stage, and you get the slight lull where kind of the agenda is ready, but you’re not quite into logistics. And then you find about a month before everybody’s like, “Okay, right, let’s go. It’s conference time!” And that when it really gets very busy again. But you have this kind of two-month out period where things lull a little. And you can take a little breath, and then into it.
Terrance O’Malley 11:10
You mentioned earlier, you have a pretty good-sized team helping you with this.
Cosimo Montagu 11:14
Yes. Oh, absolutely. There must be at least, if you count together the whole team – go from the operations staff to the guys, you know, who worked with me on the program, the marketing, the tele sales team, there’s 10 plus people who make GAIM Ops happen. And there’ll be five, six of us on site at the event. It’s a big team effort to put together something like this. It’s not an undertaking to take lightly. You know, if you’re thinking of putting on a conference, I know a number of people who do it on top of their day job. And I just have no idea how you’re a General Counsel of a fund or an organizing an event like this. It’s busy.
Terrance O’Malley 11:50
So when do you get to your conference location, about a week out or the day before?
Cosimo Montagu 11:56
No. A week out in the Cayman? That would be lovely. I know I typically arrive a day or two before because there’s a good day’s [work]. And sadly, that doesn’t mean a day of sitting by the pool or the beach. Although, if I ever have a spare five minutes, I will go check my cell phone by the sea. I grew up by the sea. So that’s make sense, certainly my happy place. But no, I mean, it’s a full day of putting out signage, you know, prepping and the print. You’re just doing lots of stuffing badges, and all the little on-site niceties that people don’t notice that just make sure that it’s kind of run smoothly on the day. I also get – if I arrive too close the event – I do find I get a little bit nervous. If I’m that close, I like to settle in a little bit. I think everybody does. Right. So yeah.
Terrance O’Malley 12:36
And then game day, what’s the biggest thing you worry about when finally it’s conference day?
Cosimo Montagu 12:42
Oh, I mean, it’s always got to be the sessions. Right? And, you know, I like things to run smoothly, and just the possibility that someone’s gonna drop out because I build into my planning a certain number of speakers, you know, obviously having to drop out. And I know, I’ll always be asking speakers when I’m getting them ready, what topics they could speak to because then I know I can go shuffle into the deck if necessary. But on the day, that’s very challenging when somebody says, I’m sick or my plane is delayed. Luckily, with GAIM Ops, everybody is pretty game, as it were. You know, people are normally quite happy to jump in and fill in. But when it’s a keynote, somebody, I don’t have that person just in the audience ready to go. So I’ve had a few of those. And that can be, and you just have to get immediately into prioritization mode, right? Option one, we shift the cocktails a little bit early. Everybody likes to drink, right? Well, option two. Maybe they can make their flight tomorrow, so I’ll move their session. I’ll swap out another one. I’ve got to run to that panel. I’ll ask if they’re happy to go up on the stage now. So Yeah, that kind of . . .
Terrance O’Malley 13:42
So it’s sort of like instead of “Is there a doctor in the house, is their keynote speaker in the house?”
Cosimo Montagu 13:48
Exactly. And as wonderful as the GAIM Ops community is, I think people would struggle to get up on stage and do a 40-minute presentation on the Cambridge Analytica hacking incident or pretend to be the guys from the Narcos show or whatever. So that would be the key thing.
I think like enjoyment as well, I think with GAIM Ops they’re a community of professionals who really do care about their content. That’s why it’s such a great event to work on. But it also means I really want it to go well, because people really do care about the content of the conference and the agenda. So just knowing that sessions have been well received, that people are taking something from it. That’s very important to me as well, for sure.
Terrance O’Malley 14:29
So the conference day is the most stressful for you.
Cosimo Montagu 14:32
Yeah, I don’t know though. I love it as well. Like it’s something you’ve been working on for the better part of half a year and see it come together is wonderful. I never get as much time to see people as I’d like because you know, I’m a million different places at once. Running around making sure the sessions are starting on time and the speakers are in the right places. So I never really get chance to sit and chat. But I don’t know, when it’s on the day, as long as things are running smoothly, and even when they don’t run smoothly, I find I get into another mode where Stress isn’t the right word. It’s just kind of I get in the zone on conference day, very focused, definitely tired by the end of the day.
Terrance O’Malley 15:08
So Cosimo, we talked a little bit about this offline, what makes somebody potentially interesting speaker? I imagine from time to time, you’re looking for fresh voices.
Cosimo Montagu 15:16
Recommendations certainly help if you’re somebody who’s looking to become a speaker, and get involved in the circuit. If I’m hearing from a speaker that I know is good, that they recommend this person, “I think that they’re good,” that that goes a long way. That being said, I will always get on the phone with somebody to talk to them because I get a good sense from that. And the kind of things I’m looking for, obviously, expertise. But not just expertise as in “I am the subject matter expert,” just like I’m looking for people who’ve really been working on a particular project or a particular thing, and they’re willing to talk about it. And really that, most importantly, they’re willing to speak openly about it. Someone who’s not just going to be talking about all the amazing things that they did, right? People who can talk about the things they did wrong, so much more valuable. And it makes the things that you do right, so much more credible as well, when you can talk about the things that you’ve done wrong.
So somebody who’s working on a specific project. You know, it’s always a little bit of a red flag when I hear “Oh, I can speak to any of these 20 topics.” Well, to what . . . that’s going to be very generic. I want some specific insights, anecdotes, and personality is important. Somebody who’s going to, who’s just going to be themselves, like I said, speak openly. Be a bit funny, be willing to push the baton a bit, that kind of thing. It adds a lot. These conferences have a heavy program, so you want a bit of personality in there as well.
Terrance O’Malley 16:36
So what do you recommend to people who attend conferences? Are there a couple tips that you would give people they might not think about in terms of how to get the most out of their attendance?
Cosimo Montagu 16:45
Yep, definitely. The conference app is definitely one. But so few people really get into the conference app. And obviously, if the main value of a conference is coming together, right, finding your peers, seeing people. It’s the face time, etc. And the conference app, actually is super helpful for that. And very underutilized still I find because often you’ll have everybody on there. You’ll often have their photos. Just makes finding who you’re looking for much easier. You can message them, set up meetings, etc. So if you’re one of those people who don’t use the app, just get it, it’s super helpful.
What else would I say? Small group discussions. I’d say seek those out. They consistently come back with great feedback because you can actually talk with people, share perspectives, share opinions. So any kind of like small group meetings or discussion formats, I think are great.
I think there’s so much content, you’ve really got to try and hone down what you’re hearing to take back with you. So for kind of the Hot Topic topics, the kind of the keynote, I think, try and put your big picture hat on and take a few bits of food for thought. Write down some ideas you can go away and develop on, some things that give you a little bit of inspiration. But for the kind of to-do topics, the what am I trying to grapple with, you really want to try and distill it down to three takeaways that I’m going to take back to the firm. Because you’re going to have so much content from those sessions, you’ve really got to just try and distill it down to your kind of your three practical takeaways. So I’d say those are some of the key areas.
And just try and meet as many people as you can. Ask questions. I set up so many interactive formats for people to chat and ask questions. And people always get nervous too. But that is how you get all the value out of these things. You’ve got to stick your hand up, ask the question, you know, make the conference what you need it to be.
Terrance O’Malley 18:26
Speaking of conferences and what they can be, what do you see in the future?
Cosimo Montagu 18:30
I mean, in the future for conferences, I think you can’t replace the face time of it all. So I see people continuing to be engaged highly with conferences. Maybe we’ll have some cool Google glasses that you put them on and suddenly it tells you everybody in the room. That’ll certainly make some people run for it. So I think it’s a while before we see that yet. But yeah, just a continuation of the great face time that we see.
Terrance O’Malley 18:54
Well that some great insights and really appreciate you coming by today. Very interesting.
Cosimo Montagu 18:59
Thank you so much. Any top tips from your end? You know you’ve done these things for a number of years. What would you say are your top tips as a conference goer and speaker?
Terrance O’Malley 19:07
I would just reiterate what you said the value is in the content and the value is in meeting people.
Cosimo Montagu 19:15
Yep. Put yourself out there. It’s worth it.
Terrance O’Malley 19:16
Thanks a lot.
Cosimo Montagu 19:16