Ritholtz’s Future Proof festival isn’t just a day at the beach for wealth management

No one expects to come to a wealth management industry event and get a sunburn.

But that was just one of the many firsts that awaited attendees of Future Proof, an event held this week on Huntington Beach in California. Using the word “on” is intentional, as Future Proof was backdropped by the sights, sounds and smells of the Pacific Ocean rather than occurring inside one of the cavernous conference halls at the area’s many hotels.

A collaboration between Matt Middleton, CEO of production studio Advisor Circle, and the Ritholtz Wealth Management crew, Future Proof was pitched as “the world’s first wealth festival,” something few in the industry were exactly sure what to make of. Some questioned the optics of a “wealth festival” during an era of historic income inequality, and others wondered about the logistics of an outdoor conference.

Many people, including several at the event, worried the whole operation could turn into a Fyre Festival-esque boondoggle.

I was somewhat more optimistic. An event involving a bunch of financial advisers, institutional investors and fintech vendors held in Southern California couldn’t be that terrible, but could it really be that cool, either? I expected little more than a traditional financial adviser conference, just held outside.

The Coachella-inspired lineup poster, complete with big-name musical acts, inspired more eye rolls than confidence — and I wasn’t alone.

“Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect and was thinking it might be more like a typical conference with a better aesthetic and entertainment,” said Kelli Kiemle, managing director of growth and client experience at Halbert Hargrove, a Long Beach, California-based RIA with $3 billion in assets under management.

“I really didn’t know. OK, it’s a festival, what does that mean? We’re going to be doing yoga in the morning, but how serious are the conversations going to be?” said Andrea Bornstein-Bayer, chief operating officer at technology consulting firm F2 Strategy. “Is there going to be a lot of depth there? I didn’t know what the turnout was going to be.”

Crossing the footbridge over the Pacific Coast Highway to the event grounds made it immediately clear that Future Proof was much closer to South by Southwest than any traditional adviser conference. A large main stage to the south, complete with booming sound system and giant monitors, commanded attention. Vendors set up shop under colorful pop-up tents that felt more like a carnival than an exhibit hall, and they shared the space with dedicated stations for refilling water bottles, charging phones and applying sunscreen. Sponsors leaned into the beach theme, offering surfing lessons, auctioning off painted skateboard decks and hosting games of cornhole and pickleball. On the northern end were a half-dozen or so food trucks, serving up local flavors à la carte, from agave burger sliders to carne asada fries and healthy juice blends.

Middleton, Josh Brown and Barry Ritholtz had pulled it off. This was indeed a festival.

The idea began two years ago after the pandemic derailed a second edition of Wealth/Stack, the previous adviser conference developed by Middleton and Ritholtz Wealth. Middleton was convinced he could create a totally new concept for the industry, and Brown quickly got on board but knew it would face some skepticism.

“When you try something completely new, you have people that are true believers right from the very start, and you have people that are skeptics,” Middleton said. “That’s fine. Most people need to experience these events to make sure that it’s valuable.”

“The reality is our industry, it’s all plain, it’s all the same. Different conference name, same vibe, so it’s hard to think about something that hasn’t changed or innovated in 30 years as something new,” he added.

Beyond the setting, the organizers wanted to make sure the content was unique. They were adamant that Future Proof wouldn’t feature any pay-to-play sessions. While many event sponsors did receive stage time, anyone who used it to make a sales pitch won’t be invited back, Middleton said.

Diversity and inclusion was a core theme of Future Proof, and organizers said they wanted to ensure the stages reflected that. Adviser Circle worked with Choir, a company launched by Liz Gagnon and Sonya Dreizler, to ensure there was equitable representation across gender and ethnicity across panels. While some pointed out a lack of “big names” in the industry, Middleton said up-and-coming voices were a priority.

Even Tuesday night’s musical guests felt wildly different. In addition to DJ sets and a performance from Hi Fidelity, a band formed by Bluespring Wealth Partners president David Canter that features a roster of wealth professionals, Future Proof featured concerts from Big Boi — one-half of the critically and commercially acclaimed hip-hop duo Outkast — and indie pop band Fitz and the Tantrums.

“Obviously we were intentional in terms of the look and feel, the branding, the design, calling it a festival and making it more welcoming and exciting,” Middletone said. “However, we wanted to create an atmosphere that felt organic.”

The result: Total attendance of 2,200, including roughly 1,000 financial advisers and institutional investors. Adviser Circle said it didn’t collect demographic data on attendees but, anecdotally, Future Proof felt far younger and more diverse across gender and ethnicity than any other adviser event.

Audiences were engaged, even if the unusually hot and humid Southern California weather limited attendance at the main stage to two shaded areas of bleacher seating. Most of the side stages were well attended throughout the event, especially the “Social Audio Experiment” stage where advisers crowded in to watch some of their favorite podcasters record an episode live.

“Having worked in the industry for the last 15 years, I found Future Proof to be refreshing,” Kiemle told InvestmentNews in an email. “I loved the younger attendees, the casual dress code, and variety of topics — not all investment industry-focused, and the forward-thinking ideas that presenters brought to their audiences.”

Still, Future Proof has plenty of room for improvement. Bornstein-Bayer would have liked to see a space where attendees could get some work done without having to walk back to the hotel, and many complained that shade was in short supply all week. The content could also use some improvement, Kiemle said.

“I was hoping to hear more ideas from outside our industry,” she said. “For example, client service ideas from high-end hotels or marketing ideas from firms that do a great job promoting their brand.”

But apart from some stinging sunburns and a few sound issues caused by the ocean breeze, screeching seagulls and one airplane hired by Cambria to advertise an ETF, it’s hard to overstate Future Proof’s success as an event.

Given the skepticism that kept many potential attendees and sponsors from getting involved in the first year, the festival seems poised to explode in 2023, when it’s already scheduled to return to the same location.

“Everybody I’ve talked to said the same thing. We didn’t know what to expect, were pleasantly surprised, talking about a few tweaks for next year, but we’re even talking about getting a booth for next year,” Bornstein-Bayer said.

Just be sure to bring sunscreen.  

InvestmentNews 40U40 Alumni: Robert Russo