The education programming at the last two annual meetings of the Association of Industry Manufacturers' Representatives was the best I've ever witnessed for a group with a modest budget. An explanation is in order for the equivocations in that last sentence.

I said "the last two annual meetings" because AIM/R's 2001 conference in Monterey, CA and 2002 meeting in Key Largo, FL last April were the only ones I've attended since rejoining Supply House Times in January 2001. They may well have been putting on excellent programs for many years before that.

Also, the "modest budget" comment reflects the fact that AIM/R is a boutique organization with a little over 300 members and conference attendance of around 250, spouses included. My career has taken me to some lavish conventions with thousands in attendance, speaker budgets ranging well into six figures and household names as keynoters. Those were fulfilling experiences. Yet, in terms of pertinent educational value, AIM/R meetings hold their own even with those big-budget spectaculars.

They do it in a way that holds lessons for wholesalers, manufacturers, contractors and everyone else connected to this industry. Let's examine those lessons.

1. Learn from one another. AIM/R hires a few professional speakers who no doubt command respectable fees, but the bulk of its programming comes at little or no cost from industry insiders. In particular, AIM/R fills its conferences with programs in which members talk to members about issues relevant to reps. This year's member presentations covered topics such as Business Planning, Line Interviewing, Activity-based Management and Demo Trucks and Trailers. These were intelligently presented at breakout sessions of an hour apiece, so members could attend more than one. AIM/R members also served on panels and hosted open mike sessions in which members debated association business.

Airing grievances and sharing best practices information are convention activities that can and ought to be done by every trade association, large or small, rich or struggling. Any association's membership has talent to draw from, and typically members will speak for free. This makes for a learning experience that is both economical and in most cases more meaningful than presentations by business generalists. At least when done right.

Doing it right means opening up. It won't work when people think everything they do is a precious business secret. The exact formula to Coca-Cola is worth safeguarding, but beyond that there are few business practices worthy of top-secret status. Ultra-secretive business executives mostly guard against exposure as poor managers more than they protect any competitive edge.

Independent repping is as fiercely competitive as any sector in the PHCP industry. AIM/R colleagues continually butt against one another with competing lines in a given territory, or are vying to acquire top lines. Nonetheless, AIM/R members share an astounding amount of operational details with fellow gladiators. Price discussions are of course out of bounds, but beyond that they keep almost nothing under wraps. These reps understand something about competition that most people in the business world don't.

That is, competent competition is something to be fostered, not feared. Whatever business you're in, professionally run competitors are less of a threat to your well-being than the schlock operators. A rising tide raises all ships. Knowledgeable competitors are more likely to raise industry standards of service and value, less likely to sell on nothing but price. Good competition compels others in the business to shape up. Think of it like prizefights, where the biggest purses accrue when there are evenly matched, highly skilled competitors. All of you would make more money if all of the players in your field were to become great business managers.

Something else impresses me about AIM/R's programming: I participated as a panelist in one of their sessions at the 2001 AIM/R conference, and was struck by how much "homework" was expected of me. Starting weeks in advance of that conference, I took part in numerous phone and e-mail confabs with other participants aimed at organizing our presentations to make them useful and non-repetitive.

A lot of TLC obviously went into this year's presentations as well. Most rep speakers used PowerPoint and offered thick handouts. These were much more than bull sessions.

2. Learn from associates. Next to one another, you can learn the most from the people you buy from and sell to or otherwise interact with in business. Based on the buzz I heard at the last two AIM/R meetings, the most popular presentations were put on by Mestek vp/marketing Bill Rafferty in 2001 and Bradford White's national sales manager Nick Giuffre at the 2002 conference.

Last year's meeting also featured presentations by an accountant specializing in rep clientele and a rep from the electrical industry. Appearing on this year's program were manufacturers Giuffre and Dave Hickerson of IPS Corp., along with ASA President Jack Hester, who joined an all-industry panel discussion with Giuffre and rep Brendan Cross. Another session had AIM/R's lawyer discussing legal issues.

The point is, you don't have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on name attractions to produce a first-rate education program. There is plenty of worthwhile information to be obtained from within the PHCP supply chain or associated entities. And for the most part, your business associates can be persuaded to share pertinent expertise for little more than travel expenses, sometimes not even that.

3. Participation. This year's conference concluded with the aforementioned all-industry panel following lunch on Saturday afternoon. Hester marveled at the size of the audience, noting that most wholesalers would be out golfing by that time. The number of reps who stuck around to the very end was a tribute to their passion for learning.

So was their participation throughout the conference. I can't recall a single session at these conferences in which empty seats outnumbered bodies. I wish I could say the same about the wholesaler conventions I've attended.

What's more, these folks set a new record for waking up roosters with breakfast sessions starting at 6:30 a.m. It would be fibbing to say everyone was there the minute the coffee got brewed, but the vast majority of registrants staggered in by the time substantive programming began at 8:00 a.m.

4. It's okay to have fun. Don't get the idea AIM/R reps are a bunch of bookworms. They party as hardy as anyone. Their conference schedules included golf and fishing tournaments, cocktail parties and hospitality suites, food and drink galore. And this group has a penchant for ritzy venues - a waterfront hotel in Monterey, Key Largo's Ocean Reef Club, the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, FL next year.

It goes to show you don't have to choose between education OR socializing in planning meetings. AIM/R demonstrates that it is possible to do justice to both within the confines of a moderate budget. Trade associations that treat their conventions as purely social activities do a disservice to their membership.

AIM/R members face as many trials and tribulations as anyone in the PHCP supply chain owing to consolidation, price cutting and all the other challenges facing our industry. But this group is trying like heck to do something about their problems rather than just gripe about them. Hats off to AIM/R. Everyone else would do well to emulate them.