Recently, a friend of mine told me about an invitation his son had received to attend the Junior National Young Leaders Conference in Washington DC. He had never heard of this conference, and he showed me the invitation packet his son received. I had never heard of this conference either. But after looking at the invitation, my first reaction was to congratulate him on his son's accomplishments. Now, why did I do that? After all, I knew nothing about the conference. However, from the gold stamps on the high-end stationary, to the included letters congratulating the student and his parents, to the fact that this invitation came from the school guidance counselor, everything about this invitation conveyed what an honor it was to be invited to attend. There was even a card included asking the parents to confirm receipt of this invitation within 24 hours, making the event sound very exclusive. Being the skeptic that I am, though, I decided to do some further research on this conference. And as I did, more and more things did not add up.
All the materials in the packet were obviously aimed at selling how prestigious the conference was. In the aforementioned letter, there was even the following line: "Upon your son's official acceptance into JrNYLC [Junior National Young Leaders Conference], he may request a press release which you can distribute to your local news media". Wow! Now that sounds impressive. However, I also noticed certain things in the invitation that immediately raised some red flags.
First, there was a fact sheet about tuition. Hmmmm... tuition? I thought this was a conference. Well, semantics aside, the tuition was $2,295 for the 6 day event. Not cheap by any means. I can understand there are costs involved in running a conference. But at $2,295, someone must be making a hefty profit, which does not sound right for a conference of this kind.
The next red flag was the schedule of events for the conference. But taking a closer look, this wasn't a schedule. It was just a "2019 SAMPLE Schedule". So in other words, the parent won't even know for sure what the $2,295 is getting them.
As the third red flag, one of the letters spoke about fundraising for students who may not be able to afford the tuition. "For students who are interested in fundraising to help offset the cost of tuition, Envision has prepared a guide that includes step-by-step suggestions and activities for raising funds..." It is almost like Envision EMI, the company who runs this conference, is preemptively trying to shoot down the excuses of why you may not want to send your child.
Finally, one of the letters includes the following passage: "In order to maintain the unique learning environment of JrNYLC, parents are not allowed to accompany students during the conference." I can imagine parents not being allowed into the actual programs/classes, but this sounds more like parents are not allowed to be there at all, period. It almost makes it sound like there is something to hide. Hmmm...
At this point, I was definitely getting more and more skeptical. But trying to keep an open mind, I started searching for past reviews of the conference. At first, my search just led me to more marketing materials about the conference. This was still useful, though, because I learned Envision EMI actually runs numerous conferences. They aim at students from elementary school all the way to college over a broad range of topics. At a glance, there are 18 different programs, each with multiple occurrences per year. With so many events going on, these are seeming less and less like conferences and more and more like courses. (No wonder why the term "tuition" was used in the invitation materials.) Also, I found out that anyone can nominate any student directly on Envision's website. So the screening process seems to be much less strict than the invitation implies.
Doing more digging, I found a fantastic article in the New York Times regarding Envision EMI and the National Young Leaders Conference. You can see the full article here
. But to summarize, the author basically questioned the marketing tactics and value of this conference. And the conclusion was obvious from the way he entitled his article - "Congratulations! You Are Nominated. It’s an Honor. (It’s a Sales Pitch.)" His findings were that Envision is very much a for-profit company, and their main focus is based around that fact.
The author of the article also spoke about how the Better Business Bureau gave Envision EMI an "F" rating. So I went to the BBB website myself to check it out. Somehow, the company is now back to a "A+" rating. However, there were still a plethora of complaints/negative reviews on the BBB website, and many of them were from as recently as last year's conference. What's worse, many of those complaints were not focused on the quality of the conference itself, but more so regarding Envision's business practices.
To be fair, the New York Times article was from almost ten years ago. So things may not be as bad as they once were. Plus, Envision is not the only company to use dubious marketing tactics like this. There are numerous similar conferences, all of which are named to sound more impressive than the next (e.g., National Student Leadership Conference). And who knows? Perhaps some of the actual classes within the conference are worthwhile. But with questionable tactics in the invitation packet alone plus the company's bad reputation, would any parent really want to test the odds by sending his/her child there alone?
If this is such a scam, why is the school participating in this? In other words, why did the guidance counselor even make any nominations? My theory is that she thought it was a legitimately prestigious event herself. She probably received a mailing from Envision asking for nominations. And she, believing the marketing, probably nominated the best students thinking she was doing them a favor. I don't blame her, because their marketing materials were very well done. At first glance, I definitely fell for it myself. So I can't fault her. I just hope that collectively, schools will eventually build up a list of such so-called "honors". That way, parents can be warned in advance of such marketing ploys.
At the end, I advised my friend not to send his son. I felt that the company simply could not be trusted. I went so far as to advise him to not even confirm receipt of the invitation, because one of the reviews suggested doing so puts you on their SPAM list. (You confirm online by putting in your contact information.) So if your child ever receives an invitation that sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime, don't let your pride in your child blind you and be sure to do some research. Remember the old adage, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.