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Raising money for hedge funds can be hard. In an industry experiencing dismal (if any) returns and 10,000 competitors, connecting with new investors can be even more challenging.
So a new type of conference has popped up in recent years to fill that void. It's called the Context Summit. The most recent one took place in downtown Manhattan on Thursday.
Unlike other events, there are no panels and no marquee keynotes. This is all about having a booth and about 20 one-on-one meetings that last a half-hour each. Hedge funds pay $10,000 per booth.
"At the event, you get to crank through this speed-dating schedule, if you will, and walk away with 20, 25 new leads on both sides," said Ron Biscardi, chief executive officer of Context Capital Partners, which seeds emerging hedge funds and sponsors the conference. "It's just hard to accomplish that at a conference that is more content focused."
About 150 investors and 150 managers attended, with total assets under management of $267 billion represented on Thursday. The average fund size was $1.8 billion.
Coordinating these meetings is a byproduct of networking and proprietary technology.
Context created an app that looks like a Wall Street version of Match.com. Attendees can look at profiles of the hedge fund managers or investors in attendance, with details including biographies, strategies and past performance. From there, they can request a meeting, which will appear on their calendar once it's confirmed.
In the current industry environment, hedge funds need to make capital raising more efficient. Context Capital surveyed hundreds of past participants and found that investors are seeking annualized returns of 11 percent. That's double the average return that hedge funds had last year.
Some investors see smaller, newer funds as an answer.
In the current market environment, the more-niche funds have been able to outperform easier than others large asset managers. They also may be more likely to negotiate creative fee structures that branch out beyond the standard amounts. The Context Capital survey found that 59 percent of investors who attend their conferences actually prefer emerging managers over established ones.
And while some institutional investors are pulling their money out of hedge funds, family offices — or investing units to manage assets for wealthy people — have been very interested in hedge funds.
"You're seeing a lot of institutional investors pull away, only just because they're rebalancing their portfolios," said Susan Baxter, vice chair of Royal Bank of Canada, in an interview at the conference. "Families are seeing that as an opportunity to come in and get great returns with some fantastic managers. So they're very, very active in the space right now."
That doesn't mean it's not competitive. When asked what the environment is like now, one manager described it as "tough."
"There's a lot of capital chasing a finite number of opportunities," said Stephen Miller, chief risk officer at First Principles Capital Management. "That makes it extremely competitive for managers to find a strategy that stands out. And there's a lot of scrutiny, as there should be."
— CNBC's Karen Stern contributed to this report.