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How Will Clean Energy Conferences Look Post Pandemic? How We Answer that Question Matters for Our Industry

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Like many of you, I attended a handful of clean energy industry events last year, from regional conferences to technical symposiums, as well as the industry’s mega-conferences. All of them were virtual. The pandemic forced us to reset our expectations for industry events. It drove home the importance of effective events to the success of solar and wind businesses. And it pushed all of us to re-examine how we create value from our conference attendance as exhibitors, presenters and attendees.
How Will Clean Energy Conferences Look Post Pandemic? How We Answer that Question Matters for Our Industry
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If we take the time to collectively analyze what worked and didn’t, we can provide important feedback to event hosts on how to advance post-pandemic conferences for maximum effect.

First, we need to recognize the incredible job that the organizers of these industry events did in 2020. They transformed traditional events into completely virtual gatherings, and they did that on the fly. These organizers’ job is a typically thankless one, and re-engineering these events was no easy task. Thanks to all of them who put the thinking and time into adapting to the worst public health crisis we’ve faced in 102 years.

Second, I was struck by the massive difference in the experienceof a virtual versus an in-person conference. My virtual experience started with me struggling to answer basic questions: How do I “visit”a booth? How should I “network” remotely? As a panel speaker, how do I hold the audience’s attention so I respect their time?All of those questions reminded me of the value of in-person networking and sales conversations.

Third, there were upsides to virtual-only conferencing. The experience was more casual and convenient. I doubt any of us really missed plane travel, hotel food and time away from our families. And the events got better as the year progressed. Speakers got more comfortable and effective on video. Conference chat functions improved. Shows got creative about facilitating better networking. Because of that, the value of attending a virtual conference rose through trial and error on everyone’s part.

But I think we’re on the threshold of engineering a more powerful, post-pandemic conference if we think through the right blend of the traditional and virtual-only convenings. What should the most effective clean energy conference look like going forward?

It’s important for all conference stakeholders – from exhibitors to attendees, from sponsors to speakers –  to help conference hosts engineer the post-pandemic trade show experience. To start that process, I offer some thoughts for conference hosts to consider as they design the next generation of events.

  1.  Smaller,in-person conferencesand technical symposiums can exist in an online-only format while still increasingthe value of participation for speakers and attendees. The pandemic changed the way we think about crowds and health, and we’ve now seen the real benefits of virtual conferences.Not only do virtual conferences save everyone time and money, but they’re more eco-friendly. Organizers can collect a ton of valuable data, including attendees’ session preferences, enabling them to send more tailored and valuable follow-up messages. How many times have you been to an in-person conference and had to choose between multiple sessions in the same time slot? With virtual conferences, those competing sessions are offered on an on-demand basis, enabling us to go back to sessions we missed. My sense is, even after the pandemic has faded, there will still be a virtual component to most industry events for a lot of these reasons.
  2. Hybrid events are the future. There is no replacement for the in-person networking that happens at conferences. Despite great efforts to virtually accommodate the need to network, I found they fell flat. I think we can expect more conferencesto combine live and virtual experiences, with speakers presenting live and in-person. In order to accommodate virtual listeners, moderators will have to go the extra mile to involve those who attend virtually. I’m confident that mobile apps will be an integral connector between live and virtual attendees to engage with speakers and content. I’d like to see us move away from the ‘keynote, breakout and repeat’ format common among pre-pandemic events. People have shorter attention spans and more distractions behind their computer at home compared to physically sitting in a conference session with their peers. That means sessions should be shorter and more engaging – almost TED Talk-style.
  3. Technology will get more sophisticated. Virtual events will go beyond presentations and roundtables in breakout rooms. To provide a more polished feel, we should include intro videos and impressive graphics that will set the stage for keynotes and different sessions. The rise of avatars, fireside chats and AI-enabled chatbots at future events will likely be front and center. Imagine hyper-personalized recommendations, such as:
  • Session recommendations based on your Twitter stream, LinkedIn content or trade media engagement.
  • Digital connection facilitation or “nudge” alerts to let you know what your LinkedIn connections are doing during the show.
  • Improved lead engagement for exhibitors with embedded push alerts to create booth traffic for show giveaways or other incentives.

We need to think about how to better engage attendees through gamification and game show-like sessions that are interactive in order to firmly hold attendees’ attention. Conference organizers can’t be held back by the limitations of a current platform. The successful events will feature new, virtual platforms that deliver an amazing attendee experience.

As we move into 2021, think about what matters to you when it comes to the new age of conferences, and connect with conference organizers. It’s in their interests to hear from you. As someone who has attended, spoken at and staffed  a large number of industry events, I think trade shows and conferences are vital to the health of their respective sectors.I’d love for us to put our heads together, get creative and direct our suggestions to those who are hungry for our input. If we do, we’ll all benefit.

About the author: For 30 years, Mike Casey has focused on the design, staffing and strategies for winning communications programs. As Tigercomm’s founder, he counsels cleantech executives, investors and philanthropists on strategies for meeting their business objectives.

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