At TerraCurrent’s Clean Energy Events Roundtable, co-hosted with Cross Consulting Services, attendees shared many examples of what has worked and what could use improvement in the world of virtual events. Here are a dozen key takeaways.
Thinking about hosting customers or business partners in a virtual environment? Take these ideas into consideration to make your event a memorable and successful experience for everyone.
Thanks to all the roundtable attendees who have agreed to share comments in this post.
Networking experiences, such as the chat rooms at CALSSA’s Virtual Product Expo Series, have impressed Anne Wright, vice president of sales at Pegasus Solar. “It was hysterical because people would come into your chat room and say, ‘Ann, it’s so good to see you.’ And we were all literally chatting and laughing. That part of it worked.”
Deliver Food and Drinks
Before the pandemic, Wright’s brother noticed that the most productive meetings for his organization’s board of directors took place when the board went out to dinner together. To simulate the experience, he has arranged wine and cheese deliveries so board members could serve themselves during a video conference cocktail hour. “I’m anxious to see if it works,” Wright said.
At live events, free food is one way to draw attendees into an exhibition booth. That wasn’t an option for Kyle Cherrick, vice president of business development at Solar.com, while exhibiting at the virtual Midwest Solar Expo. Overall, Cherrick called the event “a wonderful experience for the fact that you could actually hold a conference and feel like you’re really there in person.” But when attendees can gather anywhere in a virtual environment—auditoriums, a virtual beach—it raises a question for exhibitors: “How do you get people to go over to the expo hall?”
Don’t Wait for a Return to Normal
Soon after the COVID shutdown hit California, SMA America launched several activities to help the sales team reach customers directly through digital means, such as tripling the number of training sessions and moving them all online. “You can’t wait around,” said Brad Dore, SMA America’s director of marketing. I think if you’ve been waiting around since the early part of this year, you’re no longer in business.”
Attend More Events
Event registration is only a small part of the overall cost of trade show attendance. You also have to factor in travel, lodging, food and more. With the shift to virtual events, Clean Coalition has been able to reallocate the travel budget for events where it’s needed most. “Although we do miss the in-person networking, we’re actually able to go to more events that we wouldn’t have had the travel budget for,” said communications director Rosana Francescato.
Green Empowerment, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that works with local partners to deliver renewable energy and safe clean water to remote villages around the world, needed to stay connected with its community through the pandemic. A funder supplied drone footage of solar-powered water pumping systems in Bolivia and plans to use it to create virtual tours. “Our team engagement has been higher. Our board engagement has been higher. This is creating opportunities for us to use virtual events in a way that we hadn’t thought about,” said executive director Andrea Johnson.
Form Small Groups
At live events that attract hundreds or thousands of people, it’s never that difficult to engage someone in a one-on-one conversation. At large online events, it can be a different story with one conversation happening at a time. “Some of the best business happens over beer. How do you replicate that in an online environment? So we’re looking at ways of creating more intimate roundtable-type venues,” said Kathy Heilmann, direct of marketing for the Americas at Canadian Solar.
Know Your Audience
In the past 15 years or so, the clean energy industries have had clear definitions for different types of events, a trade show versus a conference versus a happy hour. Now, we’re creating new experiences from whole cloth. “What we have found to be successful is identifying our target demographics and creating tailored learning opportunities for them. People still want to engage with their peers, so we’re customizing the events to keep lecture-type presentations short and prioritize real-time discussions,” said Andrew Jerdonek, senior director of programming at the Smart Electric Power Alliance.
Listen to Your Audience
As an event host for several industries and publisher of 13 trade publications, including Solar Power World, WTWH Media is asking audiences several questions about their information needs during the pandemic. “We’re going to have to redefine what success looks like,” said Courtney Nagle, vice president of business development and director of renewable energy brands. “Attending a webinar where people think, ‘I’m going to get thousands of leads,’ that may not mean the same thing anymore when you’re looking at having an engaged conversation.”
Everyone is experimenting with ways to navigate business in a digital environment during a pandemic. It’s a matter of trial and error. The process is expensive and inefficient, representing the degree of uncertainty in the industry. “Somebody out there has to be collecting data about what works and what doesn’t work,” said Wright, the director of sales at Pegasus Solar. “I think that’s something all the marketing firms out there should be able to give us.”
Whether hosting a live event or a virtual event, organizations and the industry as a whole are best served when we address diversity, equity and inclusion. Consider who is involved in event planning, who the featured speakers are, and which audiences you are reaching with event promotion. As Erick Petersen, a board member at Green Empowerment and solar industry veteran, said, “How is everyone contemplating how to work individually and professionally to make the many challenges we are facing from Black Lives Matter to diversity and climate change and the pressing need for leadership actionable?”
Finish on Time
Event planning is a true team effort. TerraCurrent and Cross Consulting Services staffed the Clean Energy Events Roundtable with a moderator, a chat facilitator, and two conversation starters. We budgeted time to welcome attendees, set expectations, invite questions and discuss key aspects of the shift to virtual events. And most importantly, we completed the program on time so everyone could turn their attention wherever they would be needed next.