Solar trade shows after a pandemic: the future is hybrid

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North America Smart Energy Week (NASEW) — the trade show still widely referred to as Solar Power International (SPI) — has yet to announce whether it will be postponed or go virtual.

It is the largest solar and clean energy trade show in the country — attendance in 2019 was 19,000 — and therefore the hardest to imagine in a world of social distancing.

The dilemma for NASEW is one facing trade show organizers not only in the renewable energy industry, but across all sectors of the economy. They are scrambling to find new ways for people to network and promote their businesses online, while looking toward a future in which thousands of attendees and exhibitors can once again pack convention centers.

pv magazine reached out to the organizers behind some of the clean energy industry’s key events, as well as those who have responded to the pandemic with new virtual events. The individuals we spoke with each had thoughtful insights and perspectives on the current situation and the way forward. At the same time, a number of common threads emerged.

  • In-person events — and the one-on-one networking and relationship building they provide — are essential to industry growth. Pending a coronavirus vaccine, new layers of safety at industry events, based on the latest medical guidance, will be crucial for recovery.
  • Without in-person events, the hunger for connection across the industry is significant, reflected in the record registrations event organizers are seeing for virtual events.
  • The online audience has webinar fatigue. With increasingly sophisticated online platforms, virtual presentations need to be shorter and more engaging than standard conference fare, with time for audience questions and online networking built in.
  • The future is undoubtedly hybrid. How to monetize the virtual side of events will be a challenge, but the focus will be on adding value for customers.

Still another point of agreement — success will depend on how nimble trade show organizers can be.

“I am asking the same questions,” said Wes Doane, the event director for Intersolar North America, “but they require much more complex answers.”

NASEW

Given this year’s California location — Anaheim — prospects for NASEW to go forward in September as an in-person event seem slim, particularly given Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on large events until a vaccine is available. The impact of a postponement or the event going virtual would be significant. The trade show is a concentrated hub for market growth, innovation and thought leadership, as well as a major source of funding for its two nonprofit hosts — the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA).

Solar Energy Trade Shows (SETS), formed by SEIA and SEPA in 2009 to organize the show, so far has postponed two of its smaller, regional spinoffs — Solar Power Southeast and Solar Power Puerto Rico — while offering a mixed menu of informal online events.

Citing webinar burnout, Gary Thuro, chief marketing and sales officer, said the current strategy is “to come up with entertaining, shorter Solar Power events at home — Ask the Experts, Energy After Hours. Grab a beverage and sit down with experts, and you can send in questions.”

“Entertaining” is the key word here. Anticipating a hybrid future, Thuro points to entertainment events with both at-home and in-person audiences as a model the trade show industry might want to study.

“What I am trying to figure out is where do those things come together; how do you combine virtual and in-person and make one experience happen,” he said.

Other questions keeping Thuro up at night — what does a socially distanced trade show look like, and how do you price the event for attendees who want to be on the floor one day and go virtual the next?

“An expo center is a piece of real estate that you’re cutting up into pieces and monetizing,” he said. “How much less space do we have to sell, and how many people can we get on the floor at once? And how do you explain that to people who are used to a trade show being a certain way — to adapt to consuming it differently and paying for it.”

Intersolar

Intersolar North America got in just under the wire. After going on hiatus in 2019, the trade show previously held each summer in San Francisco resurfaced in San Diego in early February, before the global spread of Covid-19 triggered widespread lockdowns and event cancellations and postponements.

At the time, the one red flag was the U.S. ban on visitors from China, where the outbreak started, declared a few days before the event, now organized by Diversified Communications. The company, a family-owned business headquartered in Maine, also recently added Energy Storage North America (ESNA) to a global portfolio of trade shows, spanning industries from accounting and finance to food and beverage to waste management.

Diversified responded to Covid-19 initially with event postponements and is now venturing into virtual. At the same time, it is moving ahead with plans for a combined Intersolar and ESNA in January 2021 in Long Beach and has issued a call for abstracts — banking on some loosening of California’s ban on large in-person events.

It’s a tricky balancing act. Wes Doane, Diversified’s Intersolar event manager, is optimistic that increasing knowledge about the virus and evolving safety guidelines will allow a return to in-person trade shows. But he also says ongoing adaptation is imperative.

“The question we’re asking ourselves is how do you continue to engage with your customers in a meaningful way when there is so much uncertainty,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of customer outreach; all these businesses, solar and storage, are facing completely unique challenges they weren’t facing four months ago. We need to learn quickly what those challenges are because our goal as a conference organizer is to provide folks with solutions to these problems.”

In this shifting terrain, he sees virtual platforms and other online tools as assets for providing additional value for event attendees, whether online or at in-person events; for example, the use of artificial intelligence to set up meetings between exhibitors and potential customers.

“That could work in any of these scenarios,” he said. “The same would go for delivering educational content online, if that provides more access.”

SolarEdge

Hit the floor at almost any solar industry trade show, and you won’t have too much trouble finding the large, busy booth of Israeli inverter manufacturer SolarEdge.

So as Covid-19 locked down country after country — and trade show after trade show — the company started looking for online alternatives to maintain those personal connections with customers.

“We said, OK, we want to try and capture as much of that (live) experience as possible,” said Lior Handelsman, company founder and vice president of marketing and product strategy. “We wanted something a bit more interactive.”

The result is a virtual solar show, rolling out online June 16-17, designed to simulate the experience of a live event, right down to a virtual booth where attendees can click “hotspots” to join live product demos or talk one on one with company representatives. The program will also include an international roster of speakers for short, TED Talk-style presentations — 18-minutes per speaker, tops, including time for audience questions, Handelsman said.

The original announcement for the show said SolarEdge was open to other industry players participating, a possibility that did not pan out, Handelsman said.

With a significant investment in setting up the virtual booth — and the timing of a Covid vaccine still uncertain — Handelsman said the online booth platform is designed to be replicable and will be ready for a virtual NASEW or other industry conferences if needed.

Echoing others, Handelsman stressed that the personal contact and relationship building trade shows offer are irreplaceable. But as industry conferences continue to incorporate online components, the technology will drive its own growth.

“Once you’ve done it enough times, you have the tools, the infrastructure, the processes,” he said. “It becomes easier.”