Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 6/2020

The Show must go On-line

Since the start of the global Coronavirus pandemic, most businesses have experienced a pretty dramatic change in their fortunes. While an exceptional few, like supermarkets, online retailers and entertainment streaming services, have prospered from the crisis, the major-ity have experienced, at best a lean time and, at worst, a real battle for survival.

One sector having to face up to the grim realities of a currently unenviable business model are those involved in planning, organisation and delivery of large-scale industry conferences and exhibitions. Despite some relaxation of restrictions on public gatherings in many European countries, it is evident that these types of trade fairs, often attracting many thousands of participants from around the world, are not going to be feasible for a little while yet.

And even when the big venues re-open and licences can be obtained, a disinclination to embark on business travel and deal the extra complexities at airports, in hotels and at the shows themselves, will act as a deterrent to some would-be attendees. We can therefore expect the Zoom meeting phenomenon to be with us for some while longer, despite the reported growing “Zoom fatigue”.

For the energy sector, conferences and trade shows have been an intrinsic part of the annual calendar for decades. They have fostered innovation and knowledge sharing as well as created global marketplaces for best-in-class technology. Industrial trade fairs have been a particular feature of German marketing practice ever since the Hannover Trade Fair was launched in 1947.

VGB’s own annual Congress was one such annual fixture, focusing on the best in power plant engineering and expertise, and staging in many European cities, while events like POWER-GEN Europe and European Utility Week took the trade fair concept on the road, pitching up also in different European countries and cities each year.

The big international fairs have been good for European business and still maintain significant support. “Fairs are indispensable because they offer the perfect platform for the best and most powerful marketing tool on earth: Dialogue marketing – face to face – using all your senses!”, commented Robert Sarcevic, Head of Fairs, Siemens Global Business Services, recently.

But like many other businesses, the events industry has had to engage in some radical thinking in order to continue to serve its stake-holders and to keep alive connections to their communities. With the staging of this year’s events being put back several months or cancelled entirely, a sense of loss of momentum in innovation and industry progression is being felt.

“When we told our community about the re-scheduling to 2021 they told us that they did not want such a void”, said Paddy Young, Director of Enlit Europe, the successor event to POWER-GEN Europe and European Utility Week.

Since the start of the Coronavirus shutdown, the Enlit Europe team has been leading the way in making a strategic shift to an online format of content delivery. It has accelerated an embryonic plan to communicate with its community throughout the year and not just during the three days of the live event.

Enlit Europe plans to launch a dedicated digital platform serving all those engaged in Europe’s energy transition, covering a wide variety of topics that will break down the silos of specialist interests and encourage greater energy system integration. The first pilot season of webinars and video industry interviews have already been broadcast and are available on-demand on the Enlit Europe website. The on-demand aspect is a key feature of the platform and will provide a valuable industry resource.

Some of the topics covered were to have been delivered as part of the physical conference but have been adapted very successfully to a webinar format and have attracted encouragingly large numbers of online participants.

As the platform is developed, Enlit will be incorporating AI-based networking and matchmaking functionality, an online expo and product directory, a daily news feed and working with leading partners and associations to co-create content for the sector.

“We want to deliver our programming in a very different way; one that tells a story from start to finish,” explains Young. “Each season will feature a choice of series topics covering aspects of the energy transition, made up of episodes, progressively driving the story forward around the green energy transition.”

The success of online content formats has led many in the events industry to predict a future where hybrid events will become the norm, which combine a physical meeting with one where an online audience also participates. One obvious attraction to these is the far broader audience that can be reached compared to a typical “live only” event. Venues are already being adapted to make hybrid meetings possible.

Despite the unwelcome headwinds, those in the events industry remain very optimistic about the return of large-scale and extravagant trade shows. The sector’s trade associations are convinced that exhibitions have the potential to reignite economies across every industry sector.

In Germany, trade shows have the green light to return but the UK has not announced any re-start date. The British events sector is calling on government to acknowledge their planned introduction of numerous control measures, far in excess of that in place with other sectors which have been allowed to re-open, and to set a ‘go date’ as a matter of utmost urgency, in order to rebuild the industry.

Of course, it is one thing organising a show but another to persuade the visitors and exhibitors to come. The energy sector is used to events drawing participants from all around the globe but it seems likely that, at least in the short term, trade exhibitions and conferences will likely have a more local flavour with domestic buyers and suppliers.

However, physical trade shows are not going away. We all miss the human contact and extra productivity that come with face-to face meetings, but until that returns, we can take considerable consolation from the exciting and varied programme of online content, growing by the day, that is keeping us informed and connected to our community.