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Like the organizers of so many large-scale business events, the team behind North America Smart Energy Week had, since the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, been discussing various scenarios for how it could still hold its 20,000-person convention — originally scheduled for September in California. As the largest gathering of solar and smart energy professionals in North America — it includes both the Solar Power International and Energy Storage International events — it became increasingly clear that concerns about the capacity and health risks associated with a large-scale indoor event would prohibit the gathering from taking place as originally planned.
But as the date drew closer and the organizers were faced with a choice between cancelling Smart Energy Week or coming up with a Plan B, they struck upon an idea that was so simple it was almost surprising it hadn't occurred to them before: Just move the event outside.
"When we thought of making it an outdoor event, it opened up a lot of options," says Gary Thuro, chief marketing and sales officer for Solar Power Events, the show's organizer.
The spread of COVID-19 has been found to be significantly lower outdoors, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranking outdoor gatherings as a "moderate risk" (only virtual-only gatherings are considered lower risk). In a study of more than 7,300 COVID-19 cases in China, just one was connected to outdoor transmission. As Linsey Marr, an engineering professor and aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech, told the New York Times in May, "I think outdoors is so much better than indoors in almost all cases. There's so much dilution that happens outdoors. As long as you're staying at least six feet apart, I think the risk is very low."
Of course, a gathering of thousands of people anywhere this fall still entails its share of risks, but with additional social-distancing and sanitation measures and a reorganizing of the agenda, moving things outdoors has hopefully shifted Smart Energy Week from impossible to doable. Due to the uncertain reopening schedule in California with respect to large events, Thuro reached out to his contacts at the Las Vegas Convention Center and learned that they would have space to accommodate the group in the venue's Bronze Lot, as long as they moved the event a month later, to Oct. 21-22.
"Our operations people are monitoring that weekly, working with the folks in Nevada and Las Vegas to stay updated on what’s on the ground there."
Gary Thuro, Solar Power Events
With the broad changes in place, Thuro and his team went to the show's owners and got approval to proceed. But everyone involved knew that if this new version of the show was to succeed, safety would need to be front and center. So, Smart Energy Week developed a Safely Connecting Initiative that follows a detailed range of health-safety practices.
"We are taking advice from the World Health Organization and CDC, following their guidelines as far as what you should do for an outdoor event," says Thuro. "Our operations people are monitoring that weekly, working with the folks in Nevada and Las Vegas to stay updated on what's on the ground there. It's going to be one of those things that is changing up until the last minute, so we'll be making adjustments as we move forward."
Among the safety measures the organizers are implementing:
- Registration will be conducted virtually, with mobile badge pickup and scanning at entry.
- Masks will be required for all attendees, staff and exhibitors and provided to anyone who needs one.
- Sanitization stations will be placed throughout the event, offering touch-free hand sanitizer, gloves and alcohol wipes.
- Surfaces will be cleaned and restrooms will be sanitized frequently.
- Exhibitors will have to limit the number of personnel in each booth at one time and will be encouraged to add plexiglass shields to counters and meeting tables.
- Instead of high-touch promotional products, exhibitors will be encouraged to distribute digital collateral.
- Food and beverage will be provided using no-contact measures and disposable service ware.
Since many of the event's attendees are coming from California, holding the event in Las Vegas allows them to drive in if they feel uncomfortable with flying.
"It's not too terrible a drive from Southern California to Vegas, so if you want to make a day of it, you can do that," says Thuro.
Transferring an event from indoors to outdoors has meant a number of logistical changes, with the biggest change being working with exhibitors to ensure their booths work outdoors. The show floor is being designed for 8,000-10,000 attendees, and will include two theaters on the exhibit grounds. A third may be added, where general sessions and speakers will take the stage. It will also include an outdoor beer garden for some Oktoberfest-themed networking (socially distanced, of course). The organizers are still working out how seating would be arranged, or whether there will be seating at all.
In October, the temperature in Las Vegas should be in the low 80s during the day, so they aren't tenting the whole show, but they will be securing industrial-strength fans and individual exhibitors will be tenting their own booths.
The move outside has presented its own opportunities. For an event dedicated to solar technology, an outdoor convention is an ideal venue to show off just what the exhibitors can do. Every year, exhibitors have collaborated to build a microgrid on site that powers a portion of the show with renewable energy. This year, the entire event will be powered by the grid.
"As exhibitors are signing on, if they have a product like solar panels or some of the products that are required to build a microgrid, we'll have them participate as part of the presentation," says Thuro. "We'll have virtually no footprint as far as electricity by powering it ourselves."
But the show won't include the multitrack education offerings that had been part of the original agenda. Concerned about the logistics of trying to coordinate the numerous education sessions while ensuring social distancing and capacity limits, the organizers decided it was best to move all of that online. Taking place over six weeks, each track will offer a "micro-conference" covering a key aspect of the solar industry such as finance and development or electric vehicles and asset management, with live and pre-recorded online sessions, speaker Q&As and more.
"We realize we won't get 20,000 people to come to the live event, but there's a good chance we'll get 20,000 in total, between the conference and the virtual pieces."
Gary Thuro, Solar Power Events
"Our show is a real B2B show where business gets done, and that's the main reason people come — for the exhibition and networking," says Thuro. "So, we didn't feel that we'd be cannibalizing the show by doing that, because they are kind of different audiences that attend those two things."
The live Smart Energy Week will also include an online component, allowing remote attendees to view livestreams of the general sessions and on-the-floor interviews with attendees and sponsors. Remote attendees can also take part in a Virtual Ride & Drive and speak directly to hundreds of exhibitors.
"It will still allow people to meet and do business, and we're just hoping to give people that one time this year they can get together with all these people in the industry," says Thuro. "We realize we won't get 20,000 people to come to the live event, but there's a good chance we'll get 20,000 in total, between the conference and the virtual pieces."
Thuro and his team are just starting to resell the show, calling up all 650-plus exhibitors who had been booked for the original event to explain what they are doing and working to find new space for them. He says that so far, the feedback from exhibitors has been uniformly positive.
"Everybody who has seen the announcement has been very supportive and I haven't had anybody tell me it's a crazy idea yet," says Thuro. "Everybody wants the show to happen."