Best Laid Plans: An oral history of the decision to take the NECA Convention virtual

This year’s NECA convention is going to be a little different than usual. Come October, you can sit in your home office or on your couch, a snack or cup of coffee in hand, open your computer screen and navigate to NECA 2020 LIVE. Explore the virtual convention floor, people wandering about, looking like folks you might see at, well, an ordinary trade show. Click to take yourself to the live opening session. Want to visit the exhibit hall, or attend one of the educational presentations? Just click! Did you miss a presentation? No problem, a recording will be archived for 30 days. Want to meet up with an associate or friend? Open a private chat room. Want to save all the information you’ve gathered? Just one more click. Welcome to NECA 2020 LIVE!

As originally planned, 10,000 people in the electrical contracting world were supposed to come to Chicago to hobnob, share information, renew friendships, sell their products, educate themselves and more. Then along came COVID-19.

What was going through the minds of the movers and shakers at the National Electrical Contractors Association as their plans for an in-person convention seemed to unravel? In their own words, they tell you how a virtual convention came to be.

NECA Shows are planned years in advance. When did you realize that it might not happen due to the coronavirus?

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David Long, CEO: On in-house calls, we talked about the possibilities in March and then April was a research period. We thought there was a chance [NECA 2020 Chicago] wouldn’t happen but kept tracking until June. We were in touch with the McCormick Center, and some other Chicago folks asked us to decide by June 1.

When May 1 arrived, we started diving into details of what it would be like to hold the convention in person. We tell our contractors to adhere to social distancing guidelines, but this is a relationship organization, and our contractor members learn from each other and attend the convention for that reason. The worst thing that could have happened was to have someone get the virus from us coming together, and putting large populations of our critical infrastructure at risk because these contractors are deemed essential. For us to take a risk of infectious disease among a mass population would have been detrimental not only to our contractors but to our association.

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Marco Giamberardino, vice president, government and public affairs: We’d get questions. “Hey, what’s happening?” Some conferences were canceled or postponed, which created additional curiosity.

What was your reaction when you met with the city of Chicago and it could not guarantee the safety of contractors traveling to an in-person convention?

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Traci Walker, CFO: I was disappointed; however, I was not surprised. I was somewhat relieved that the city made the decision for us. I just couldn’t imagine that cities would safely go from meetings of no more than 10 people to meetings with thousands of people. I also had a hard time envisioning networking with masks and social distancing in place. We heard mixed messages from our possible attendees. Some were very excited and hoped that the event would take place, while others expressed concerns.

NECA leadership explored different methods of holding a virtual event to prepare in case the convention could not be held in person. The team met continually during this period to plot a course forward.

How quickly was the decision made? Was the Chicago-Cook County NECA Chapter involved?

David Long: Internally, we decided to go virtual on June 15. I immediately called the NECA executive committee together, and our goal was to have a platform under contract within the next two weeks. It was one of those things that we had to do, the right thing for every individual, for the city of Chicago and the McCormick Center, because they’ve been so good to us through the years in the Chicago chapter. Next we needed to understand the financial model and articulate that to the executive committee. One of the keys was when the Chicago chapter said, “Hey, we want to come in and help sponsor it.”

What were the legal ramifications regarding NECA’s contracts and liability for health of participants?

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Jef Fagan, general counsel: We have been able to alter, cancel or postpone many contracts for the live convention in 2020 without penalty. Our contracts typically have mutual indemnification provisions in them, meaning that each party assumes liability for the acts and omissions of their employees and agents and insulates the other party from that potential liability. COVID-19 has not changed that situation.

We had dozens of contracts from event facilities, associated hotels, restaurants and venues and speaker contracts all directed to a live convention in Chicago. We waited as long as we could and communicated directly with the city of Chicago and the convention center. We invoked the force majeure clause in the contract, giving them notice, which they accepted, so we got out of those contracts with no penalties. [However,] instead of canceling some of the contracts, we agreed to postpone them, in order to not argue about language terminology.

How quickly did you have to change plans from an in-person meeting in Chicago to a completely virtual event?

Traci Walker: We had been planning for a hybrid convention from early on in the pandemic, so it was easy to make the transition to 100% virtual once the city of Chicago informed us that we were not able to have the in-person convention. The Convention and Education teams are trying to make the experience the next best thing to an in-person, allowing for networking, education as well as the trade show experience.

How did you choose an online platform?

Traci Walker: We looked at a few online platforms. vFairs: Virtual Events Platform seemed to be the best option to allow for education, commerce/trade show and networking. We could have used Zoom or a similar platform if we were just having speakers.

You had planned all these programs for the in-person show. How did it feel to have to scrap those plans?

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Stephanie Adamec, executive director, education: The call for proposals for convention was ending just as coronavirus began ramping up, so the education team made the decision to pause on session selection until we had a better idea of what the convention would look like. When the virtual format was finalized, we were able to use a combination of speakers that had already submitted, speakers we’ve seen or worked with in the past that we felt would be dynamic and interactive in a virtual environment and new speakers that we sought out to ensure that we’re covering the breadth and depth of topics that NECA convention attendees expect.

What steps is the team taking to translate the convention experience online?

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Katie McCormick, director, conventions and meetings: The heart and soul of the NECA Convention is the engagement between the people in attendance. The spirit of camaraderie is felt in every aspect of the show. After months of working from home and spending so much time on conference calls, our team wanted to present the industry with something more. vFairs is that something more. It is a robust and visually substantial space that allows participants to attend breakout rooms and general sessions, explore the exhibit hall and connect with exhibitors for products and services, and most importantly engage with one another. Whether you are an IT pro or still learning about digital conferences, the user experience at NECA 2020 LIVE will be a comfortable and welcoming place.

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Beth Ellis, executive director, convention and meetings: Nothing will replace an in-person NECA convention experience but our chosen virtual event platform (vFairs) is a unique digital experience. vFairs is immersive and allows NECA to showcase general sessions, lounges, the exhibit floor and much more. Navigating this environment rich in content and engagement would be daunting, but we have incorporated gamification strategies to ensure the users have fun learning and exploring the digital NECA convention experience.  In addition to making the registrants more comfortable in the digital space, the gamification also encourages participants to engage more with exhibitors and sponsorship. This has been a challenging year for the supplier community, so more engagement helps them recover and our members prepare for the economic recovery.

Jef Fagan: Most of what we’re doing is what’s called semi-live recordings. A presenter will record their presentations and then during the convention be available for a live chat. From a liability standpoint, the virtual is as safe as you could get. We think, moving forward, that most people will want to come to a live event but some for financial or travel reasons will want to take advantage of a virtual opportunity in conjunction with a live event. For our 2021 conference in Nashville, we’ll have a remote component.

How did you approach the planning for the educational program? Were you able to do different things because the convention is now virtual?

Stephanie Adamec: Research shows that participants’ attention spans in a virtual environment are much shorter than face-to-face, so we took a critical look at our session lengths and ensured that we adapted for the new reality. We also took into account the potential for an expanded audience at the convention, ensuring that we have programs for a wide range of job roles and functions.

For many years, a transition to remote learning was a slow climb for NECA. Each year, we’d provide more resources and expand our audience, but, in 2020, it exploded. Since the pandemic started, we have educated 12 times as many people with online training this year as we did in all of 2019. Members are now seeing the benefits of virtual training through NECA’s offerings of on-demand courses, webinars and virtual classrooms, and we believe that experience will translate well for our convention.

Do you expect to reach a larger audience since no one is traveling and some may not be able to afford to sign up more company employees?

Katie McCormick: We did a survey and found that many contractors from smaller companies had not attended before because they couldn’t be out of the office. A lot of them didn’t have access to educational opportunities. By doing this, we realized we’d be reaching an audience we’d never touched before. Also, the archived material will be available on-demand online for a full month afterward. This enables attendees to have so much flexibility.

Beth Ellis: We expect to reach the largest audience we have ever reached because we have the tools and software in place to identify the target audiences and because convenience is a driving factor. Attendees won’t have to worry about the travel, accommodations, food and beverage expenses that an in-person event would have. You receive Grade A education for a very low price. In addition, NECA 2020 LIVE is a customized experience. Pick the classes you want to take and navigate straight to the exhibitor booths and websites you want to learn more about.

Marco Giamberardino: We broke the record for the highest first-day registration in our history.

What impact will this online convention have on contractors?

David Long: Contractors will be able to go back over 30 days to revisit content and take advantage of all we have to offer. There will be a library of information out there. A lot of the larger chapters are saying, “This is so inexpensive and such a bargain that we’re going to send 5, 10, 15 or even all of our contractors.”

We’re really excited about the slate of speakers, the depth of the educational opportunities offered and the ability to meet with our peers despite the pandemic. Although this is not the event we set out to do when we started this year, we think it will bring something fresh to the industry and will engage more contractors, and their staff members, than any other event in NECA’s history. Holding this event in this year shows what we can do when we all come together to innovate and build something new.

All of the NECA staff members interviewed in this article are bullish on the opportunity that NECA 2020 LIVE offers the industry. Register at www.necaconvention.org. You do not need to be a NECA member to sign up. 

 

Making the Show Come Alive

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David Meade, convivial master of ceremonies and keynote speaker for NECA 2020 LIVE, and son of an electrical contractor, hails from Northern Ireland and speaks internationally. He is no stranger to NECA events. He hosts them often and admits that he feels like the electrical industry and contractors “are part of my DNA, they’re inside my veins. They’re such a warm and welcoming sector.”

During NECA 2020 LIVE, Meade will introduce the 30 or so speakers and deliver presentations on a variety of topics.

“We’ll also have international keynote speakers and subject experts who have high technical expertise. And, we’ll be looking at diversity and inclusion, rightfully at the top of the agenda,” Meade said.

“The most important thing to me is taking the live experience and recreating it in a virtual way,” he said. “My job is to make sure people feel that it’s important that they are there, to make the audience feel they’re part of the action, make sessions feel like events.

“I’ll be talking to the people in the sessions, giving energy to the audience, calling out people—‘Simon’s here from Cincinnati, and Tina’s here from Lake Tahoe.’ That’s what gives it some energy, makes coming together an event rather than just a place to gather content,” he said.

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“In my keynotes, we will look at the performance of high-performing teams, associations and individuals; at the psychology of how we achieve high performance; how we’re more persuasive; how we’ve become more effective leaders; and even how we behave more effectively online as well. We’ll be looking at some simple tools and techniques in those areas that will help contractors. Convention attendees will get the opportunity to have meaningful conversations, debates and dialogues with others via the cameras on their computers, and that interactivity really is key.

“Yet, it’s not just at the convention that contractors are dealing with communicating virtually,” Meade said. “Many of the contractors used to meet their employees every day, morning, noon and night—face to face. Now they can do a lot of that electronically, and it’s ever more important to learn the techniques that make people feel excited about their work while distanced.”

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