PV America West in March had an array of great panels and a wide range of interesting exhibitors. There were module manufacturers, racking solutions providers, inverter manufacturers, a few financiers, and a handful of miscellaneous companies that service project developers. But installers were relatively absent. I called over one hundred local installers before the show and asked them if they were coming – most said no and cited limited time, personnel, and money.
PV America West was still a success, but it got me thinking about why we have conferences, and why we go (or don't go) to them.
Conferences play an important role in the industry. Ideally they provide opportunities for networking, expertise sharing, learning about product developments, and generate revenue for advocacy groups. Most importantly for attendees, they are great places to generate leads.
As the industry has grown, so have our conferences. Venues and booths are bigger while exhibitors and sponsors are more numerous. As the industry becomes more complicated, there are more panels and information sessions, and conferences last longer to fit it all in.
The information presented has become more valuable, the networking opportunities have improved, and the costs of running the event have increased, so prices have gone up. Because the value and costs have risen, conference organizers have been able to justifiably increase price for exhibitor space, sponsorships, and attendance. This is a healthy sign of our industry growing, except there is one problem: installers are increasingly priced out of attending.
Conferences exist to provide value to the participants; companies gain new information and greater market awareness and are able to generate leads through raising brand awareness, strengthening their brand and making new contacts.
Installers are at the end of the supply chain, the most numerous business type in the industry, and nearly every solar product or service must be sold to them directly or benefit them indirectly. If this trend of declining installer attendance continues, it will be detrimental to overall conference health.
Fewer installers mean fewer potential leads for others in the industry, which creates a less valuable conference experience. This creates a vicious cycle as fewer potential leads and higher prices cause more groups to forgo conference participation. As the number of solar companies has grown, this drop in the rate of participation has not caused any problems. However, eventually this will cause conferences to shrink or be canceled. While that means prices may drop and installers will get interested again, it comes at the expense of less vibrant conference scene. For conferences to grow, attendance of installers of all sizes also needs to grow.
Conferences must reduce cost barriers and market to installers directly to increase attendance. The most effective way conference organizers can reduce the cost barrier is by making it free for installers under a certain size to visit the exhibit hall. Organizers only need to have one “installer day” during their conference for this to work, as installers usually cannot spare much time. But incorporating this with the “general public” day at the tail end of the conference does not cut it. Installers are the main customers in most sectors of the industry, and should get some special attention from conference organizers.
Additionally, organizers should reach out to installers well in advance of the event. Like the rest of the industry, installers are extremely busy and have limited resources, but unlike most other companies, their customers are not at solar conferences. Because they will not make a sale at the conference, installers need to get in the mindset of going to conferences to learn about new products and services. Organizers need to help installers get rid of the idea that conferences are only for big companies, and emphasize the value of what they can learn at the event. Sell them the values of attending and get them to commit.
If installers commit to attend for free early, conference organizers will be better able to sell sponsorships and exhibit space to everyone else. Organizers can then tell potential sponsors and exhibitors about the number of installers who have signed up. The conference will then hold more installers, more leads, more sponsors, more exhibitors, and more revenue for the organizers.
As different conferences have different goals and targeted audiences, this model will not work for every conference. Solar Power International in Orlando is a globally focused conference that attracts large-scale project developers all over the world.
It is the major leagues. Based on the panels and the relatively low cost for an exhibitor pass, it is clear that the organizers are making an effort to draw installers. I am sure a lot of smaller Floridian installers will attend since the costs are relatively low and its in their backyard. However it is a much tougher call to make if you are a small installer out New Jersey, and almost definitely out of the reach for smaller Californian installers. For a New Jersey installer the flight, hotel, and registration will cost them about $600, for a Californian it's about $800 (not to mention the time cost).
$600 might not sound like much, but for some installers that's a big portion of their marketing budget. Smaller installers mainly rely on word of mouth, visibility at local events and in local media, and online marketing to reach customers. These are both effective, have a high short term ROI, and have comparable costs to attending SPI. The return on investment of SPI attendance is not as easily traceable nor immediate enough to make it a wise use of a small installer budget. So while the SPI organizers have made a good effort to lower the cost barriers to installers, travel costs mean they are not able to lower them enough to get as many small installers as upstream players would like.
On the other end of the spectrum, smaller regional solar conferences are predominantly attended by local installers and have few, if any, manufacturers present. I saw this first hand when I helped organize the Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association's annual conference in 2010. Generally manufacturers overlook these smaller conferences in spite of their lower costs because they represent smaller markets. The first manufacturer who seizes this opportunity to talk directly to customers without competition will be very pleased with the result.
This free attendance model and targeted installer marketing will work the best at larger regional conferences. If they are to thrive during this period of tightening belts and event fatigue, organizers will need to rethink their installer strategy and ensure they continue to provide value to all attendees.
Image: piskota via Shutterstock
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