I miss hugs.

At a pre-pandemic conference, NWPPA Communication Manager Brenda Dunn, left, Blachly-Lane Electric Communications and Legislative Affairs Representative Pam Spettel and Pioneer Brand Storyteller Megan McKoy-Noe CONNECT-ed.

Maybe hugs are not for you, especially after the last 16 months. That’s OK. But after working remotely for almost a decade, I find an important connection happens when I attend a conference. (That says a lot when you consider I’m an introvert. Yes, really.)

This week many of us should be kicking up our heels in Nashville, Tennessee, scooting through idea-packed sessions, CONNECT-ing with peers, and finding fresh storytelling approaches for shared challenges. Instead, we’re meeting virtually. Again.

One of my best friends can’t get vaccinated, and my daughter won’t be eligible till fall.

I appreciate virtual meetings. They fight inspiration isolation.

Our webinars often host up to 100 utility pioneers, and Pioneer Utility Resources loves sponsoring online communication celebrations. But we need to connect without screens. Soon.

My first in-the-real conference will be StoryConnect: The Conference, August 24 to 26 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we dive into the power of storytelling for utility communicators. And I can’t wait to be reunited with many of you October 11 to 14 at NWPPA’s Northwest Innovations in Communications Conference.

But after more than a year of virtual learning, some utility managers might be tempted to question the need for a travel budget.

Here are 3 Reasons In-Person Meetings — & Travel Budgets — Matter

1. Faces Keep Us Focused

A conference doorhangerMy daughter discovered her screen’s background option the last week of virtual pre-K. Her focus (slim as it was) dissolved. You might think this reaction is limited to children, but I’ve seen backgrounds swiftly change while in Zoom meetings with peers, too.

To learn, we need to focus. That will not happen — no matter how hard you try — in a home or utility office. People walk in, not realizing you’re watching a streamed event. We tried to help by creating door hangers to keep people at bay during May’s NTCA conference. The fact that you need a sign on your door tells you something about the pitfalls of online conferences.

Great Business Schools reports 84% of people prefer in-person meetings. Using a very busy and detail-packed infographic, the group found face-to-face meetings help us:

  • Generate more (and better) ideas.
  • Strengthen peer relationships.
  • Think strategically.

Faces — and getting away from your workspace — keep us focused and make us more productive. After a year of working weekends and balancing virtual pre-K with streamed meetings, I wholeheartedly agree.

2. Hallways Spark Inspiration

General sessions are great, but they are not why I attend conferences. My best takeaways often happen in hallways. I reconnect with friends, meet new faces, ask people what they’re doing, and hear amazing ideas.

As communicators for community-owned utilities, we sometimes forget not every industry shares ideas and content as freely as we do.

Sharing resources is in our co-op DNA. 

In-person events help you get big ideas and helpful directions from conference speakers. But the true value happens when you use hallway connections to hear how folks are telling their stories, then work on solving common challenges together.

Coos-Curry Electric Co-op Marketing and Member Services Manager Jacob Knudsen, left, Pioneer VP of Content Leon Espinoza and Mt. Wheeler Power Internal Communications Specialist Christina Sawyer trade ideas between conference sessions.

3. Brainstorms Rarely Form Alone

Never underestimate the power of brainstorming. While this can be done online (our multistate marketing team holds weekly video chats), there’s something special about thinking through a challenge with a group of people from other utilities in a setting away from the office.

Maybe a “storm” could develop at your desk, but I’ve more often found ideas strike when I’m having coffee with a friend, bowling, or enjoying karaoke (a common practice at some meetings; my go-to song is Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”). After-hours conference events are about more than free drink tickets. They’re a prime place for brainstorms to strike, while strengthening much-needed friendships across state lines.

How better to get ideas than to form friendships with your award-winning peers? One of my favorite parts of NWPPA’s NIC conference is the chance to brainstorm with folks like this group of 2019 communication award winners.

See You Soon?

I hope you don’t face questions about the value of face-to-face meetings. If you do, use these pointers to explain conferences’ hidden values.

How do you explain the value of attending in-person meetings? Share your ideas below.

Then, the next time I see you in the real, I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee paired with a real, face-to-face conversation. I can’t wait.

Learn how StoryConnect: The Conference can strengthen your storytelling skills.

StoryConnect: The Conference