September 2012 – Carter Lavin, Business Development Manager
While walking around SPI last week I realized that it is probably the best place in the country to be a solar installer. Hundreds of companies spent tens of thousands of dollars on booths, presentations, parties, and message crafting, all to get you to use their product. The conference was an international product and service showcase and as an installer, you would be one of the most popular people there.
While the conference sessions were geared towards upstream manufacturers or international project developers, the exhibit hall was dedicated to installers. Check out this list of exhibitors and look at these pictures from the exhibit hall floor. If you are an installer, pretty much everyone you have written a check to in the industry is there (with the notable exceptions of some American solar module manufacturers). Everyone who has marketed, sold, or designed any product you have installed or that you could be using is there. Not to mention, everyone who has written for an industry publication was there and hunting for a good story.
If you were an installer at SPI you would have gotten a lot of special attention because while nearly all your potential suppliers were there, only a handful of your competitors were there too. So you would be able to learn about all these new products, features, and services, and have in depth conversations with your industry partners. Conferences are places where you, the installer, can talk directly with a wide variety of industry professionals, but only at SPI could a small and mid-sized installer spend quality time with so many higher-ups from racking, inverter, or module companies.
SPI in Orlando was a rare opportunity for installers to talk directly to the head of many solar companies or product engineers and tell them what you think about their company. Did you have a messed up shipment? Are you unhappy with a product redesign? Don’t understand some new feature? Go right up there and tell them. SPI also gave you the chance to compare products and sales pitches of competitors side by side.
For example, let’s say you are unsure about power optimizers vs. microinverters vs. imbedded microinverters vs. package optimizers and string inverter systems. SPI was the perfect chance for you to go through a lengthy in-person messaging battle royal with the sales leads from the different companies. You could watch the Tigo team give their presentation, then have a nice long chat with one of their sales reps. Next you could swing by the SolarEdge booth for a magic show and hear about their product differentiations. After your power optimizer love-fest you could stop in at the Enphase booth and see how their pitch stands up to what you just heard. Finally, you could visit the SolarBridge booth and hear why their imbedded microinverter solution is the way to go. The really exciting part is when you stop by a booth the second time armed with questions and figures from a competitor.
These in-depth, in-person product comparison sessions are some of the best parts about SPI and you could do that with rackers, trackers, module manufacturers, monitoring system providers, and installer tool providers. So while an installer won’t generate a lead at the conference, they can collect all this information, make their purchasing decisions, and save themselves from hours of hunting down facts on websites and webinars.
With all the opportunities for networking, learning, dealing, and partying, installers would have had an amazing time at SPI. So why were they noticeably absent?
While solar conferences provide a lot of value to installers, they are generally targeted and sold to upstream manufacturers. Normally, this is a smart business decision since the upstream players are the ones who have the resources to make big booths, or be big sponsors. And for years it has worked fine. For years upstream companies have gladly invested large parts of their limited marketing budget to have a prominent presence at these conferences because they had a strong return on investment. But now, for a variety of reasons, many installers are no longer making attending SPI a priority, which diminishes the ROI for exhibiters.
Thankfully this can be fixed. By reaching out to installers and telling them about the real value of attending SPI, installer attendance can return to healthy levels. In fact, since the installer market has grown so much in the US in the last few years, and there are more products than ever on the market, installer attendance should be able to break all previous records. Solar conferences, like the solar industry, have a compelling story to be told. They can provide a strong ROI to all participants if they are packaged correctly. In the next 12 months until Solar Power International in Chicago the story can be told, attendance rates can stabilize, and the value it provides to the entire industry can grow. But it will only work if we keep SPI the best place to be an installer.