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March 20, 2020

Maine businesses make the pivot to put planned in-person events online

A smiling man at a information table at a business expo in front of a sign that says E2Tech Photo / Claudia Dricot Marty Grohman, executive director of E2Tech, which is one of the companies learning to pivot from live events to virtual ones during COVID-19 meeting restrictions. He's seen here at last May's CEI annual conference in Brunswick.

E2Tech had been planning the Cleantech Open Mixer, a kickoff for a clean tech accelerator, for some time. Scheduled for March 19, as of March 12 there were 70 registrants for the venue at Verrill Law Firm in Portland, which holds about 90.

"I was jazzed," said Marty Grohman, executive director of E2Tech, a member-based organization focused on energy solutions. There was a similar event being held in Cambridge, Mass., and the Maine one was ahead in registrations. He joked with his Massachusetts counterparts, "The Maine one is going to be better, you just watch."

Then everything changed.

E2Tech made the decision to go online with the event last Friday, the day after the state's first COVID-19 case was publicly reported and Gov. Janet Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC urged precautions, including shutting down any events with more than 250 people.

While the E2Tech event was going to be far less, Grohman said it was important to get ahead of the situation.

"I figured if we pivoted to online early, we'd be able to plan better," he said this morning.

The E2Tech Cleantech Open Mixer is one of a several Maine events that as of last week were planned for in-person, but quickly made the pivot to virtual instead of canceling or postponing.

From big events, to small

The business events that have switched from in-person to online range from small to large. A sampling includes:

Fast Forward Maine's planned all-day April 7 summit in Portland on business growth, leadership, how to attract and retain the best employees, overcoming workforce shortages, why company culture is a game changer and more. The program, a partnership between Machias Savings Bank and flyte new media that has a podcast and offers monthly free business conferences, had planned the event as its first of what's to be an annual event, with a full lineup of speakers and more.

They expected 150 to 200 people to attend. Now it's being converted to a free online event, and those who paid to attend will be refunded and get "virtual summit passes." The change came after "some difficult discussions," according to Fast Forward's website, and the details are still being worked out.

Central Maine Growth Council planned a mandatory workshop for those applying for Waterville downtown facade grants for Thursday night. Originally to be in-person, it was held via Zoom, which allows people to attend either by phone or computer, and was no longer mandatory.

CMGC had an online instruction document that not only included the agenda, but instructions on using Zoom and online meeting protocol. The organization, which pioneered statewide virtual job fairs last year, was already keyed to virtual events. The got about 20 participants, which was expected, and had no technology issues, said Elaine Theriault-Currier, CMGC program director.

Maine Life Real Estate today is hosting a virtual open house of a property at 20 Woodspell Road in Scarborough live on the firm's Facebook page at 1 p.m. Broker Rob Edgerley is going to be there live, leading viewers through the home for about 15 to 20 minutes, showing each room. "We can't do a real open house in these times but we can get viewers," he told Mainebiz.

On Sunday, the brokerage will have an open house at the property from noon to 2 p.m., where buyers  can walk through for 10 minutes with their agent or a Maine Life broker, with no more than four people. It will be by appointment only, which is a change, Edgerley said. Hand sanitzer and wipes will be available before entry and after entry.  

"The market is still moving but showings are starting to be affected," Edgerley said. "We are all curious about how this will change the market."

Pros and cons

E2Tech's "mixer" was held on Zoom Thursday night. After 110 registered following the announcement that the event was free and would be online, 55 attended via Zoom.

While the decision was made quickly, announced in an email blast the morning of March 13, Grohman said it wasn't made without some consideration of the downsides, including the hit that the caterer, Blue Elephant, would take, as well as host venue Verrill. 

The decision came just three days after E2Tech hosted an event at CEI in Brunswick, featuring Mahesh Ramanujam, president and CEO of the Washington D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council. That event drew about 45 people, Grohman said.

"We were very careful and had COVID-aware announcements to all attendees, plus extra hand sanitizer, no handshake policy," Grohman said. "It was also a good chance to tell the LEED green building story, in that the space was roomy, with good ventilation and healthy building materials." But things changed quickly after that, and those measures wouldn't be enough for the Cleantech Open Mixer.

While it's still early in the new era of social distancing, Grohman said the organization has already learned some things from the Thursday night virtual event that will spur long-term changes. For instance, Zoom is a good platform for small groups, but larger ones require a platform set up for larger events, like LogMein's Go To Meeting.

The event also used Slido, a Q&A and polling platform, to judge the event's pitch contest, which had four entrants and was won by Paramount Planet Products, which makes biodegradable coffee lids.

E2Tech is also using Google hangouts for weekly STEM conferences with students, something that's needed now that everyone's at home.

A positive is that the virtual events can draw in participants from around the state who would not have driven to Portland, or another far-away location.

Grohman said Thursday's event has set the stage for more in the future, including an April 22 Earth Day energy conference. But when in-person meetings can be held, there will definitely be more of those as well, he said.

"There's going to be a huge demand," he said. "I do think that there's nothing that beats being able to network in person, enjoy local food, and some local beer, or whatever else people prefer.

"We're all figuring it out."

The importance of staying connected "is something we all have to work on together."

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