A little over one year ago, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the disease it causes, COVID-19, a global pandemic.

The pandemic swiftly shut down most human activity. Industries, including the HVAC&R industry, had to rethink how to carry on.

From a bottom-line perspective, the commercial and industrial refrigeration industry was fortunate because the pandemic could not stop people from eating and therefore grocery shopping, so money continued to flow to their retail and industrial customers. But the manner of doing business with those customers would change, drastically.

It became immediately clear that, where possible, business activities would shift to a remote, online model. People would work from home, traveling for business would stop or be severely restricted, and trade shows would be postponed or canceled.

What did emerge, to fill the void, was an online eco-system of Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings, enhanced use of social media, and virtual webinars, conferences and shows. That eco-system had its pluses – money saved and emissions cut. But it had decided drawbacks – possibly a drop in sales, and certainly the absence of human contact and camaraderie.

Now, a year later, the pandemic is not over, though there is hope that later this year, at least in developed countries, the successful rollout of vaccines will result in a lessening of the crisis and a return to normal activity. But will normalcy mean business-as-before – or something different? How much of the amped-up virtual activity will remain in the “new normal”?

Unique interactions

In a more conventional and growing economy, there will still be room for virtual interactions but “they have to be really good” and not otherwise obtainable in the physical world, said Marc Chasserot, CEO of shecco, publisher of Accelerate.

One example is shecco’s ATMO Virtual Trade Show (VTS) 2021, a 24-hour online event that will be held for a global audience on March 30-31, with live webinars across all time zones. “A physical event can’t do that on a global scale, only regionally,” said Chasserot. Moreover, as the technology supporting online events continues to improve, it allows for more and more interactions between customers and suppliers across the globe. Some natural refrigerant manufacturers have invested in studios at their headquarters where they can offer live streaming for online events. “Virtual is just beginning; it’s only going to get better,” he said.

One of the criticisms of online trade shows is that they haven’t generated enough sales leads for exhib- itors. But in the first ATMO VTS last September, companies that invested in the event and provided great content at their booths “got great sales,” said Chasserot. Moreover, he argued, it is still early in the development of online events. “It will take a while, but we will get there,” he said. “The younger generation will be used to this virtual way of interacting.”

Chasserot plans to hold ATMO VTS on an annual basis and expects it to grow to 50,000 or more participants by the end of the decade. He emphasized the ATMO VTS will “complement, not replace” physical trade shows, adding “something new – a global dimension, at a fraction of the cost.”

shecco is also planning to change its regional ATMOsphere conferences into “hybrid” events, allowing attendees to tune in via their computers and interact online, or attend the physical conference. “If you’re on the sales side, in-person has advantages – you can bump into people, network more easily,” said Chasserot. On the other hand, an article published last month in The New York Times Magazine, “The Race to Fix Virtual Meetings,” outlined the growing number of start-up companies intent on making the virtual experience as spontaneous as the real thing. 

Another example of an evolving virtual tool is the ATMOsphere Slack-based network, launched by shecco in early February. ATMOsphere, which has close to 500 members as it continues to grow, offers a way to easily connect with like-minded stakeholders in the natural refrigerants and clean cooling industry around  the  globe. “This is something that the physical world can’t replace,” said Chasserot. 

He noted that in a recent Zoom meet-up of ATMOsphere members, an expert in India was able to provide insights to a lecturer in South Africa – a “magic moment,” he said. “This is making the industry more global, and giving people who don’t have a travel budget the chance to interact with thought leaders. It’s going to accelerate the transfer of knowledge.”

“We at shecco want to leverage these new tools in the new normal to help accelerate the transition to natural solutions faster than ever,” he added.

Selecting wisely

Natural refrigerant-based equipment manufacturers contacted by Accelerate also see the post-COVID-19 future as a being a blend of physical and virtual.

For example, Alfa Laval, a Swedish manufacturer of heat exchangers for natural refrigerants, will pursue that hybrid course, “selecting wisely what is most efficient,” said Fredrik Ekström, President of the company’s Business Unit Brazed & Fusion Bonded Heat Exchangers, Energy Division.

The pandemic has pushed Alfa  Laval  to be online more than ever before, “sharing, training, developing, collaborating, exhibiting and checking in on each other,” said Ekström. “Being available for our customers and partners, online and offline, has always been central to our interaction and way of working. During this latest period, our possibilities to meet have been heavily restricted, prompting us to use online platforms at a much higher level than previously.”

Over the past year, Alfa Laval has joined two virtual trade shows successfully, and launched an online webinar series called xChanging Ideas during 2020, “which is now a natural part of our marketing mix,” Ekström noted.

But he has not forgotten the importance of connecting in person. “All the pandemic restrictions have also reminded us all of how important meeting in real life is, and I for one look forward to seeing my colleagues and customers again!”

Like Alfa Laval, Nidec Global Appliance has explored the use of digital tools and online platforms “more than any time before” to promote its Brazilian-based Embraco brand, a leading producer of propane (R290) compressors and condensing units, said Guilherme Almeida, Strategic Planning Vice-President at Nidec Global Appliance.

“They have proved to be tools that optimize time and resources, and, many times, allow us to reach more people,” he said. “[They] have helped strengthen our relationship with customers, specifiers, contractors and refrigeration technicians.”

Among those tools, Nidec has participated in several virtual events, “and we are learning how to make the most out of this new channel,” he said.

Nidec has also invested more time and resources into projects focused on online education and content generation for refrigeration professionals. This has resulted in a series of webinars in Portuguese, French, English, Italian and Spanish, as well as new material in its “Refrigeration Club” blog, a technical content platform.

Nidec has also constantly promoted its product selector software (PSS) and Embraco Tool Box App. All of these efforts will continue, with more webinars and technical content shared through social media, said Almeida.

“In general, we have managed to keep up good communication with customers, but it became more digital than face to face,” Almeida noted. “To balance any risk of lack of information, we have adopted a more frequent communication approach, to keep customers updated and also understand each customer situation.”

German OEM Efficient Energy, makers of water-only chillers, has also taken to focusing on alternatives such as virtual events, online webinars and social media, noted Thomas Bartman, Sales Director. The company had a digital product launch that he called a “great success” with much positive feedback.

“This is an important encouragement to continue our digital sales and marketing journey to make Clean Cooling accessible to a wider audience all over the world,” said Barton. 

This article was first published in the ATMO VTS show guide, which you can find here.

Author Michael Garry

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