100 Little Moments: How HydroVision International Brings the Hydro Community Together

Although the conference program and exhibition opportunities at HydroVision International are top-notch, there is an additional factor that draws the hydro industry together every year in July: the community factor.

By Bethany Duarte

“What to say about HydroVision … there are too many memories to pinpoint just one!”

This response was a common one when I began interviewing past attendees regarding their experiences at HydroVision International.

What stood out more than that statement was the light that came into the speaker’s eyes, the way their voice would rise in pitch, and the sense of excitement they felt. In this case, I wasn’t asking about the value of the conference program or how much business they had received as a HydroVision International exhibitor.

For this article, I asked what their favorite memory of the event was, or what relationships began at the event that still exist today. I asked about the community factor.

As this year’s HydroVision International is my very first as a member of the hydro group at Penn-Well, I was very curious to hear more about what the event guide refers to as “networking opportunities.” However, after speaking with many of you, I see that “networking” is only the tip of the iceberg here.

Those reading this while they are attending HydroVision International 2013 in Denver will probably agree, and hopefully those of you missing out on the event are intrigued to know just what brings everyone back year after year.

“We give everyone a voice.”

HydroVision International began in 1994 as an alternative to the type of conference the hydropower industry was familiar with. Instead of suit and tie, HydroVision International embraced business casual, both in dress and atmosphere. According to event director Marla Barnes, the goal of HydroVision International since its inception was to bring in different viewpoints and create a forum for those viewpoints to be heard in an informal, low-key environment. The event became an opportunity for industry members to “ask what are the issues of today, and more importantly, what are the issues of the future, and what can be done to move the industry forward past these challenges,” she says.

Despite a questionable decision to schedule this event in August – in Phoenix, Ariz., where average high temperatures that month are above 100 degrees Fahrenheit – about 600 attendees came to the very first HydroVision, an event that Barnes describes, from an organizational standpoint, as “chaotic” and “hot.”

The event had the characteristic conference program, made up of six distinct tracks, as well as an exhibit floor. What made it stand out was the informal happy hours held at the hotel pool. Conference attendees enjoyed drinks, appetizers and conversation in an informal and relaxed setting that year, setting a standard for future events to follow. This was hailed as a “refreshing way to do business,” as the previous standard had required a note of formality that attendees were happy to leave back in the office.

HydroVision International met a need for open dialogue and connection that was largely apparent in the power industry, and it did so with a relaxed, fun event that “gave people the opportunity to loosen up, wear shorts, and have fun with each other,” said Barnes. The “opportunity to bring the industry together annually was a very important milestone” for the industry.

To echo attendee Norman Bishop, now senior vice president of hydroelectric and renewable energy at Knight Piesold, the event has encouraged a spirit of cooperation since the very beginning, providing a “respectful forum for others to give their opinions and to give your respectful acknowledgement of another’s point of view.” By giving everyone a voice, the event brought individuals into the industry collective, regardless of their perspective. The event serves as a conduit to funnel people into the industry.

“One of the fundamentals of HydroVision International since the beginning is allowing all people to have a voice, so that we all can understand what others see as important objectives, as well as how they feel on certain matters. People look at things differently – engineers, government officials, vendors – and at HydroVision International, they all have a voice and we want to hear their ideas,” added Bishop.

Conference veteran Lee Sheldon, an engineer with Black & Veatch, witnessed this in action while chairing a technical paper session one year. There were five papers scheduled to be presented in a 90-minute time slot, so Sheldon was being careful to monitor the time. When one gentleman exceeded his limit, Sheldon tried to get his attention. He tapped his watch, leaned forward to look at him pointedly, and finally stood up to step in front of the microphone and keep the session moving. The speaker, who was clearly quite intent about his topic, told Sheldon, “Sit down. I’m not done yet.”

Another example Bishop could remember was from the early days of the event, when representatives of a rather aggressive non-governmental organization were present during a panel session. In the midst of the session, the group members became very loud and vocal, trying to make their point while causing a stir in the room. The moderator and panelists turned the tables on the group, extending microphones and giving them an opportunity to gain notoriety, though not the kind the group was initially looking for. The NGO representatives took their turn at the microphone, stated their piace, and when the rest of the room had listened intently, turned and left, quite surprised that the panelists had allowed them the opportunity.

“We set up a conference setting that allows everybody to talk about what they are doing and what the industry could be doing better,” explains Bishop. “We accept it all. It’s one of the absolute cores of the conference.”

“These people are my friends.”

Brenna Vaughn, program manager at the Hydro Research Foundation, looked at me with such conviction when she made that statement, as if it was a given and explained all I needed to know about the event and what made it special.

It’s not just a vendor showcase, a marketing event, or an educational conference – it’s a group of friends getting together to talk shop.

“You learn so much about people when you see them out of the work environment,” said Steve Wenke, chief generation engineer at Avista Utilities. “It’s great being able to ask people ‘What do you do?’ and ‘What do you not do?’ It leads to a stronger connection and often a personal friendship.”

This focus on relationship building began back in the early days of HydroVision International, when communication was less instant or convenient and limited to fax, telephone, and mail. “HydroVision was a way of cementing the relationship. It turned business colleagues into true friends. Each year, I look forward to reconnecting with all those people I don’t get to see often,” said Barnes with a wide smile. “The people in hydro are just really great human beings.”

This attribute of the industry is commonly talked about, but HydroVision International gives it an opportunity to be center stage. Barnes remembers attending the event in 1996, just weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Jessica. She said that another attendee from Atlanta brought pens with the Olympic logo for Marla to give to her daughter so she had something unique from the year she was born. “Each year, things like that just reinforce the goodness of the industry. People care about one another as individuals. We are friends,” Barnes says.

Bishop agrees, stating that at HydroVision International, competitors are also friends, and the event is the perfect opportunity to renew and strengthen those ties and to talk about what’s going on in the industry and how it’s affecting each person individually. “They are my friends and colleagues. I’ve written books with these people. There are honestly so many positive memories, I can’t bring any single one out,” he says.

Wenke remembers attending the event from the beginning and seeing the same people return year after year. “I still talk to and work with people I met back then. They’re just great people with great attributes,” he says.

From the exhibitors’ point of view, HydroVision International makes it easy to build relationships while marketing to the ideal audience, says Roger Clarke-Johnson, Western region manager at American Governor Company.. He points out that if you’re not at HydroVision International, people notice and don’t take you as seriously. “I would never miss HydroVision International, no matter what. The sheer power of it makes it a requirement,” he says.

Clarke-Johnson recalls sitting in the lobby bar of the hotel, calling out to people as they came in, offering a free beer. One by one, they came, drank and connected. A month later, he visited a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office and someone remembered him as the guy who was “holding court” in the lobby bar.

Whether you’re marketing your product, talking about a recent innovation at your plant, or discussing the best type of BBQ sauce for grilling, HydroVision International is the place to connect and reconnect with friends and colleagues.

“It’s a fun event because we work in a fun industry.”

Wenke summed up several entertaining stories about the event with that one line, a true and honest statement that was echoed by the other interviewees.

Along with providing a forum for open and respectful discussion, HydroVision International is unique because it injects fun into the process. When I asked for funny or memorable stories, every person I spoke to immediately laughed and either told me there were too many stories to choose from or that the ones they thought of would not be appropriate for printed press. To me, that says HydroVision International is more fun and memorable than the average work trip.

The Dam Band, made up of musically talented hydro industry professionals, entertained HydroVision International attendees for several years.
The Dam Band, made up of musically talented hydro industry professionals, entertained HydroVision International attendees for several years.

When you get a room full of friends and colleagues who may only see each other once a year, a good time is sure to follow. The informal atmosphere encourages such shenanigans as session track chairs dressing up in coveralls and carrying wrenches to promote their operations and maintenance sessions, or Patrick McCarty, generation manager at Tacoma Power, throwing prizes out to the crowd for asking a question at the end of a presentation.

Conference committee chair Elizabeth Ingram laughed while telling me about the “Dam Band,” a motley group of musically gifted event attendees who decided HydroVision International was the perfect time to get together and play. The Dam Band met up to play at the closing luncheon for several years, bringing together horns, pianos and guitars to entertain their fellow colleagues. “I really enjoyed sitting in on their rehearsals and seeing these people from various locations, who maybe only saw each other this one time every year, reconnect through music,” she said.

Attendees are drawn to this opportunity to get together and “let their hair down” with other industry members, and many use it as an opportunity to create new relationships with business prospects, vendors and others, while having a bit of fun.

Kevin Young, president of Young Energy Services, remembers one year in particular when his company, which was exhibiting at HydroVision International, offered personally branded Nascar models to anyone who put their business card in a bowl at the company’s booth. One man reached out to Kevin after receiving his Nascar, complete with company logo on the side, to say that he was now his son’s hero, since his company “sponsored” Nascar and all.

Attendees enjoy a golf tournament, receptions, dinners and vendor trips off-site during the event. Bishop was quick to point out that he probably wins the prize for the all-time worst golf score in the history of the event, “We’re talking centarian … in nine holes,” he says.

Michael Harris, online editor for PennWell’s Hydro Group, remembers being whisked away to Churchill Downs while in Louisville, Ky., last year to eat, drink and cut loose with industry members. These opportunities offer the ability to network and market, but they also are just a gathering of good friends catching up with one another and enjoying the industry’s biggest event.

“Beer and wine are made from water, so it fits,” quipped Wenke about the social aspect of the conference.

“We’ve come a long way, baby!”

From the first event in Phoenix – with its crazy heat, four-block walks to the convention center, and poolside networking – to Louisville in 2012 – with it’s ill-timed rain showers, steamboat rides, and late-night soirees at Churchill Downs, HydroVision International has come a long way.

So many of you have been there from the beginning and have memories from each event and each city. Sheldon has collected each and every bag from all the events from 1995 through today – talk about a collection of memories!

Listening to your stories and memories, the “100 little moments,” tells me two things very clearly – that the original goals and core concepts of the HydroVision International event are alive and well today 19 years later, and that I can’t wait to experience it for myself!

Bethany Duarte, associate editor of Hydro Review, is attending HydroVision International for the first time in 2013.

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