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Scratching a Niche

10052015-nicheYou know the feeling. Something itches. Bad. You may or may not be in a situation where it can be scratched, but when you finally are able to scratch the itch, the feeling of relief can be amazing!

From September 27th to October 1st, over 1,000 utility engineers associated with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) scratched an itch … and a niche in Branson, Missouri.

Merriam-Webster defines niche as:
a job, activity, etc., that is very suitable for someone; the situation in which a business’s products or services can succeed by being sold to a particular kind or group of people

The ASCE SEI ETS 2015 conference occurs every three years and is a niche specialty conference because it meets the above criteria:
ASCE – the focus is civil engineers
SEI (Structural Engineering Institute) – the focus is a subset of civil engineers
ETS (Electrical Transmission and Substation Structures) – the focus is structural engineers practicing within the electrical utility industry

I attended my first ASCE ETS conference in Omaha in 2002. It was a small gathering that met in a Holiday Inn in the Old Market area of town. A watershed moment occurred one evening when I stepped into an ice cream store to, uh, scratch an itch. Some members of the conference planning committee were sitting there and asked me to stop over to say hello. Well, actually they were asking me to consider joining the planning committee. In a fortuitous weak moment, I accepted.

Looking back, I am amazed at how the niche conference has grown. In rough numbers, here is the attendance history:

2002       Omaha, NE – 150
2006       Birmingham, AL – 400  (Note: changed to a three-year rotation)
2009       Fort Worth, TX – 650
2012       Columbus, OH – 1000
2015       Branson, MO –  1250
2018       Atlanta, GA – ???

What are the factors that contribute to this growth and industry support? I can only speak for myself, but I believe all of the following are factors:

  • A dedicated, hard-working planning committee. A highlight of my career has been the privilege to serve with this committee and its members; people who are not only industry experts, but now friends.
  • An unrelenting focus on transmission and substation structures. There is always temptation to expand the scope of topics, yet this has not happened. Every three years we find a number of value-add topics to discuss. This year we had approximately 40 technical presentations. The committee was able to select from approximately 180 abstracts from which to create the program.
  • Everyone who attends is able to participate in every event. There are no concurrent sessions. The technical papers, networking receptions, exhibits, workshops and tours are available to every registrant.
  • The conference has earned strong industry support. Each year the exhibitor list grows and exceeds the available space. In 2015, we had a record number of exhibitors, yet we had a waiting list of about 30 vendors. Companies line up to sponsor breakfasts, networking breaks, lunches, sponsorships, tours and demonstrations, and then put their best foot forward for the attendees.
  • Conference workshops provide additional training on a variety of industry-related topics. This year we learned about national, state and utility efforts to increase resiliency, storm-hardening and security, along with updates on a number of industry standards.
  • The technical program provides a variety of educational topics. Presentations and technical papers discuss new technologies, unique applications of existing methods, construction challenges and case studies.
  • Attendees are typically electrical utility professionals that focus on transmission and substation structures.  We are a niche. We do not apologize for this. And, in ever increasing numbers, we take advantage of a wonderful conference every three years that helps us better serve the vital lifeline electrical utility industry.

The 2018, conference is scheduled for Atlanta. I feel the beginning of a niche itch …


About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.