COVID-19 Q&A with SWEMA President Derek Berg

June 22, 2020

Derek Berg, president of SWEMA, talks about how COVID-19 is impacting the storm water industry. 

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, SWS Managing Editor Katie Johns spoke with various industry association leaders about how those associations were responding to COVID-19 and how the industry was being impacted. For more Q&As and to see the results of the SWS Market Impact Survey, check out this digital-exclusive report

Katie Johns: What has been SWEMA’s responses to COVID-19 and and has the organization been affected in any way?

Derek Berg: As an organization, we're kind of a loose-knit group in that we only have one person that actually works directly at SWEMA, and she's our managing director and kind of keeps us all glued together. Other than that we all come from other jobs and companies, and so it's kind of a volunteer entity. But as an organization, the most direct impact is that we have had to directly cancel two of our events that we normally do. We had a forum that we were planning to do back in the spring that got canceled, and then in a couple of weeks, we normally would have been holding our spring membership meeting out in Denver. We have moved that online, so we will still be getting together, but obviously it’s not quite the same as meeting in person. And since we don't get to meet in person very often as an organization, you know, we do try to make the most of doing it, and we're hopeful to do that in the fall. So those have probably been the two immediate and direct impacts to the organization as an entity.

Johns: We have seen a lot of industry events being postponed or just outright canceled, unfortunately. So, my first part of this question is how will that affect the industry in terms of networking and education? And secondly, how can industry professionals continue to network without that face-to-face interaction?

Berg: I think that's a great one, and one that certainly impacts my life as somebody that often had a lot of these events. And to some extent, it's nice to have a little less airport time on my schedule, but to the educational piece, I'm really seeing a lot of that shifting to virtual webinars and things like that, which I think is great. I think maybe you lose a little bit of audience engagement and things like that in that type of a setting, but at least still happening, so I think there are plenty of educational opportunities out there. I think the networking piece is where virtual starts to fall a little bit shorter. I have been involved in a couple of Zoom sessions with internal folks at my company, and we are going to try a video meeting for our SWEMA meeting. I think people are experimenting with some of those tools, but obviously, that kind of informal having a cocktail at the end of the conference, things like that are on hold for the time being. So I think we are losing some of the true networking opportunities as a result of this.

Johns: I've talked to a few other industry professionals who are a little bit nervous because they think that once people realize they can host some of these events and do these webinars virtually that some companies or municipalities might be hesitant to spend the money on airfare in the future to get to live shows. What are your thoughts on that?

Berg:I personally am a proponent of face-to-face interaction. We've had some informal dialogue around this. And, you know, why did we travel so much?  I think people are realizing maybe some of the travel could be sidelined, but I do personally feel, there's things that you can't recreate that you get in direct interaction. So, my hope is  we'll strike a balance where we do have the opportunities to get together, and I can't see all of the events going away entirely or people just not wanting to do things in person all together, but I do genuinely respect and recognize there's a potential that we see less of these events. Reduced demands or maybe attendance that falls off somewhat, and I think budgeting is probably going to be a very real concern on the municipal level.

Johns: And looking at the bigger picture, what are some of the overall impacts you're seeing on the industry right now? Maybe specifically on the manufacturing side of things?

Berg: I can't speak to every company, but the general consensus is that ironically, the first quarter of this year was a very good one as far as storm water demand and development moving forward and construction moving forward. That certainly seems to be continuing. In most parts of the country, construction did not slow considerably during these lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. So things have been moving forward. I think most people are taking a cautionary look to the future. Our industry  is sort of delayed in that storm water projects are planned long before they actually are built, except what we're wondering is will we see that drop off in new projects coming in later in the year? That hasn't happened for the most part, so, so far, so good, but I find it hard to believe we won't see some slowdown later in the year in new demand coming in.

Johns: Speaking of the future, do you think we will see some innovation coming out of manufacturers because of COVID-19? 

Berg: Yeah, I think we probably will see a lot more use with some of the virtual tools. I know a lot of folks in the industry are transitioning over to Microsoft Teams, and I work a lot with regulators, and even state employees and agencies are showing a willingness to do video conferences and things like that. So I think we'll see more of those tools probably stick around. Speaking to your earlier point about will be back out there traveling and gathering as much I think we might not see, as many day-to-day, face-to-face calls and meetings with engineering firms. Some of that might lean more virtual after this. I can't say where it all balances out. But on technology innovation, I don't know that we've seen anything just yet that I could speak to. It's more in how we go about our business where I think the innovation is happening.

Johns: What kind of outreach and action can manufacturers take to communicate during this time with their clients?

Berg: Aside from not being able to go see them, most folks are obviously leaning more heavily on the telephone as a starting point. But emails and webinars are becoming increasingly common and prevalent and the demand seems higher than ever, so I think people are hungry for information on the other side of that coin. Video conferences are obviously becoming much more widespread in the day-to-day rhythm of things. So really, the whole suite of virtual tools and the good old-fashioned telephone is where a lot of it is being conducted right now. 

Johns: What do you think are some of the lessons the industry can learn from in terms of preparedness plans?

Berg: It's hard to say exactly how our industry can prepare. I'm sure the folks that plan conferences are thinking about risk mitigation and things like that. That's not necessarily central to the day-to-day of our business. For folks that are trying to present papers and things like that, maybe thinking about other forums to get that stuff out. As far as business, but I haven't seen it disrupted that much yet. It's hard to say what we need to learn to do better next time because at least up to now construction is still happening, so storm water management is still happening, so I haven't seen the types of impacts that some of the hardest industries have felt. 

Johns: Is there anything else you want to share that we didn't touch on?

Berg: Everybody that I'm speaking with is still showing up at work and trying to stay positive and looking forward with a cautious eye and are hopeful that we won’t see some of the deep negative economic impacts that we saw in the Great Recession awhile back, and so far we haven't seen that. Hopefully toward the end of the year, we can say the same but to be determined to some extent.

About the Author

Katie Johns

Katie Johns, editor-in-chief of Storm Water Solutions and Water Quality Products, graduated from the University of Missouri in 2016 with a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish. Johns joined the Storm Water Solutions team in September 2019. Johns also helps plan the annual StormCon conference and co-hosts the Talking Under Water podcast. Prior to entering the B2B industry, she worked as a newspaper reporter and editor in Sarasota, Florida, and a magazine assistant editor in the Chicago suburbs. She can be reached at [email protected].