In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly brought on challenges that no industry in modern history had experienced on such an immediate, global scale. For the U.S. wheat industry and its overseas customers, who share a long history of connection, meeting face-to-face and connecting personally has always been paramount to its successful relationships. When that was no longer possible, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) quickly pivoted and adapted to virtual programs to maintain its ties with customers and reassure them that the U.S. wheat store remained open.
In 2020, USW conducted over 296 virtual programs from March to December, which is approximately one virtual program per day since its staff and customers started experiencing office closures and event cancellations due to COVID-19. These programs reached over 11,000 people, more than double the number of individuals reached in same time span in 2019.
“According to our trade contacts, U.S. Wheat Associates has been an emerging leader in providing virtual programming,” said Mike Spier, USW vice president of overseas operations. “We reached a lot of people because our customers were also working from home and online platforms allowed them to expand these opportunities throughout their companies.”
USW’s 2020 virtual programming included its annual crop quality seminars. In a typical year, as the organization’s largest program, USW sends teams of staff, U.S. wheat farmers, state wheat commission staff and other industry experts to host 20-plus regional, local in-person seminars. Instead, this year USW videotaped 17 original presentations, each translated into as many as nine languages, and provided the videos to overseas offices to share with customers through email marketing campaigns and live webinars.
“The biggest takeaway from conducting webinars is the range and number of participants we’ve been able to reach through virtual programs. For example, we saw several participants that may be junior staff that doesn’t always get the opportunity to participate in courses or trade delegations that are usually reserved for senior staff,” said Chad Weigand, regional vice president, USW Cape Town Office. “We’ve been able to include many more people in webinars than we could if we had held the activities in person. A group traveling for a trade delegation or course typically needs to be capped at around 10 participants because of logistics and expenses. Our virtual Kansas trade delegation had over 40 participants that logged on from multiple countries throughout the region.”
USW staff also saw that the webinar format provided some anonymity that allowed participants to be more open about questions and challenges they were experiencing.
One USW technical consultant shared, “What was most noticeable was that the level of interactions with the presenters was higher than typically seen during trainings…and, without exception, the webinars ran over the allocated time due to follow up questions from the delegates.”
Looking ahead, USW will continue to stay in close contact with its customers and monitor the possibility of travel and in-person meetings on a case-by-case basis, while continuing to adapt and embrace virtual meeting opportunities.
“There are elements of meeting face-to-face with our customers and stakeholders that will always be invaluable for our industry, but the silver lining of 2020 for U.S. Wheat Associates, was that we were able to reach a larger audience,” said Spier. “Moving forward, as the world opens up, we will embrace both in-person and virtual opportunities to connect.”
By Amanda J. Spoo, USW Director of Communications; and Catherine Miller, USW Program and Planning Coordinator