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As the coronavirus shuttered all possibilities for industry members to physically attend the popular annual trade shows and expos this spring, industry members banded together with alternative ideas to address the situation.

On what would have been the final day of the NPGA Expo in Nashville, a group of industry veterans announced plans for a day of virtual expo activities on April 29. Similar to the Energize 2020 Conference, a full day of seminars that was held earlier in the month, the Virtual Propane Expo (VPE) included the day of webinars with a virtual trade show added to the mix. A website at www.virtualpropaneexpo.com is now the hub of VPE. The group plans to host a similar event monthly near the end of the month.

Led by Bill Stomp of Tankspotter.com, a board was assembled to oversee VPE that includes Peter Gilman, currently interim executive director of Virtual Propane Expo, past senior vice president of LP Transportation, a board member of the New Jersey Propane Gas Association, and past vice president of Eastern Propane; Shane Sweet, a consultant with experience as an executive director of several energy associations including the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, the Northeast Fuel Institute, and the New York Propane Gas Association; Mike Digiorgio, president of Propane University, founder of Silverback Consulting, and president of the Propane Gas Defense Association; and safety consultant, Stuart Flatow, a former vice president of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).


“Early in my career I was driving the newest aircraft carrier in Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War,” Stomp said. “After that I was worked for a propane co-op that was soon bought out by Suburban Propane, and this led to an opportunity to ultimately run operations at 53 locations for this multistate company. From my experience in Desert Storm with the latest technology the military had to offer, I always sought to have the latest technology available to get things done efficiently. Sometimes our biggest competitor is the clock, and if we can’t have everyone working efficiently, we are losing to the clock.”

Stomp took this approach to his next role creating software and technology that would organize safety, service, sales, and training information. “Things get lost too easily when on paper or filed improperly.” Recently, Stomp’s Tankspotter software was entered in a world tech competition at the World LPG Forum and won the top prize in its category.

“As a vendor, I am conscious of vendors’ concerns,” Stomp said. “Several of us have talked about creating an online expo experience complete with online learning opportunities and a chance to virtually visit many booths of vendors. In March, with COVID-19 starting to cancel several industry trade shows, we went ahead and pulled the trigger on launching the Virtual Propane Expo. With a number of vendors working on commission, it was critical that they have a forum to still attract customers despite almost all 2020 shows cancelling for the year and stay-at-home orders forcing an end to traveling to customer locations.”


Visual Propane Expo presenter Shane Sweet shares in educational webinar for LPG marketers reports BPN the industry’s leading source of LPG info since 1939 Initial plans came to fruition with a day-long series of webinars on April 29, complete with an online trade show at no charge for exhibitors as well as free for retail propane marketers, to give them a chance to look through the booths and hear one-minute and five-minute sales pitches. “The sales pitches are in the booths,” Sweet explained. “We are not wanting sales pitches in the educational sessions.”

The VPE board is still listening to the industry and deciding how this takes shape long-term, Sweet said. “The only thing certain is uncertainty in this environment during the COVID-19 pandemic.” So far, he notes that industry members he knows are enjoying the benefits. “I had a guy tell me he joined a webinar he wanted to see during the lunch hour and got a lot out of it. Others have been too busy during the actual event but are able to check out recorded programs later. Vendors are getting leads from the online trade show.”

Gilman recalls meeting with Stomp a year ago, and described how Stomp was so interested in launching a virtual expo and trade show that he had reserved several website addresses for the project. “Fast forward a year later and I get a call from Bill asking me to join the team to get the Virtual Propane Expo off the ground,” said Gilman. “My initial thought was, at a time when COVID-19 was pulling business and industries apart, a virtual site provided a solution to bring us together. That was two months ago and we hit the ground sprinting. The VPE is attracting top industry speakers who can reach and interact with the entire industry all at once. It is a state-of-the-art, high-tech site, but easy to navigate and use.”

A question many have asked is if VPE is going to become a for-profit endeavor. “Right now, I just want to get a few sponsors who will cover the cost of my employees’ time in setting up the educational programs and booth space information in the site,” Stomp explained. “While attending is free for all and the trade show is free for vendors associated with the propane industry, we are providing extra banner advertising to some key sponsors willing to` pay for a sponsorship.” The next VPE event is scheduled June 24-25. — Pat Thornton