Using the imagination

COVID-19 creates innovation

Ask someone who was around when the lights first came on about the history of the electric co-op, or REA (Rural Electrification Administration), and they’ll tell of the excitement they experienced when the poles and wires went up and that first bulb glowed. Next, they’ll talk about their co-op’s annual meeting.

Everyone knew when the annual meeting caravan came to town. It was a big production. Trucks from the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) brought everything needed to run the meeting – a big tent, chairs, microphones, staging, appliances and people to set it all up.

Early annual meetings were a social event with a buzz of activity for two days. Attendees learned how to use electricity safely and could purchase the latest appliances. There were cooking demonstrations, a co-op queen competition and entertainment. The business meeting was followed by prizes and more prizes. Prize drawings continue to be an exciting part of annual meetings, but as member needs have changed, so have annual meetings.

While the caravan setup may be long gone, co-ops have found new ways to bring their members together and conduct co-op business. Today’s annual meetings offer health screenings, line safety demonstrations and inform members about innovative ways to reduce energy use and costs. They also provide information about co-op goods and services, and end with the business meeting. Essential to meetings past and present is the ability to visit with friends and chat with the co-op manager, employees and directors.

In early 2020, the COVID-19 coronavirus brought the state to a standstill, creating a stumbling block for co-op annual meetings.

Jo-Carroll Energy

While many co-ops canceled their annual meetings or postponed them until 2021, Jo-Carroll Energy, Elizabeth, was determined to hold theirs.

Originally scheduled for June 2020, the meeting had been postponed until Aug. 22 due to the pandemic.

Even then, COVID-19 transmissions continued to be high and state mandates limited indoor in-person meetings to 50 attendees.

“Our meeting was scheduled to be held inside, and literally a week before the meeting, I decided, nope, we’re going to make it work outside,” says Mike Casper, the co-op’s president/CEO. “It was the state mandate, but also moving it outside was for the safety and health of our members and employees.”

Jo-Carroll AM
During Jo-Carroll Energy’s annual meeting, Director of Broadband Operations Jesse Shekleton helps a member take a virtual reality bucket truck ride.

Embracing technology, Casper had already planned for a livestreamed indoor meeting but determining how people could attend the meeting and broadcasting it from outdoors posed a challenge. Casper quickly pulled his team together and consulted with AIEC Coordinator of Video Productions Paul Dow. Together, they and WCCI radio crafted a drive-up meeting that was livestreamed through a link on Jo-Carroll’s website and simultaneously broadcast for people who couldn’t attend or wanted to listen from their cars.

This format was a first for Jo-Carroll and Dow, but the meeting was seamless. No stats are available for how many listeners tuned in via radio, but Peggy Francomb, the co-op’s manager of communications and marketing, says a few members attended the drive-up meeting, the livestream drew more than 50 members the day of the meeting, and at least another 25 listened to the recorded version.

Following COVID-19 guidelines at the time, Jo-Carroll was able to host this year’s meeting indoors, and again livestreamed and broadcasted it. It was much like past meetings with booths, but masks were suggested, and contact was minimized. Some new technology was added – a virtual reality bucket truck ride. As in other virtual reality systems, goggles drive the technology. Francomb explains that it’s a fun way to demonstrate technology, and it could spawn some future lineworker “wannabes.”

Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative

During an Eastern Illini Electric drive-thru annual meeting event, co-op employee Shannon Deck shares a laugh with a member.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, Eastern Illini Electric’s annual meeting had been held at a local high school in Paxton. Their meeting was a big production with a carnival-like atmosphere including kids’ activities, seminars and a buffet meal followed by the business meeting. With one of the largest service areas in the state, some members attending the meeting in Paxton had to drive more than an hour. Being unable to hold the annual meeting in 2020 gave co-op leadership time to review how a meeting could best serve members.

“As we looked at 2021, things were better pandemic-wise,” says Mike Wilson, the co-op’s vice president of member and community relations. “We wanted to come up with a way to engage members, keep everybody safe, and still get out there to see some of our folks and of course have our annual meeting to do the business of the co-op.”

The co-op decided to host three member events on consecutive nights. The first two events were member appreciation events, one in Paxton and the other in Sidney. Wilson explains, “We came up with a plan where there were two drive-thru events. It was just pick up a meal, vote [for board directors and bylaw changes] and move on. We didn’t have a formal presentation, sit-down meal or an actual meeting. We did have folks on hand to talk to members if they had questions.” Both meetings were successful with approximately 100 people at each.

The third event followed the same drive-thru format as the first two but as people exited, they were offered the option to attend the in-person business meeting at the 4-H Building on the Iroquois County Fairgrounds. This location was chosen because it is the center of Eastern Illini’s service territory.

While attendee numbers for the three events were slightly lower than for the single event in past years, Wilson felt the new meeting format was a success. “I’m a big fan of going out where members are instead of making them come to you,” says Wilson. “If you have any space at all, be willing to go out where they are and try different locations.” Even if Eastern Illini can host an in-person meeting in the future, this new format will allow members better access.

Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative

David Stuva-RECC
RECC President/CEO David Stuva addresses this year’s annual meeting attendees at a drive-in theater.

COVID-19 posed a couple of issues for Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative (RECC). First, the 2020 meeting had to be canceled, but with four members vying for a seat on the board, an election still needed to be held. The co-op conducted its first mail-in election. Jeff Lancaster, the co-op’s manager of member services, says the response was surprising.

“The election went really well. A total of 33 to 34 percent of eligible voters returned ballots,” he explains. “SBS, the company that conducted the election for the co-op, says it was the highest percentage response of total membership they had ever seen. We usually have around 200 ballots returned. We had around 1,500.”

The second issue involved how to hold the 2021 annual meeting. The co-op followed through with a suggestion that had been made by Lancaster several years before – to host the meeting at a drive-in movie theater. RECC tends to have an older audience for its meetings, and Lancaster envisioned an event that would draw a broader demographic group to the meeting and people with young children could stay for the movie afterward. The Route 66 Drive In Theater was able to accommodate large, socially-distanced crowds and had nice restrooms and concession stands.

Employees registered members as they arrived and handed them goodie bags and meals as they drove into the parking lot. “Attendees enjoyed it,” says Lancaster. “It was something different with a relaxed environment. Some people were conversing at their own tables, and one group even brought their own table and chairs and made a party out of it.” A scavenger hunt created by RECC employees enabled people to move around and was another success.

Since the meeting was held on the longest day of the year, meeting proceedings couldn’t be projected on the movie screen, but an FM transmitter enabled members to hear the meeting proceedings in their cars or from home if they couldn’t attend the meeting in person. When motions were necessary during the business meeting, people honked their horns to indicate a yes vote.

Looking ahead

Lessons learned from new meeting formats are now helping to frame future meetings. Even if future in-person meetings are held, Casper says he’ll continue to livestream and broadcast the meetings on radio. It enables the co-op to reach a broader demographic of members who don’t attend in-person meetings. 

Wilson suggests if you have a large territory, consider going out to the members instead of making them come to you. He says, “The board really liked three events and getting out to where the members are. Whether it’s for sit-down or drive-thru events, we’re planning this format for next year.”

Whether next year’s meeting will be virtual or in-person, RECC’s board is considering a hybrid-type director election. While this year’s meeting was a success, Lancaster hopes future meetings can return to the regular format at a school. 

For the meetings these Illinois co-ops and others held, decisions had to be made quickly, requiring cooperative effort. Co-ops have shown this type of adaptability through the years and have proven once again that they’re prepared to keep their annual meetings relevant, with the safety and best interest of their members at the forefront. Whether it’s hosting the meeting with a tent caravan or in a livestreamed format, there will always be something there for you.