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Viva Las Vegas

Already at the onset, this year’s edition of the US Industrial Pellet Association’s (USIPA) annual Exporting Pellets Conference was going to be different. Having been held in Miami Beach, Florida for several years, the organisers decided that the time was right for a move three time zones westwards to Las Vegas, Nevada. A stricter form of Chatham House rules with a “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”?

With a population of just over 630 000 (2016), Las Vegas is the largest city in the State of Nevada and in the Las Vegas Valley metropolitan area which has a total population of 1.9 million. The city has over 150 000 accommodation rooms of which around 60 000 are found along the Strip.

Not quite. The move was part of an effort to facilitate travel and boost interest from the emerging Asian markets, in particular, Japan and South Korea. Judging from what seen, heard and overheard in Vegas, USIPA’s bet paid off.

Whilst the conference programme followed its conventional format with market data presentations by industry experts from Hawkins Wright, FutureMetrics and Argus Biomass to mention a few, the headline focus of these presentations was on the said markets, not Europe though this was also discussed in the traditional panel discussions. In addition, the programme included non-subsidised non-energy markets introduced at last year’s conference in Miami Beach.

Apart from the usual rich and informative content, last year’s USIPA was also memorable in context as the US Presidential election-day drama was unfolding in tandem with the final conference day. This called for some quick thinking and on the fly presentation makeovers on topics such as the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP) that the current administration seeks to undo.

Sadly, this year the external context was far more tragic and heart-wrenching though it had nothing to do with wood pellets whatsoever – no-one could have had anticipated that Las Vegas with a venue on its iconic Strip would be the scene of the worst civilian mass-shooting in recent American history. A diabolical drama that played out a week or so prior to the event striking at what is the beating heart of Sin City; its tourism, entertainment – and meetings industry.

Part of the iconic Las Vegas Strip, a roughly 7 km long stretch of South Las Vegas Boulevard with hotels, casinos and theatres.

Kudos to USIPA and to the venue for not cancelling the event, and to the 300 or so participants who turned up for the conference – it was by all accounts the right and respectful decision towards all those who suffered loss and injury, call Las Vegas home or a place of work. From cab drivers and hotel staff to casino managers and bartenders, all commended visitors for not shying away, a rare moment when business as usual (BAU) means something positive to a whole city and industry in shock.

Nowhere was this coming together, as a city and community seeking comfort and solace in grief, more apparent, poignant and moving than the Tuesday evening inaugural home game for the regular NHL season. The hockey game in Las Vegas was almost a derby being between Vegas Golden Knights, the most recent team to join the NHL, and Arizona Coyotes. The game itself, which the former won 5-2 becoming NHL historic as the first expansion team to win its first three games, seemed entirely secondary.

Instead, the 18 000 plus capacity arena was filled with fans and locals who, together with both teams paid respect to the 58 victims and honoured the first responders and other heroes. These men and women were personally introduced onto the ice together with the players, who stood behind each other in team formation instead of opposite one another in an unprecedented pre-match ceremony. All pre-match advertising was suspended, the ice rink surrounded by one single message in black and white – “#VegasStrong”, a message seen all around town on electric billboards.

Yet, amidst all the grief there is at least one highly relevant takeaway, as demonstrated by #VegasStrong – the power of coming together, putting competitive and other differences aside to deal with the situation or issues at hand and communicating a unified message across the board.

In USIPA terms, this was, in essence, the message John Keppler CEO, Enviva had in his address; coming together by joining the association and engaging with others along the forest industry value chain, dealing with safety, sustainability, transparency and other issues of public concern, both as individual companies and as an industry, while communicating the great story that wood pellets is – #WorkingForestsWork.

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