The Talk Show at the North American Snow Conference

Lively session gets more popular every year

Editor's Note: The topic of this year's General Session "Talk Show" at APWA's North American Snow Conference is entitled "The Carrot or the Stick: The Complexities of Dealing with the Public." The APWA Reporter recently caught up with several members of the Talk Show team to get their thoughts about this format in particular as well as the Snow Conference in general.

The "Talk Show" during the North American Snow Conference seems to be getting more popular each year. Why is it such a hit with the attendees?

Bret Hodne, Superintendent of Public Works, City of West Des Moines, Iowa, and Talk Show facilitator: I believe the reason why the Talk Show is so popular is because of its interactive format that allows attendees to get involved and discuss issues that they may have within their respective agency. It can also be interesting to just sit back and listen to the types of challenges that others face and some of the solutions that have been implemented to resolve them. It's the type of forum where attendees can get actively involved, ask the tough questions and receive feedback from others who may have faced similar situations. I think attendees find real value in that.

Barry Belcourt, Director-Road Maintenance, City of Edmonton, Alberta, and Talk Show panelist: I believe it's seen as more of an informal process; it's less structured. There is also a lot of feedback, a very open dialogue, and the topics are always very interesting. But the key thing is that it's very informal and people feel more comfortable, and I think that generates more two-way communication.

Kevin Koch, P.E., Chief Highway Engineer, Philadelphia Department of Streets, and Talk Show panelist: Well, I think it's a hit because it's probably more interactive than a pure lecture. That, plus having a panel usually provides perspectives from different parts of the country, so people who do ask questions get answers to those questions.

Jerry Pickett, Streets Superintendent, City of Greeley, Colorado, and Talk Show panelist: I think it's terrific any time you can get this many professionals together who have so much knowledge and experience. Then during breaks or after the session, you can visit with them and find out how things work in their operation.

So I believe it's all about networking, and you're going to hear me talk about that a lot, because I've gained more personally from networking than I have anything else.

This year's Talk Show theme concerns the complexities of dealing with the public. What do you hope the attendees will get out of this particular session?

Pickett: Well, I'm an attendee also, so I hope to get some different tools that I can bring back to the City of Greeley and apply them here. You're going to hear all kinds of things during the Talk Show, but to me the bottom line is the importance of communicating with the public and the media, and the different techniques and tools that folks are using to accomplish that.

Hodne: I hope that this session will provide an opportunity for attendees to learn from each other. While many people feel that the challenges they face may be unique, many times they find out in this type of forum that someone else may have already faced a similar situation. To me, that is one of the key components of this session—the "learning from each other" aspect.

Koch: Sometimes I don't know if you can ever properly deal with the public when it concerns snow because the expectations vary. But hopefully what the attendees will get out of this session is that, when you deal with the public, it's very important to have some outreach before winter season explaining what your program is all about, and hopefully get across to the general public what they should expect either before, during or after an event so people don't have their hopes too high. And if your policy is bare pavement then it's bare pavement, but if your policy is something else it's important that you get that information out.

Panelists and attendees during last year's Talk Show in Quebec City

Belcourt: All of us in the road business share the same problems in dealing with snow and ice. And in dealing with the public—and the public at large can be the public and the media wrapped in one, but our key focus is our customers—it gives us an opportunity to explain why we do certain operations. It's important that we take advantage of that opportunity, because we may all share the same type of problems, but we don't necessarily deal with them in the same way.

For example, how a city is built dictates how you have to service it. If you have a highway network where there are no adjacent buildings, you may be able to just use snowplows and throw the snow. However, if you have adjacent buildings then you are forced to use a different type of equipment and plow, and that may cause you a whole bunch of other problems. So again, we're sharing the same type of problems, but we deal with them differently.

Also, each agency has its own expectations from the public, and those expectations become kind of a culture. If you are deemed as a winter city, the expectation is that the service level is going to be very high. Seattle and Portland aren't deemed as winter cities, but when they get snow the public gets upset because they don't see it being dealt with right away. So it ultimately comes down to us having public safety as a goal, and information versus expectation. Those of us in snow and ice control have to get ready for our winter operations, but we also have to communicate to the public what they can do to get ready. So it's a joint process. And whether you like it or not, whenever a road authority is doing something you have to constantly consult and update the public.

Let's talk more generally about the Snow Conference. What brings you back to the conference each year?

Belcourt: Well, it's the business we're in. I always go to APWA's conference because it's the one snow event that's structured with a balance between education, technical and hands-on. It allows the people in the business to freely share at any level they want. The way the format is set up at the Snow Conference, it allows us to share common problems based on our environment, for example with small, medium and large municipalities.

Pickett: There are three things. The first one, as I've mentioned, is networking. I get to meet people from all over the United States, which I wouldn't have the opportunity to do in Colorado. The second one is the education sessions, which are always good to attend. And the third one would be the equipment show. That's where all the big toys are, and you get to go wander through there and talk to all the exhibitors and vendors and see what's new and on the market.

Hodne: Two of the biggest reasons would be the quality of the information I gain at the sessions and the tremendous opportunity to learn from others about the public works issues I deal with every day. Many times people who go to this type of event might think, "Well, I'll probably learn something new from a vendor or one of the speakers." With this conference, one of the true benefits is that you also have the opportunity to learn from other attendees. There is the "Talk Show" General Session, roundtables and numerous opportunities to visit with other participants. I would say that another important aspect of the conference is the ability to gain information on new technology, equipment and services from the large number of vendor participants. The APWA conference staff has done a great job of making sure there are blocks of time in the schedule for attendees to be able to spend quality time in the exhibit area.

Koch: Well, I attend both the Snow Conference and Congress each year, and I've been attending for about ten years now. Between the Snow Conference and Congress I've been able to bring something back to my operation that's allowed for service expansion. We've expanded service here in Philadelphia by approximately $3 million just from what I've learned at the Snow Conference and Congress. Our city now has a community outreach automated phone system that we use not only for snowstorms, but for any public works emergencies, and we brought that technology back from someone we met at last year's Snow Conference in Quebec City.

I always find something at the conferences. We've done three pilots now since Congress. Like I said, we have the outreach phone call system in place, but we've also done a street print program and we just had vehicles fitted with automatic vehicle locators. These vendors were at Congress and the Snow Conference.

I've also had the opportunity to meet a lot of people from around the country which has helped me, because I can just pick up a phone if I have a question and talk to somebody in Iowa or out west. A lot of times I don't have an answer to a problem that I'm trying to deal with here.

What would you say to a member who is considering attending his or her first Snow Conference in Lexington, but is riding the fence on whether or not to go?

Koch: I would tell them that if you don't give yourself the opportunity to attend one of these conferences, you'll never know what you're missing. All it takes is to walk the floor or to bump into someone in the hallway outside one of the education sessions. You never know when you're going to find the answer to something that's been bothering you until you attend one of these events.

Belcourt: There's value, obviously, in attending at least once if there is something specific you want to see. But to really benefit from the conference it takes two or three years of attending before it really clicks. When folks attend two or three years or more, then that's when they really see the benefit coming from the long term. That's when people will be able to share their expertise, will learn to enjoy the experience, and will build the contacts.

Pickett: What I've noticed is that when several people from a particular agency come to their first conference, quite often they'll have a tendency to stay in their own little group, and I think that's such a mistake. This is a good time to network with your peers with other agencies to find out the different things they are doing. We have a lot of similarities and there's no reason for reinventing the wheel. You can come to the conference and get a lot of ideas that would be very applicable for your organization.

The bottom line is, any time you go to these types of conferences, you get out of it exactly how much you want to. So you should learn as much as you possibly can, and network with as many people as you can. Again, a lot of us face the same problems. I get names, faces, phone numbers, and e-mails. Then I feel free to call or e-mail them, since I'm not going to have time during the conference to discuss every problem that's going on in the city. Having those names and faces allows me to kind of pick their brains a little bit and sure makes my job easier.

You know, another thing is that you can make a lot of friendships from going to these conferences. I have met and become friends with a number of people from all over the United States that I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. Just as an example, Bret Hodne [Talk Show facilitator] and I go fishing now, and we're always calling each other with certain problems. And you've got Larry Frevert [APWA board member] in Kansas City, there's Kevin Koch [Talk Show panelist] in Philadelphia, and many others. I would never have had the opportunity to meet them if I didn't go to conferences. And these folks have made my life a lot easier.

Hodne: If you have the desire to gain ideas on how to improve your agency's winter maintenance program, the North American Snow Conference is the place to be. You will find speakers, topics and attendees from all across North America. Most of them will be there to see what new practices and technology are available, and to seek out and share advice on the challenges and issues which they have encountered. No matter what type of information you are seeking, there are probably going to be others in attendance that can provide you with what you may be looking for. It is kind of your "everything-type" event. You have your education sessions, roundtables, exhibits, and interaction with others in the industry. It's the whole package.

APWA's North American Snow Conference takes place April 25-28, 2004 in Lexington, Kentucky. See pages 11-14 for more details on the conference as well as a registration form. Registration can also be performed online at www.apwa.net/meetings/snow. For more information contact APWA at (800) 848-APWA or at snow@apwa.net.