WASHINGTON - Registration opened this week for the Renewable Fuels Association's 23rd Annual National Ethanol Conference (NEC), set for Feb. 12-14, 2018 in San Antonio. Time certainly flies, as it feels like it was just yesterday that I was attending my first NEC in Las Vegas in 2001. In my former life as a reporter, I knew not to miss out on covering RFA's annual conference, which had news, networking and a nice, sunny location during an otherwise frigid winter. So why should you attend? Let me count the ways.
- Great speakers: The NEC is truly the most respected and widely attended ethanol conference in the country. It's the conference where attendees hear from high-profile executives. In previous years, NEC attendees have heard from numerous ethanol advocates, including USDA Secretaries Tom Vilsack and Mike Johanns, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), governors such as Terry Branstad and Mark Dayton and political pundits including Mary Matalin and James Carville, Robert Gibbs and Karl Rove, Paul Begala and Mike Murphy, as well as last year's speaker Ari Fleisher.
- A variety of viewpoints: As a reporter, I appreciated not just the caliber of NEC's speakers, but the fact that speakers weren't all on the same page. Attending a conference where everyone is preaching to the choir is frankly boring and a waste of everyone's time. Even last year, my first staffing the NEC, a first-time attendee told me he appreciated hearing from a variety of viewpoints, including those from the oil industry. In previous years, NEC attendees have heard from former and current industry representatives, including Red Cavaney and Marty Durbin of the American Petroleum Institute, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers President Chet Thompson, Gulf Oil President Joe Petrowski, Rob Routs of Shell International, Dave Whikehart of Marathon Petroleum, Dan Gilligan of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, Rob Vierhout of the European ethanol association ePure, Joel Velasco of Brazilian sugarcane association UNICA and Natural Resources Defense Council Executive Nathanael Greene. Yes, all of them spoke at an ethanol conference.
- Great content: If you want to hear a commercial about a new company or product, the NEC is not for you. If you want to hear boring panelists drone on about a topic that's been repeated at every other industry conference, the NEC is also not for you. NEC attendees were among the first to hear details of the Renewable Fuel Standard included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which provided a market for up to 7.5 billion gallons of biofuel by 2012. Meantime, in 2011, General Motors debuted new vehicles capable of running on E85. The auto company offered test drives of those vehicles at that year's NEC. Trust me, the content is anything but boring.
- The State of the Industry speech: If there's one constant at NEC, it's RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen's annual remarks, recounting the previous year's highlights and upcoming challenges. In his remarks, he's not afraid to call out those who try to impede our industry's growth and his booming voice echoing throughout the conference ensures you won't miss any part of the speech. Plus, his remarks are usually sprinkled with Churchill quotes for added flair.
- Stellar networking opportunities: With more than 1,000 attendees at every NEC, it's a great way to network within our industry and broaden outreach to others. It's not just ethanol producers that attend the NEC, but others in the supply chain (marketers, plant managers, retailers, auto manufacturers, oil industry representatives, traders, brokers and government officials). With two, well-attended networking evening events, plus numerous breaks during the conference, the NEC offers excellent opportunities to meet lots of new people.
- Business opportunities: With the NEC as the premiere U.S. ethanol conference, it's not just networking being done. Ethanol traders, marketers, producers and retailers are all doing business at the NEC. Don't be left out.
- Entertainment: Think the NEC is all work? Think again. In years past, country singer Shannon Brown, Led Zeppelin cover band Led Zeppelin 2, Green Floyd (comprised of ethanol industry execs including Pacific Ethanol CEO Neil Koehler) and the Second Amendments (comprised of several U.S. House members) all performed. The NEC is anything but stuffy.
- Location, location, location: Last but certainly not least, I always appreciated getting away from the cold East Coast weather for a few days to a much warmer city. The NEC has previously been held in: San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, New Orleans, Miami and Orlando, among other places. Not bad places to spend a few days in February.