Eric Jacobson, CAE, is in his freshman year as President & CEO of the American Lighting Association (ALA) with next month’s Conference being his first at the helm. Here, he details what’s distinctive about this year’s gathering in Huntington Beach, Calif., which registration numbers show is the association’s most widely attended to date.

From October 1 to 3, the California coastline in Huntington Beach will become second to the main draw that week for lighting folks: the annual ALA Conference.  

After every Conference concludes, feedback is given and tweaks are made, but this year’s edition is different. As the inaugural Conference with
Jacobson in the position of President & CEO, there has been considerable excitement when the word came out months ago that there would be noticeable changes. Not only were members who had made suggestions pleased, but the news also attracted newcomers to try Conference for the first time. It also enticed members who haven’t come in some time to return.

Back in the 1990s, when Jacobson entered the lighting industry as part of the then-new ALA management team, the industry was in a very different place. Construction was booming and compact fluorescent lamping was just gaining steam.

Then came the unexpected challenges of government regulations impacting the industry, and the association was thrust into a new role as the mouthpiece in Washington D.C. for the entire residential lighting industry. Jacobson’s prior experience working in the political arena after graduating from Baylor University – first under George H.W. Bush’s administration and later in the campaign office for Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Dole –  came in handy, alongside then-President Dick Upton’s extensive experience in the nation’s capital when he was with the National Chamber of Commerce. Upton retired at the start of this year, after 20 years serving the ALA.

Aside from legislative issues, the lighting industry has faced challenges from online lighting distributors in regard to pricing — a hot topic that has been discussed at previous ALA Conferences. In keeping up with these changes – including the growing importance of social media – the ALA team modified its Conference format.

“One of our goals was to get members connecting better and sharing their expertise,” Jacobson notes. At previous conferences, these important networking discussions typically occurred as members waited for seminars to begin, or just after they ended. Wanting to capitalize on that positive experience – which has often been cited by members as one of the key benefits of attending – Jacobson and his team eschewed the conference mainstay of having “keynote” speakers and instead opted for a series of “mini-seminars” that are similar to TED Talks (i.e. informal presentations that detail a great idea in approximately 18 minutes or less). “These sessions will provide ‘meat’ for all of our constituents,” Jacobson remarks.

In addition, there will be small, almost roundtable-like sessions (conventional “seminars” take up roughly 1+ hours) focusing on specific topics (i.e. sales issues, regulations, IMAP) that concern members. This activity will be conducted via a series of outdoor tables on the patio with a scenic ocean view to give the atmosphere more of a relaxing and casual feel. “It’s a more topic-oriented form of networking,” Jacobson explains. “Our Conference is unique because, unlike other trade associations, we do not have a major trade show associated with us.”

This year’s Conference also marks another first: the introduction of the Larry Sayah Innovation Forum, sponsored by the ALA Charitable Endowment Fund with the generous support of the Sayah family. This forum – which takes the place of a typical seminar – was created to celebrate the innovative ideas that ALA members are utilizing in their businesses. A pre-Conference application process narrowed down the topics into several categories.

One Conference event that remains the same is the announcement of the winners for the Lighting for Tomorrow competition, which lauds innovative LED products that are cutting edge, yet realistically salable.

“With the changes in LED technology and the amount of quality products increasing, there is just so much opportunity for our industry,” Jacobson says. “I think the importance of a lighting showroom is greater now than it has ever been, and having an educated staff is more important than ever.”