I’ve been covering the annual American Lighting Association (ALA) Conferences since 1994, so believe me when I say I’ve heard plenty of (good and not-so-good) critiques over the years. In all that time though, there hasn’t been a Conference that received such unanimously positive reviews as this past one.

Eric Jacobson ALA President

An executive with the ALA for more than 20 years, Eric Jacobson (here with his wife Kyla) took the reins of the 2015 Conference as its new President and CEO.

Question #1: Who went?

For starters, the attendance number (654) for delegates alone broke all records, including the gung-ho years when the housing market was crazy-hot. In addition to 165 first-time attendees, there were 41 new members, plus the return of quite a number of prior attendees who hadn’t been to a Conference in some time. And more so than in the past, there were actually new companies in attendance, offering digital technology-based services and products to the lighting industry as well as companies who have been in existence, but have never shown in the major markets where lighting showrooms buy such as Dallas, Las Vegas, and High Point. 

Jennifer-Robinson-and-Devorah-Pool-from-Spectrum-Lighting

It was the first time that (from left to right) Jennifer Robinson and Devorah Pool from Spectrum Lighting in Des Moines attended the ALA Conference, and sponsored by Hubbardton Forge with Amy McGuire (far right).

Question #2: Why was this one so different?

There isn’t one definitive reason as to why the 2015 Conference stood out from others; it’s more like a “perfect storm” of several factors. First of all, there is the location. California is home base for many lighting manufacturers as well for many lighting showrooms and rep firms. It is also an easy location for people near and far to reach, and has a temperate climate.

Reason number two, according to most of the attendees I surveyed, has to do with the economy. With apologies to Canadian members (who attended despite the challenge of a weakened dollar), the American economy is stronger now than it has been in the past several years, resulting in a profitable year for all involved: manufacturers, showrooms, and reps. When business is good, people are happy. Put happy people in a beautiful location, and the mood is even more upbeat.   

Then there was the much-publicized new format for the educational sessions (shorter, and more highly targeted) as well as additional tweaks regarding the keynote presentations, the manufacturers’ exhibits, and of course the new leadership. It was Eric Jacobson’s first Conference as President and CEO of the ALA, and even though he has served on the ALA Conference team for the past 20 years, he managed to make this first one under his watch feel very fresh.

Rick Seidman—Quoizel

Enjoying the balmy California evening are Rick Seidman and his wife Karen (at left) and Bobbie Pearsall — all from Quoizel.

Question #3: What was so great about that new ALA mobile app?

You probably noticed the ads in the trade magazine about the ALA’s new mobile app, and it probably didn’t seem like a big deal. After all, the major trade shows (High Point Market, Las Vegas, Lightfair) have one to help attendees navigate the event, so what?

It was a few days before the ALA Conference started, when I heard through the lighting grapevine that “chatter” was happening on the app and I’d best download it and see what was going on.

In addition to typical “app stuff,” such as a planning guide and details regarding what seminars would be offered on which day and in which room, there was a virtual chatroom of sorts. In order to fully engage attendees before they arrived, the ALA offered a $100 cash prize to the person who engaged the most using a variety of criteria (sharing photos, responding to a survey, writing posts, performing seminar evaluations, and contacting fellow attendees directly either privately or publicly etc.). Each completed function was assigned a set amount of “points.” There were also points for checking in, creating a profile, and starting a conversation.

Before the Conference had started, one first-time showroom attendee asked her fellow ALA app users for their advice on getting the most out of the event. Lots of people chimed in (including myself) with some terrific advice. It also helped that first-timer virtually “meet up” with a lot of fellow Conference goers from each area of the industry – retailer, manufacturer, rep – that she may have never met ordinarily. Through the app, attendees were actively seeking each other out to say hello and network. 

Chris and Taleen Titizian from Avenue Lighting.

It was the first time attending the ALA Conference for Chris and Taleen Titizian from Avenue Lighting.

Did someone say cash prize? That’s all competitive industry folk such as Richard Alan (rep), Jack Fleischer (showroom), and Brian Creeley (manufacturer) needed to hear, and it was Game On! That ALA app was constantly on fire at all hours of every day — whether members were literally at the Conference or off the premises.

That “chatroom”-like feature, where app users could broadcast the best tip they heard at whatever seminar they were attending, helped build relationships between industry members almost just as fast as sitting down to breakfast or lunch with a new crew of people each time. And the true hallmark of a successful app was the request – by its users – to continue the app’s chat features even after the ALA Conference was over.

Question #4: When & where is the next ALA Conference?

Previous plans for a Bahamas venue fell through when the property fell into financial trouble, but the 2016 Conference is now confirmed for the El Conquistador hotel (a Waldorf Astoria resort property) in Puerto Rico from September 25-27, 2016.