Once again, the Laser Institute of America’s (LIA) ICALEO conference was held in Orlando, FL, during the week of October 6, 2019. This year featured a completely new approach to the conference and a completely revamped agenda. Let’s start with a few of the changes (although I am sure I am missing more).
1. Tradeshow: The vendor exhibition went from the traditional couple of hours on a Tuesday night to four full days from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (except Thursday, which was a bit shorter). There was a venue for talks on the show floor, which were given pretty much throughout the conference. There was in principle a cocktail hour each night at 5 p.m. and free drink tickets were pretty freely given. There were servers coming around with a variety of finger foods.
2. Plenary Sessions: Instead of one opening plenary session on Monday morning or, as in recent years, an opening and a closing plenary on Thursday, this year featured four different plenary sessions—one for each of the different market focus areas (see below). So, there were a lot of Plenary speakers.
3. Technical Agenda: Each day was focused on a different industry segment: Aerospace (Monday), Medical/Biotech (Tuesday), Microelectronics (Wednesday), and Automotive (Thursday).
4. Business Forum: This used to be a small crowd that focused on marketing primarily, and there were several vibrant discussions. The new venue was a part of the Plenary and the character changed substantially.
5. Awards Ceremony: Last year, this event was changed from an afternoon venue to a night venue, and this year it followed the exhibit hall social hour.
6. Roundtable Discussions: There were a number of these and a few had more people on stage than in the actual audience.
Here are a few comments from my personal perspective. This conference was perfectly organized and executed, assuming an attendance of 2000 or more people. For the less than 500 in actual attendance (which, by the way, is consistent with previous years), the venue was too spread out both in space and time. The changes were supposed to bring more people to the venue, but that did not happen. The tradeshow vendors just did not get perceived value for their time and money. I am not ‘talking out of class,’ by the way—this was a common theme in the exhibit hall.
As for Plenary Sessions, they are supposed to be special. If they are diluted, then what is the point? Many of these sessions were very poorly attended. The Technical Agenda makes sense, but splitting it into the market segments also caused some problems. Some of the papers may have been better put elsewhere or in other sessions. I found the breakdown a bit confusing and there were times when I could not attend interesting talks that were occurring simultaneously (but admittedly, this occurs at all of these venues with parallel talks).
Next, the Awards Dinner—it was very poorly attended, which is unfortunate. The Coherent reserved table, for instance, right up front as a big sponsor, had nobody sitting there and there were many other empty seats. And by the way, these seats were paid for! The event is historically known to drag on and this year was no exception. As much as I admire and respect Prof. Bill Steen, do we really need to give out, what is it, six or eight awards in his name? Or if so, does it need to be done at the dinner? And speaking of which, should the LIA financial numbers be put on display at this event, even though many in the audience are not LIA members?
Now, let’s talk about all the great stuff going on at ICALEO.
As usual, the international attendance was fantastic and, again in accordance with recent years, there was a heavy concentration of German and Chinese attendees and laser companies. Chinese companies were big sponsors. I saw a lot of new and a lot of young faces (and sadly, I missed a few ‘old’ faces). This conference is still, and always has been, a great venue to meet very high-level laser executives, scientists, marketing people, business owners, etc. The small size has always been a positive in my mind, as everyone is accessible. One thing I can say about the actual exhibit this year is that anyone interested in talking with representatives from any exhibiting company had plenty of ‘face-time’ opportunity.
From a personal perspective, it was a great time as usual, and the music venue was particularly great this year. I got to play with Dr. Henrikki Pantsar at the President’s Opening Reception (another change in combining the President’s Reception, usually on Monday night, and combining it with the Sunday night reception) and also every night somewhere around the pool. Henrikki is the LIA President-elect and I am sure that planning for next year’s ICALEO, to be held October 18-22, 2020, in Chicago, IL, is high on his priority list. Monday and Tuesday evenings were actually pretty quiet, as the 'laser nerds' for the most part don’t eat or drink a lot in the venue restaurants and bars. However, starting Wednesday, there was a co-located Nurses' Convention with, I was told, about 3000 attendees. The bars and restaurants were full and all of the venues (by peeking in the doors…) were packed. If we could get this kind of attendance for ICALEO, the hotels would be much more welcoming than to a smaller crowd that does not spend a lot of money.
ICALEO has always been a conference where the talks were up front and the exhibition is in the background. This year, the recipe was pretty much flipped to make the tradeshow a bigger part of the total venue. Whether this will continue, I think we will find out soon based on vendor feedback.
So, the changes put in place at LIA continue to evolve. This organization is a vibrant part of the industry and will grow with it, despite a few hiccups along the way. I am already looking forward to Chicago in 2020.
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