29 September 2015

IDA San Diego – bigger isn’t necessarily better

IDA San Diego in September was the 5th IDA world congress I’ve been to. It was a superbly organised event, featuring some very interesting technical content, so I was glad to be there. However I found myself questioning whether the expense of travel, accommodation and exhibiting was worth it from a purely business perspective.

The first IDA conference I attended was in Maspalomas, Gran Canaria, in October 2007. The theme was ‘Quenching a thirst’ and it focused on the successful building and operation of mega seawater RO plant and the importance of water reuse projects.

On that occasion I presented my first paper, on calcium phosphate inhibition at a wastewater RO plant. I was particularly nervous as the chairpersons included an ex-colleague, Linda Dudley, and the renowned and (at the time) very scary Professor David Hasson as well as Professor Anastasios Karabelas. Ironically in San Diego this year I was chair for the session on fouling and scaling, where Professor Hasson presented a paper!

Maspalomas and the 2009 conference in Dubai were both superb and helped us appoint a lot of distributors and grow our business significantly. They were a big investment but well worth it.

Then we had Perth. It was here that I think things changed. The whole thing was bigger but not necessarily better. We had superstar speakers, including Richard Branson opening the conference (via video link) and Phillippe Cousteau closing. Although the event was fairly well attended, I think the sheer cost involved put a lot of small and medium-sized companies off attending, particularly RO plant operators and owners. There seemed to be a higher proportion of more theoretical papers, based on lab-scale research rather than real life experience. With five tracks (ie five presentations running simultaneously) there was a lot going on. This, combined with the fact that most of the presentations took place far from the exhibition hall, meant that we didn’t pick up as many quality business opportunities as at the previous two conferences.

The same theme continued in Tianjin and, sadly, again this year in San Diego. Some sessions that I attended on the last two days had less than ten delegates present. Perhaps the subject matter of the papers was not sufficiently appealing, but the sheer choice available was obviously a major factor.

The task of organising an event like this is enormous and I think all the staff and directors on the organising committees do a fantastic job. It’s the strategy behind the conferences that worries me. If people in the key target audiences don’t believe the events offer real potential to grow their business, the number of exhibitors and delegates may start to dwindle.

I really hope the new board, under the guidance of Emilio Gabrielli, can focus on who the IDA’s customers are and what they want.

Good things come in small packages

By contrast with the above, I’ve attended and presented at a few conferences over the last year for the first time. In each case I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable they were, how many new faces I met and how much potential business was created.

In December 2014 I attended the AMTA Membranes in Petrochemicals and Mining Conference in Keystone, Colorado. Then in January this year I went to the Produced Water Society Conference in Houston Texas. Both gave a great insight into the real world use of membranes in enhanced oil recovery programmes.

Then in February I went to the AMTA Membrane Technology Conference in Florida, where there was a good mix of suppliers and operators and plenty of interesting real life papers.

Then in June was the Membrane Technology Forum conference in Minneapolis, which focused on membrane usage in the dairy, food and beverage industries. Again, the papers were mainly based on real life experience. As there were only two tracks, the attendance at each presentation was much larger than at some conferences. There were relatively few exhibitors but a lot of operators and service companies looking for new technology, so lots of productive conversations. This conference was a revelation and definitely one to attend again next year. Our 2015 distributor conference saw the launch of another unique product – our first pH neutral membrane cleaner.

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