Memorable mammoth meeting

The 2014 INFORMS Annual Meeting, held last month in San Francisco, attracted about 5,600 attendees, a number equal to roughly half of INFORMS’ worldwide membership. The 2014 event didn’t just break INFORMS’ all-time attendance conference record, it demolished it by about 1,300.

So what compelled so many people to converge near San Francisco’s famed Union Square for four days of outstanding keynote and plenary speakers, receptions, networking, job-hunting, sightseeing, fine dining and, yes, fine weather (as a native San Franciscan, I can’t recall four more perfect days in November)? Certainly, all of the above played a role, although I don’t think anyone counted on the weather being so cooperative: 70-something degrees in San Francisco in November? Are you kidding me? You don’t often see 70 degrees in San Francisco on sunny afternoons in August. Cue the famous quip, widely credited to Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

OK, so San Francisco is on everyone’s must-visit list, and the city and the INFORMS staff and conference committee chaired by Candi Yano of U.C. Berkeley put on a great show, but the biggest attraction, at least for the vast majority of attendees, was the opportunity to present a technical paper. The number of presentations totaled more than 5,000, spread over some 83 different tracks, setting still more records and resulting in a hefty 542-page program that needed its own ticketed seat on the flight home.

“The INFORMS Annual Meeting has become a key conference for many academics in the OR/MS field, and we also benefited from strong practitioner participation, particularly in data analytics and related fields,”  Yano said when asked about the massive turnout. “We were also fortunate in being able to recruit exceptional keynote and plenary speakers, who attracted a lot of attention. And, of course, San Francisco itself is a world-class conference destination.”

The ratio of attendees to talks was roughly one-to-one. Did the presentation numbers surprise Yano and her committee?

“We were originally planning for about 4,000 presentations, and it was a big surprise to find out that over 5,000 abstracts were submitted,”  Yano said. “Our immediate reaction was, ‘Oh no! What are we going to do now?’ The INFORMS staff did a great job of negotiating with the hotels to get us more space.”

Given the incredible attendance jump, the 2014 conference can certainly be considered a milestone, but is it an anomaly or simply a very large step in the continued growth of the event?

“I don’t see the conference entirely as an anomaly,”  Yano said. “Some locations are more attractive than others, but judging from the strong attendance at the various sessions, I think a lot of people come to INFORMS conferences for the content and to re-connect with their colleagues. Those two benefits will remain, wherever the conference is held.”

This issue of OR/MS Today is packed with content from the conference, including a Q&A I did there with INFORMS President-Elect Robin Keller (page 36), a recap of all the major awards handed out by the Institute (page 44) and a photo essay that captures a few of the many memorable scenes from the massive event (page 54).

— Peter Horner,