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A half-dozen eyecare businesses talked INVISION through the demands and rewards of catering to tourists and other out-of-towners.

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THEY MAY ONLY be passing through, but seasonal customers still need eyecare, and if you treat them right, they’ll be back. Six vision businesses talked us through the particular demands and very real rewards of welcoming non-locals.

For obvious reasons, most independent ECPs make their local communities the focus of their marketing efforts. No argument here. But the tourists, students, businesspeople and relatives of locals who pass through your neck of the woods, or take up seasonal residence in it, also need eyecare and eyewear — and when they head home, they could be sharing the great experience you gave them with friends, neighbors and other potential customers you didn’t know existed. If you’re in a suburban location or a rural market that’s not on the tourist trail you may feel this isn’t a consideration for you, but in today’s world no community is truly isolated, and as we emerge from the pandemic, people are eager to get moving again.

Transient clients bring with them a different perspective: If they’re tourists, they’ve likely got the time, cash and inclination to shop. They might be willing to drop a large sum on a pair of high-end frames they wouldn’t spring for at home, or simply wouldn’t be willing to drive half-way across their home city for. Or they may need urgent repairs (or simply have forgotten their glasses). If you have a lab, you could be leveraging it to cater to this group and tap a tidy extra revenue stream. Similarly, an OD with a solid reputation for emergency eyecare should be putting her name about in beach communities as the summer crowds — and the inevitable spike in contact lens mishaps — arrive.

summer

As for those students who cycle past your storefront; they may not promise a lifetime of return visits, but if you can meet their particular needs — say, affordable frames, quick turnaround and advice on screen time and eye health — you might just add a dorm hall or a study group to your patient base for the next few years.

The ECPs we spoke to have come up with any number of creative ideas for getting non-locals through their doors. “We spiff the concierges at hotels when they send out-of-towners over in our downtown area,” shared Dr. Jason Klepfisz, owner of Urban Eye Care in Phoenix, AZ. The team at Pend Oreille Vision Care in Sandpoint, ID, recently started sponsoring the local non-profit that builds hiking and biking trails in the area, netting their logo and name some coverage.

Jennifer Leuzzi at Mill Creek Optical in Dansville, NY, advertises sunglasses and repairs at local campgrounds and has a billboard near a college town. And in Orlando, FL, which gets tourists year-round, Oxford Eyes is an active member of Ivanhoe Village Main Street, which collaborates with the local tourism board, says owner Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson. “We also have a full page in the Ivanhoe Village guidebook that is distributed to hotel concierges. Our location is a draw as we are one of several independent, curated, destination businesses.”

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Whatever your location or its volume of tourist or other out-of-town traffic, there are a handful of basic steps you can take to ensure you’re getting your share of the transient business:

  • PREPARE. If you’re in a location that gets seasonal inflows, make sure you have product, service, staffing and marketing plans in place ahead of time to tap this business.
  • ASK FOR SHOUT-OUTS. If tourists passing through seem pleased with your service, ask them to say something nice online.
  • KEEP TRACK. A database of customers helps you stay in contact with non-locals (particularly in the low season). It’ll keep them coming back and you can remind them to refer you to others.
  • CROSS-PROMOTE. Synergize your efforts and find partner businesses that cater to tourists and do some deals. That fishing supply store or car rental place could be promoting your polarized suns and anti-glare clip-ons.
  • GET YOUR NAME OUT THERE. Being included in visitor information material, guide books or lists of local businesses or healthcare providers put out by tourism boards or other organizations can help people find you.

Beyond these basic tips, we’ve profiled a half-dozen eyecare businesses that have a noteworthy bunch of out-of-town customers. Whether or not your business is in a strong tourist market, we trust you’ll learn something of value from their experiences. If there’s one common thread to their advice, it’s to remember that word-of-mouth — the kind earned by offering truly unique eyewear along with caring, memorable service — can travel far beyond your local community.

DEL MAR
OPTOMETRIC

SAN DIEGO, CA

Located in sunny San Diego, CA, Del Mar Optometric gets tourists year-round, but summers are especially busy at this beachside office. Visitors come to town on business, for golfing and vacations, and to bet on the horses at Del Mar. According to optician Kris Kittell, many of them forget to pack sunglasses or extra contacts. “We’re happy to help them purchase replacements,” she says.

Del Mar Optometric works with hotels and restaurants to cross-promote to out-of-towners by leaving cards with the practice’s information and a discount at their check-in desks. Says Kittell, “We also strive to provide a consistent level of customer service to our locals that makes it impossible for them not to recommend us to their out-of-town guests and business partners.”

Most often, tourists come in asking for replacements for lost or forgotten-at-home CLs, as well as quick medical visits for eye irritations or vacation injuries, and of course, sunglasses. “We stock everything from inexpensive knockaround sunnies to luxury ‘treat yourself while you’re on vacation’ designer shades,” says Kittell. “We even have several customers that stop in every year to pick up a new pair as a souvenir.”

Kittell estimates out-of-towners make up about 15% of Del Mar Optometric’s business. They also have quite a few patients that live in the area seasonally and prefer to do their exams and eyewear with them. With this sort of transient business, the team works hard to curate a collection of eyewear that patients can’t find elsewhere.

A key factor in keeping such clients happy is being able to offer quick turnaround. “Since we have an on-site finishing lab, our turnaround time is fast enough for patients that are only in town for a short time. This is also great for kids visiting from college or home for the holidays who need glasses made quickly,” Kittell says.

Another asset is staff flexibility. “Our team is efficient, cross-trained, and more than capable of kicking it into high gear when the weather warms up and the tourists start rolling in,” she says. “We’re lucky to have such a great staff.”

There’s no bad time for the beach, so Del Mar Optometric doesn’t have a traditional off-season, but things do slow down a bit in the fall when kids go back to school. To keep the schedule full, the practice offers back-to-school specials and encourages parents to book eye exams around this time. Any down time is used to catch up and reset before things get crazy again around the holidays and year-end.

Kittell stresses the importance of asking your local customers to recommend your practice to their out-of-town friends, visiting business associates, and family members. “A recommendation from a trusted friend means more than any paid advertisement!” she says.

ACADEMY
VISION

PINE BEACH, NJ

Centrally located to some of the most popular Jersey Shore destinations, Pine Beach’s visitor numbers spike in summer, and Academy Vision draws patients from Seaside Heights to Long Beach Island.

The practice relies heavily on referrals, but does engage in some seasonal marketing, including the artwork on the outside of the building, which is definitely a topic of conversation, says owner Dr. Marc Ullman. A large selection of polarized suns, Ullman’s specialty in emergency eyecare, and the office’s location on a busy highway all help in catering to tourists, which in turn fuels word of mouth and Google reviews.

Ullman says most of his tourist patients come for emergency contact lens related issues, such as cornea infiltrates and ulcers. “Mostly because they are from another town, realized they forgot their glasses or backup contacts at home, and end up sleeping with their lenses after a day at the beach. Some patients come in to get a pair of contact lenses because they forgot theirs at home, and occasionally someone just needs to grab a pair of polarized sunglasses before heading to the beach.”
Academy Vision gets about 15 to 20 new patients every summer, “and occasionally someone we helped in a prior summer returns for an eye exam,” says Ullman.

One group lured by the Jersey Shore’s seasonal attractions isthe Boy Scouts. Now that they’re returning post-pandemic, they’ve become a good target for Academy Vision’s newest outreach: offering vision badges supplied by the New Jersey Society of Optometric Physicians. “We just had our first Cub Scout troop since the start of the pandemic come in this past week,” says Ullman. “We put the vision badge they earned on a postcard that offers a free Optos if they come back in for an exam — I’m hoping the parents keep the card.”

mural

Seasonal murals let vacationers and others passing through the Jersey Shore know what’s going on at Academy Vision in Pine Beach, NJ.

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ARTISAN
EYEWORKS

ASHLAND, OR

When Drs. Kimberly and Michael Hoyt opened Artisan Eyeworks in Ashland, OR, on the California border half a day’s drive from Portland, they were pleasantly surprised to find that in addition to many of the town’s 20,000 or so residents, they were seeing quite a few people who were just passing through. Some were in town for events associated with Southern Oregon University, and many had come to check out the renowned, nearly year-round Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).

Still others were touring the historic Railroad District the practice calls home.

Despite being a college town that also draws many cultural tourists and retirees, Ashland had little in the way of independently crafted eyewear when the Hoyts set up shop in 2015. “That was another a-ha!” says Kimberly. “Realizing that when people are on vacation, they actually have the most time to relax and have fun shopping.” By limiting patient numbers and presenting a curated selection of frames by independent designers — and even in their choice of name — the Hoyts were able to position Artisan Eyeworks comfortably among the galleries, cultural attractions and historical experiences the tourists were there to enjoy.

According to Michael, COVID has changed the mix somewhat — and walk-in traffic has yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels — but the visitors are returning. “Ashland has changed a lot since COVID,” he says. “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the largest theater in the nation, was the draw. The pandemic temporarily shuttered it. Tourism is still pretty robust though. People travel for mountain biking, the rivers, food and wine, and largely right now, just to escape the bigger cities.”

Drs. Kimberly and Michael Hoyt

Drs. Kimberly and Michael Hoyt

For the Hoyts, drawing tourists and other transient business is not primarily about shrewd marketing tactics; it’s about doing what independent eyecare does best and then making sure the word gets out. “Between our unique product lines and our online reputation, people just seek us out,” he says.

Asked what it is that tourists and other non-local clientele are mainly looking for, Hoyt doesn’t hesitate: “To a person, people from out of town are interested in our frames. We are very fortunate to represent great lines like Theo, Anne et Valentin, l.a. Eyeworks, and Kirk & Kirk. We only carry independents. Depending on where they’re from, they may have never seen those options. If they have, it can be easier to get them in a low-key setting on vacation, rather than schlepping across, L.A., San Francisco or Seattle.”

While Artisan doesn’t target students per se, it does offer a package deal based around the Vernon Gantry line. “It’s the only Chinese-made line we carry, but to compete with online options, you can’t offer frames made in Japan, the E.U. or the United States. For the niche it fills, it’s an excellent line. They are stylish, and just as importantly are durable and hold their adjustment. We sell a package of frames and ARC lenses for $175.”

The theater that presents the Shakespeare Festival has a very good benefits package, and Artisan Eyeworks takes care of everyone from the cast and high-level administrators and directors, to set painters and costume makers. “They are all amazing at what they do. It’s such a treat to have OSF in the community. We’re very excited that they’ve reopened!” says Hoyt.

When the tourist traffic slows somewhat during the winter, Artisan will do a little marketing for skiing around goggles and sunglasses.

Hoyt’s advice to businesses looking to bring in a few more tourist dollars is simply to “up your whole game” and keep in mind that “you can’t be everything to everyone. We are low volume, high service, high end, with a single line to compete at the lower end. Pick a lane and do it better than anyone in your community.” Be something your competitors aren’t, both in products and in service. From there, he says, “The rest takes care of itself.”

How To Have a Successful Business When Your Customers Are Just Passing Through

MODERN EYES
AUSTIN, TX

Centrally located in the Texas capital just blocks from UT Austin, Modern Eyes’ patient base skews young and volume follows the academic calendar. Things are busiest when the Longhorns are in town, from September to November and again from late January to mid-May.

Unsurprisingly, given its location and demographic, most patients find Modern Eyes through insurance or just walk-by traffic, as there are several high-rise apartment buildings near the office. The practice does engage in some external marketing targeting students, however, such as placing advertisements in the welcome packets that they receive from their property managers upon move-in.

According to owner Dr. Sonja Franklin, students — who comprise most of her patients and contribute a large portion of her business — are mainly interested in contact lenses but she also offers frame packages designed specifically to compete with online retailers such as Warby Parker.

The business usually cuts back on staff in the summer as volume decreases. “We do hire pre-optometry students to work at the office and most will return home in the summer, which allows us to staff down,” she says. Unfortunately, there is always an off season. “We have an annual sale designed for times when the office naturally slows down. We also will offer discounts on particular frame lines as an incentive for patients.”

Franklin is a big believer in trying different promotions to see which works best for your patient base — experimenting with social media versus print marketing, for example. “In my case, advertising in the campus paper did not provide a return on investment so we no longer do that,” she says.

How To Have a Successful Business When Your Customers Are Just Passing Through

BIG LAKE
EYE CARE

OKEECHOBEE, FL

About an hour and 45 minutes south of Orlando, the central Florida county of Okeechobee is a rural cattle and farming community and, according to Valorie Davis, licensed optician at Big Lake Eye Care, “a place where we all know each other and always lend a helping hand to our neighbor. Around the end of October my northern friends start to arrive to do some fishing on the great lake of Okeechobee.” The second-largest freshwater lake in the U.S., it draws a steady stream of visitors from Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and even Canada, heading south for the fishing and warm weather. “March and April traffic starts to lighten and daily you can see motorhomes headed north,” Davis says. Among those heading home each year are more than a few satisfied Big Lake Eye Care patients — and they spread the word.

Davis estimates tourists account for 25% of business in the winter months, including relatives of locals who come down to stay and enjoy Florida for a little while. She can’t stress enough the importance of word of mouth to this business. “These folks from up north inhabit trailer parks for the most part, are retired and visit with neighbors often. We do have two locations in this small town and we make it convenient as possible. We tease them about catching all the fish in the lake. We treat them like family and friends. We ask about all those grandbabies.”

In terms of the eyewear and care, they mostly come in for polarized sunglasses “to make the fishing better” and primary eyecare. “We see quite a few who come back year after year for an eye exam and glasses. We are always here to do any repairs and frame replacements for those in need,” Davis says.

The practice tries to limit staff vacations in January and February due to the increase in business in those months, which is also when locals’ insurance starts over or flex spending renews.

For this classic “snow-bird” destination, off-season is summer. Locals help the business get through, but with the office slowing down, staff use this time to get out and enjoy all the perks of living in sunny Florida.

Offering a neat summation of Big Lake Eye Care’s approach, Davis says, “From day one, we have done these things: We personally make each interaction count, ask for referrals, treat everyone as family, and go above and beyond to help with insurance verification.”

How To Have a Successful Business When Your Customers Are Just Passing Through

SPECS
APPEAL

ST. GEORGE, UT

Located in the northeastern Mojave Desert in southern Utah, St. George’s relatively mild winter days are a magnet for those living in parts further north who don’t like snow, many of whom take to their cars or RVs and head there from Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas, among other states. Some of these “snowbirds” have second homes in the area, which is just two hours north of Las Vegas. According to Specs Appeal’s optical manager Star Taylor, as soon as the mercury hits 90, the visitors tend to head home. “We do have a significant population that stays year-round, but people stay home when it’s that hot.”

Perhaps due to the more transient nature of its clientele, a marketing channel that seemed to be working for Specs Appeal’s Nevada location — newspapers — was a bust for St. George, so they’ve been focusing on radio instead. They also advertise in a monthly directory for the largest active adult community (aged 55 and over … so lots of snowbirds there). As a strategy to lure the area’s student population, the practice gives lectures on Lasik surgery and other eye health issues at the local college. Additionally, “We are talking about trying to develop partnerships with local businesses to cross-promote,” says Taylor.

Older out-of-towners tend to stop in for progressive lenses (many using their old frames since they are on a fixed budget). With many being on the road, “They will sometimes get a back-up pair or purchase good quality sunglasses or night driving lenses,” she adds. “The college-aged population tends to lean toward our in-house edging for the attractive pricing,” while Specs Appeal’s surgery center is a natural draw for those needing IOLs and Lasik.

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Taylor finds herself being called upon do repairs on glasses from travelers passing through and has provided trials to travelers whose contact lenses ran out unexpectedly. She will also work with their local optical shop to order parts while she makes a temporary fix. Such gestures may not add directly to the bottom line but they help to fuel the practice’s strong word-of-mouth marketing, which Taylor finds is especially important to her largely older clientele. She adds: “On the other end, the ones who stay for months, or half of the year, contribute largely to our sales. They tend to like our doctors so they get their optical/ophthalmology/optometry needs taken care of while they are here. The larger cities are more difficult to drive in, and since we are not a metropolis, many snowbirds like driving in our smaller city.”

If a tourist is likely to be gone before the completed glasses are received from the lab, Specs Appeal will ship them to wherever the patient is heading next. “I have shipped from Florida to Alaska. I sometimes coordinate with an Airbnb along their travel route, so the glasses are there when they arrive.” The biggest issue, she says, is that most people want to shop close to home so they can go in for adjustments when needed. “I will service a person’s glasses while they are visiting and I hope others will do the same. This way we can look after each other and support other independent businesses.”

During the summer slow period, Specs Appeal typically does a sunglass sale, a trunk show and runs one special per month. “I list the specials on a networking site. We also list them on social media and send out an email blast to our current clientele,” says Taylor. This year she is hoping to add a parking lot fair to that mix and plans to invite other vendors to join in, including a food truck, a jewelry vendor, and a couple clothing vendors. “We would list that on the event calendars around town and on Facebook events.”

After years covering some of the farther flung corners of the world of business journalism, Heath has more recently focused on covering the efforts of independent eyecare professionals to negotiate a fast-changing industry landscape. Contact him at [email protected]

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