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What to Make of the Changing Eyecare Trade Show Landscape

Upstart eyewear events see potential in regional shows as Vision Expo prepares a massive move out of New York.

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What to Make of the Changing Eyecare Trade Show Landscape

Vision Expo East 2023 attendees gathered in the Javits Convention Center on Friday, March 16, 2023.

The Vision Council announced in October it was moving its marquee event – Vision Expo East – from New York City to Orlando beginning in 2025.

The decision sent shockwaves through the optical industry. The annual trade show and convention in the Big Apple has been a staple on the collective calendars of eyecare professionals for years. The Vision Council’s decision to move it from one of the world’s most important fashion and business epicenters to the middle of Florida is a seismic shift.

However, a change was proving necessary.

Regaining What Was Lost

The annual double tentpole events on the industry calendar – Vision Expo East in New York and Vision Expo West in Las Vegas – have yet to reach pre-pandemic attendance levels. The main showroom floors at both events also have been noticeably smaller the past few years in comparison with, say, 2019.

Certainly, outside factors have played a role. Economic pressure, such as that from high inflation, has forced many businesses and potential attendees to take a more fiscally conservative approach. A recent report conducted by Promoleaf estimated national trade show attendance from January 2023 to September remains 20% below that of 2019. Overall, U.S. trade shows attendance levels aren’t forecasted to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2025.

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Also, event space itself isn’t getting any less expensive. A 2022 report by CWT  estimated that the costs per attendee for meetings and events would rise 25% higher than in 2019. Those projections rose by another 7% this year.

Where Does That Leave Eyecare?

Some industries have fared better with their trade show attendance recovery.

According to the EventXPO database, Fashion & Beauty (+67%), Agriculture (+30%), and State and County Fairs (+15%) have experienced strong rebounds this year. In comparison, Travel & Tourism (-78%), Spirituality & Religion (-77%), and Construction (-64%) have struggled.

However, the numbers don’t clearly explain what is happening in eyecare. And that could be due to changes within the industry.

In recent years, some of the main players in eyecare and eyewear have reduced their showroom footprint at Vision Expo events. Some have moved off the showroom floor altogether, preferring more intimate settings in which to interact with clients and potential clients.

In Las Vegas, that means setting up shop in one of the many nearby suites and conference rooms on hand at The Venetian Expo.

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In New York, that means holding private satellite events at any of the numerous spaces New York City has on offer, from rented event spaces to various brand outposts.

What to Make of the Changing Eyecare Trade Show Landscape

LOFT Eyewear Show 2023 in New York.

Opportunities During Times of Change

Not long after The Vision Council announced its decision to go south with Vision Expo East, smaller events sent out press releases in response.

The first to comment was LOFT Eyewear Show. The longtime unaffiliated satellite show has been held at the same time just down the street from VEE’s Javits Center locale.

Loft founder Richard Mewha had this to say: “Like many others we were surprised by the recent news that Vision Expo is moving to another state. We want to let all of our vendors and loyal customers know that our event will definitely remain a fixture on the eyewear calendar here in New York.”

A few weeks later, The North East Optical Show referenced Vision Expo’s move to Florida when it announced an expansion of its optical trade shows. From an NEOS press release:

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“As Vision Expo shifts its focus to Orlando after 2024, NEOS anticipates continued growth in attendance in New England, with plans underway for annual shows in the DC area. The event will maintain its signature one day showcases in Boston and DC, with the exciting addition of a larger two-day show slated for Spring 2025.”

In between those announcements, Eyewear Artwalk released plans for a series of eyewear fashion events across the country. From the press release: “The Visionaries Fashion Show empowers independent eyewear brands to showcase their eyewear collections in both public and private fashion shows.”

All three events tout their connection with and importance of independent eyewear designers and companies.

Bigger Not Always Better

A new regional trade show debuted in Minneapolis, MN this year called 10,000 Frames Midwest Eyewear Show. Organizers reported positive feedback and solid attendance numbers. It, too, puts a premium on independent frame lines.

“We feel there is a void in the industry in our area and wanted to put together an event that is focused on independent frame lines,” said Paige Kraemer, one of the event’s organizers, in a press release from earlier this year. “It can be cost prohibitive to travel to larger national shows, and we wanted to make sure there was a more affordable local alternative.”

What to Make of the Changing Eyecare Trade Show Landscape

Italian Trade Agency 2023 Extraordinary Italian Eyewear show in Chicago.

The Italian Trade Agency also sees a benefit to smaller, more intimate shows. The ITA just hosted a pair of successful events this fall in Seattle and Chicago featuring independent Italian eyewear.

Alessio Nanni, head of the fashion team at ITA New York, could have been speaking for any number of smaller eyewear trade shows when he spoke about the Extraordinary Italian Eyewear Events: “At these events, artisans and designers shared their journeys, inspirations, and the meticulous processes that go into creating each piece, offering a rare glimpse into the passion and dedication that define Italian eyewear excellence.”

Where the industry goes from here is anyone’s guess. The Vision Council read the tea leaves and pulled the trigger on what surely wasn’t an easy decision. Bold moves have a way of paying off, though.

“We’re confident that hosting Vision Expo in Orlando will position our customers for greater success and we’re incredibly excited to deliver a brand new, elevated and connected experience there,” says Fran Pennella, Vice President, Vision Expo, at RX, co-organizer of Vision Expo in a press release earlier this year. “This new chapter for Vision Expo East comes with a side of nostalgia for the incredible history and opportunity that came with our nearly four decades in New York City.”

The industry may be evolving to a more intimate trade show approach. The big tentpole events may be losing some of their pull. Or it all could be part of a pandemic blip and things will return to normal in a couple more years.

Of course, multiple things can be true at the same time: The Vision Expos could remain the industry standards for years to come while others explore the untapped opportunities out there for small regional shows.

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