Straight Talk: Ashley Mills, CEO, The Vision Council

June 24, 2021

When faced with extraordinary challenges, focus on the things you can control. That’s a lesson that Ashley Mills, CEO of The Vision Council, had to apply in the summer of 2020 when the association faced losing more than 70% of its revenue from its canceled trade shows. Instead of going into survival mode, the organization implemented a long-term strategic plan that included doubling down on delivering value to its members while also looking at how it could work and ready itself for recovery. “It is already paying off and reflected in our membership growth, our research relevance, our advocacy and our awareness campaigns,” Mills said proudly. 

TSNN had a chance to sit down with this passionate leader to hear how this ambitious plan was implemented, why staying flexible and member-centric during challenging times is crucial for association survival, and how she kept herself centered during the “great shutdown.” 

What is the biggest change your organization has had to navigate during this challenging time? 

As co-organizer of Vision Expo, undoubtedly the biggest challenge The Vision Council confronted during this turbulent time was the inability to host an in-person Vision Expo in 2020. When in-person events were not possible, however, we quickly pivoted by developing and offering a comprehensive schedule of virtual programming for the vision care community to network, learn and continue doing business. We also offered value to our members by delivering timely, relevant research on how the pandemic was impacting the industry and maintained momentum on initiatives that will bring long-term success to members, with our government relations and regulatory affairs team successfully developing cost-saving initiatives for members.

Following such a challenging 2020, we were thrilled to be able to bring the community together again safely in June at Vision Expo East 2021, which we hosted for the first time in Orlando. Following the success of the first, in-person trade show since 2019, we are looking forward to Vision Expo West, set to take place September 22-25 in Las Vegas.

How do you think associations will change going forward?

The entire world shifted to meet the challenges of COVID-19, and the association community is no exception. Associations had to pivot to maintain a strong connection with their membership base and continue offering the same value to members when in-person events were not possible.

At The Vision Council, we developed a robust schedule of virtual programming for the community to network and continue doing business and also hosted virtual All-Member Meetings to keep our membership informed and updated on the latest industry news.  

How will the trade shows you produce look different going forward?

While face-to-face will always be extremely valuable and allow for the highest level of networking and relationship-building, we also recognize that there is a need to provide solutions for the industry that are available throughout the year and in between in-person events. We’re providing these solutions in the form of ShopVISION, a new virtual marketplace, and VisionEd Direct, a new virtual continuing education platform.

At Vision Expo East 2021, we also launched Vision Expo+ on our new ShopVISION platform.  Vision Expo+ served as a digital extension of the show experience, offering online showrooms and livestreamed show content for members of the community who were unable to attend in person. We plan on offering this same virtual experience for Vision Expo West 2021.

What has your association’s experience been like with virtual and do you think it’s here to stay?  

Every consumer-facing industry needs to be watching retail trends, and those trends clearly point to a hybrid model of online and in-person experience. We have embraced virtual over the past year and a half. Footprint is still important, but so is accessibility and convenience that match the way the customer wants to shop.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve become very comfortable with virtual formats. In January 2021, we adapted our annual Executive Summit event, typically held in-person, to a virtual format. We also have hosted two completely virtual All-Member Meetings, with several hundred members attending each meeting to hear from industry leaders on the latest news, research trends and more.

In terms of the future, flexibility will continue to be key. We are committed to offering the greatest possible value to the vision community and providing ways for the industry to come together and do business. This will continue to be our priority and we’ll be as flexible as needed to meet any challenges that may arise.  

It is our mission and responsibility to the vision care community to provide a platform to effectively show products and conduct business. We will continue doing everything we can to best serve the industry. 

What kind of self-care has been key for your mental health since the onset of COVID and why?

I got into a very cool group fitness crew that met every morning in parking lots. We brought our own mats and weights, and we formed a tremendous support group of people who needed to laugh, sweat and be outside. With everything else virtual, doing this in-person saved me.

Where is the first place you want to travel when things open up and why?

Africa, ASAP. We have a lot of missed travel to make up for, and I can’t wait to get started.

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