20 QUESTIONS WITH ASHLEY MILLS

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Named CEO of The Vision Council in November 2016, Ashley Mills brings more than 20 years of trade association management, marketing and leadership experience. She returned to The Vision Council as VP of trade shows and meetings in January 2016. She was The Vision Council’s director of marketing and shows, 2003-2006. With Vision Expo West in Las Vegas this month, VCPN discussed the show and her vision for the organization.

1. What is the mission of The Vision Council? As the leading trade association for eyewear and eyecare, The Vision Council champions better vision for better lives. Membership consists of companies that manufacture eyeglasses, sunglasses, contact lenses, traditional lenses, and newly, retail members that sell these products. Not only does The Vision Council aim to grow the market, but it also seeks to increase awareness of proper eye health. Vision plays a huge role in how we learn and experience the world, and it’s important that every individual’s vision is protected and enhanced.

2. With Vision Expo celebrating its 30th anniversary, what special events are in store? We will continue our recognition of the founding exhibitors by featuring them in a dedicated social media campaign, including a giveaway through Vision Expo’s Facebook page.

3. What’s new for Vision Expo West this month? An extension of the Galleria, The BLOCK will feature celebrity-influenced and independently designed urban eyewear. It’s a customized destination for fashion-forward retailers and highlights the launch of several new eyewear lines, including longtime personal stylist of Beyoncé, Raquel Smith’s children’s line, aptly named KidRaq.

Also look for the continuing partnership with ABO & NCLE and its affiliates to bring the industry’s premier Opticianry and Contact Lens Technicians education program to Las Vegas. Through OptiCon @ Vision Expo, attendees will find the personalized program they have come to expect from the OptiCon meeting as well as expanded educational and networking opportunities.

4. You’ve been CEO of The Vision Council for nearly two years now. What have you accomplished and what are you pursuing? Our new Optical Retail Division makes us more relevant to the entire business of vision care and eyewear products. The Vision Council’s Board of Directors is an incredible group of brilliant business leaders who believe in our values and are committed to guiding our strategy so we can be the champion for vision.

5. Think About Your Eyes is probably the most prominent consumer outreach program The Vision Council is involved with. Can you describe it and other initiatives The Vision Council participates in to raise awareness? Think About Your Eyes is a national advertising campaign that encourages everyone to receive a comprehensive annual eye exam. In 2017, the campaign generated 3.4 million eye exams, resulting in more than $750 million in revenue from exam fees and follow-on purchases.

The Vision Council also has three consumer awareness campaigns. Our digital eye strain campaign educates consumers on the effects of digital devices on the eyes and available solutions; our UV/National Sunglasses Day campaign, which peaks annually on June 27, promotes year-round awareness of the importance of protecting eyes from the sun’s harmful UV rays; and our fashion and lifestyle campaign, Eyecessorize, sheds light on the fashion and lifestyle aspects of eyewear and sunwear. Combined, these three campaigns have reached more than 1.6 billion consumers thus far in 2018, and they continue to grow and achieve more each year.

6. Other than consumer awareness, can you describe some other effective programs? Vision Expo, our bi-annual event held in partnership with Reed Exhibitions, is a great success.

We also host our annual Executive Summit, an executive-level networking and leadership development event. This year, it is being held at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, FL, with a theme of “Contagious Leadership – Strategies for Cultivating People While Producing Business Results,” and it will feature an impressive lineup of educational and influential speakers such as legendary football coach, player and analyst Lou Holtz.

We also conduct robust industry research and relay key market data to our members through our quarterly and customized VisionWatch reports. These reports—covering everything from consumer purchasing habits, to consumer awareness of eye health, to the state of the eyewear/eyecare market—offer members a comprehensive look into the overall industry.

7. What unique benefits and challenges result from The Vision Council being comprised of many different and competing companies? The Vision Council thrives off the unique makeup of our membership, which includes traditional lens and frame manufacturers, contact lens manufacturers and retailers of these products. Though being the voice for this varied group of organizations can be challenging, the vast nature of our membership results in our ability to touch every part of the industry. The Vision Council sees its membership’s diversity as a positive challenge and an opportunity to have a widespread impact.

8. What strength does that diversity bring? We are highly diversified. This allows us to present consumers with multiple options to correct vision problems including traditional frames and lenses, contact lenses, over-the-counter reading glasses, specialized lenses and more.

9. You had previously been with The Vision Council, left in 2006 for about 10 years, then came back. What experiences during that decade have you been able to apply to your current position? Leaving the industry gave me the opportunity to learn how other industries and their respective associations work. What I learned about leadership, management, value proposition and relevance during that time has helped me in my current role.

10. What’s your favorite aspect of the eyecare/eyewear business? I love that our industry is made up of equal parts healthcare and fashion because it combines technical innovators, problem solvers and designers.

11. What challenges face the optical industry? Our greatest challenge is the lack of prioritization of vision and its value on a consumer level, on a societal level and on a governmental level. Vision impacts health, education, employability, economy and lifestyle. Further, vision correction is a solvable problem, yet people are content to get by with an old prescription or struggling with their sight because they don’t know any better. Ask a child who gets glasses at age 8 who until that moment had no idea trees had individual leaves. Children understand the importance of vision correction but don’t know any better until glasses are on their face. People don’t realize everything they are missing, so the challenges are to prioritize their vision.

12. What opportunities present themselves? The optical industry has an opportunity to capitalize on trends in consumer behavior and retail without sacrificing experience, professionalism, choice or quality of care. It’s imperative that we reduce barriers for consumers to get an annual eye exam and take advantage of the vision care products that fit their individual lifestyle. Make it easy, give them choices, get them in to see a doctor immediately and empower opticians to help people find the right frames, lenses and sunwear. There is a place for all professionals and suppliers in this mix, and the opportunity rests in how we integrate new technology and modernize the transaction.

13. What changes have you observed and what has stayed the same? What has changed in our industry over the years — for the better — is the belief that we need a unified, collective voice speaking to the value of an annual eye exam with an eye doctor. For years, many groups tried to achieve this on their own without much success. Through Think About Your Eyes, I see the most positive change, and it’s that we are all aligned with the same goal and the same message. It’s powerful and it represents impact that none of us could possibly achieve on our own.

14. What is the greatest need in the U.S. eyewear market? It’s being addressed by Think About Your Eyes, to explain to the consumer why their vision is a gift and how to protect it.

15. Where do you see the U.S. eyewear market headed? Our data tell us there are several positive trends, including: growth in online eyewear sales across all product categories with some of that growth coming from a combination of first-time buyers going straight to the online market and the continued evolution of brick-and-mortar retailing to brick-and-click; continued growth of managed vision care—both in terms of the number of consumers with vision insurance and growth in the usage and utilization of managed vision care benefits among U.S. consumers; and the impact of “telemedicine” on the eyewear industry and how consumers begin the journey of addressing vision needs when they experience a vision issue.

16. What’s your take on all the mergers? Consolidation isn’t new, but the rate at which it’s happening is accelerating. While we expect this will continue, we do see new, unique, innovative businesses and designers continuing to enter the industry. We see that diversity, innovation and choice continue to make the optical marketplace one with potential for growth.

17. What keeps you up at night? I struggle with how many people take their vision for granted. I wonder how we are going to change the behavior of the population to prioritize how they see as much as how they look. I want to change that mentality and ensure that vision is a priority for all.

18. What gets you up in the morning? Coffee.

19. What activities do you enjoy outside of work? I have middle school-aged children, so I spend as much time as possible parenting them. As a family we try to be active as I wage war on digital screen time. We love to cook together and travel. I read every day, and I have an artistic side, so I’m (slowly) working on a World Art History Certificate at the Smithsonian.

20. What’s next for Ashley Mills? The Vision Council is in an exceptional position right now. We have an industry that is strong, and a need for vision correction and care that is not yet fulfilled. For me, it’s about helping The Vision Council and the industry claim its rightful place in the paradigm of issues and importance while realizing its potential. What’s next and ongoing for me is to ensure we all reach our potential, as an industry, an organization and individuals.

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