A Tale Of Two Cities – Optical Edition
“It was the best of times it was the worst of times”… Charles Dickens
“It was one of the best of times and the not-so-best of times”… Daniel Feldman
September is always a month of change. It was for a long time, the seventh month, as “Septem” is Latin for seven. Today it is now the ninth after January and February were added by Numa Pompilius in 452 BC.
September is the start of most countries’ academic year. September is the end of summer and the start of Autumn. It is also the month with the last two major optical trade shows, Vision Expo West in Las Vegas and SILMO Paris in wherever else, Paris, France. This year Vision Expo West was held September 15-17 and SILMO Paris followed the following weekend, running from September 23-26. The close schedule of the two events gave me a whopping two days to unpack and repack before traveling to the next show.
While I missed Vision Expo West in 2021, I saw many photos and heard many stories about the show that took place just as the Delta variant of COVID was making the number of infections rise so fast that many in optical canceled their plans and the show ended up being much slower than anticipated.
Luckily 2022 was a much-improved show from 2021 with what seemed to be a good show of vendors and attendees. There were however several big-name brands that were missing entirely from the show. These were big brands that usually have a very big presence with very big booths. This is a problem that I shall go into a little later.
In addition, this year, The Suites at the Venitian were only on one floor instead of the usual two floors. Even the single floor of suites was not full, whereas in years past you could pretty much count on two floors of eyewear to keep you busy. It was very disappointing to see what was the best part of Vision Expo West cut back so dramatically from years past.
At the same time, the show floor at the Sands Convention Center seemed considerably reduced from years past. Some of that is due to many of the Asian companies still not traveling or exhibiting. However, everyone I spoke to noticed how much smaller the show floor seemed. Even the booths of many of the brands who were there seemed smaller this year than in years past.
This year’s Vision Expo West seemed quite well attended by optometrists and opticians from across the country. The aisles seemed bustling and many of the vendors I spoke with were happy with the traffic in their booths and the orders they wrote. The Vision Council has not shared attendance of either Vision Expo West or East in some time, but most any veteran of multiple shows can tell you the number of vendors and attendees has been in decline for some time.
Across the Atlantic, SIMO Paris, the fall European optical show took place the weekend after Vision Expo West. SILMO is still not back from pre-Covid numbers in exhibitors or attendees, with travel from much of Asia still difficult if not almost impossible for many. That of course affected both shows these past couple of years and will abate once their countries loosen travel restrictions. SILMO Paris was a busy show with lots of exhibitors and lots of attendees over the four-day show on the outskirts of Paris near Charles de Gaule Airport.
While Vision Expo West seemed to have good traffic, it was noticeably eclipsed by the full hallways of SILMO Paris. SILMO Paris had 735 exhibitors and over 27,000 attendees this year, down slightly from pre-pandemic levels, but considerably larger than either U.S. show, and from best guest estimates, both Vision Expo West and East combined. In contrast, Vision Expo East usually has around 300 vendors.
When talking to people about the two shows, there is always the argument that traveling to Paris is so expensive. Yes, traveling to Paris has never been cheap. However, the days of traveling to and staying in Las Vegas on the cheap are long gone. There are no $9.99 steak dinners on The Strip anymore than one can get a decent hotel for under $200 a night close to the Sands Convention Center. An inexpensive dinner on The Strip today is around $30 a person. A comparable dinner in Paris is half that….without a tip too. However, for good service, even in Europe, it’s still nice to leave a cash tip. You can certainly find marvelous meals in both cities that will run hundreds of dollars a person, however, the average meal in a decent place as already disclosed is almost half the price in Paris as it is in Las Vegas.
A 3.5 to 4-star hotel in Las Vegas during Vision Expo West was over $200 a night, plus the added average $40 a night “Resort Fee” when I looked earlier this summer. A decent hotel in a nice area of Paris runs similarly priced, though without the added “Resort Fee”. Of course, with a more intensive search, anyone can find hotels in either location for less than $100 a night running to well over $1000 a night, depending on your daring and your budget.
If you, like me, run on coffee, well, there is no comparison. An espresso in Las Vegas is $6.00 before tip. In Paris? It is less than 2€. A cappuccino and a fresh croissant run less than 5€. Not that you need to buy many. Almost every booth will offer you an espresso drink when you walk in for your appointment and we are talking good coffee… You won’t find that at Vision Expo West or East. The rules are such that even bringing in your own water is cost prohibitive. So we are all stuck drinking whatever we walk in with from wherever we get it in the morning or having to buy the concession stand coffee, water, or soda, which, well, no.
It turns out that depending on where you are traveling from, traveling to Las Vegas and Paris in 2021 and 2022 for either Vision Expo or SILMO Paris was pretty close in costs when you factor in airline travel, hotel, and food. Both cities offer their own ambiance and flavor, so feel free to pick and choose what does it for you.
There is a visible difference between the two shows as well. When you walk around Vision Expos many of the booths are pretty generic booths with the same tables and chairs in almost every small booth with only the posters to differentiate one brand from another. Many of the booths seemed to blend into one another in Las Vegas with only aisleways to separate them. Yet, when you enter almost any booth at SILMO you feel a sense of place in each booth. There is a decided separation of atmosphere from space to space that doesn’t bleed into the next space as easily as it does at Vision Expo.
The costs to exhibit in the two shows are radically different. The same size booth costs two to three more in Las Vegas or New York than it does in Paris for SILMO or Milan for MIDO, early in the year. The restrictions on booth design, including height and lighting, are much more relaxed in both Paris and Milan than In Las Vegas or New York.
Then there is the booth build-out. I hear a lot about how difficult it is to do much in the way of custom booth building at Vision Expo. Rules abound and hands are extended to do everything from hanging a poster to turning on a light. Another factor is the union rules here in the U.S. where everything from how a lightbulb is plugged in, to something as simple as carrying in a case of water for a company’s guests must be done by a union worker for exorbitant fees. Don’t even try and guess how much is asked for services like high-speed internet. I guarantee you would choke on whatever you are drinking now.
The booths in the major European shows are markedly different than they are here in the US. On the whole, they are bigger, bolder, and even brighter, much better at expressing each company’s individual story and branding to every show attendee. Some of that is due to the cost of renting the. Vision Expo is where The Vision Council makes most of its income from. The cost of running these massive trade shows is shared with their partner, RX (formerly Reed Exhibitions), the UK-based largest exhibition and conference organizer.
Almost every booth of any size at the European shows will offer their guests coffee, juice, or water throughout the day and beer or prosecco in the afternoon. Except for The Suites in Las Vegas, or a handful of the biggest booths in Las Vegas or New York you would be hard-pressed to be offered a beverage because it becomes cost prohibitive due in large part to the heavy-handed labor rules in both states. A $5 case of water you bought at the store easily becomes $30+ case of water by the time it reaches the booth.
Vision Expos are wonderful for education and best for networking. There is nowhere in the US where so many of us are able to congregate and share thoughts, ideas, and plans than Vision Expo East or West, or better yet both. However, as a showcase for brands and products, European shows like SILMO are where things are at. I have been going to Vision Expos since I still had some hair.
Vision Expo West and East seem to be getting smaller each year. Some of the shrinkage is due to the cost of exhibiting which is quite high. Some of it is due to the cost of travel. New York has never been a cheap place to stay and now Las Vegas isn’t either. Some of the shrinkage in attendance is that shops and practices are bringing smaller entourages (which in my opinion is a good thing). The people coming to the shows are coming now to buy and to learn, not play video games to win a water bottle.
The problem here could very well snowball. If more companies opt out of exhibiting then more practices and shops may opt out of attending since more of the brands they want to see won’t be participating. If more shops opt out of attending, then vendors may take a hard look at the expense of exhibiting, and more might take the chance and try a year or two of not participating, which will make more shops question attending, and well, you get the gist of the snowball turning into an avalanche.
I don’t want to be a Debby Downer, but Vision Expo is no longer the show to discover a lot of new and innovative eyewear. While the American market is where every eyewear company in the world wants to reach, the cost of exhibiting at a Vision Expo and the cost of entering the American market, in general, is cost prohibitive for many a start-up.
If you truly want to discover new trends and new brands in eyewear, you have to hop across the Atlantic. You can honestly get lost at a show like SILMO or MIDO. The halls are so big and so filled with so many brands, large and small, you can’t possibly see it all in the 3 days of MIDO or even the four days of SILMO. Because there is more freedom and latitude in exhibiting in the European shows, you can get some terrific new ideas to help your shop or practice do better at merchandising within your store.
Not to be the ugly American, but language is not a problem any longer. As much as I’ve tried to learn some French for SILMO or some Italian for MIDO, I seem to forget it all the moment I land. However, getting around is pretty easy with a translation app on your smartphone. Once at the show, it seems there is someone in every booth who speaks English. In fact, it’s pretty rare to find anyone who doesn’t speak a few phrases to help you out. So navigating a show like SILMO is easy.
Will I still attend every Vision Expo I can? Of course! Vision Expo is where you go to network. Vision Expo is where you go to get CE Credits. You can keep the cigarette smoke and slot machines that make getting to Vision Expo West an annual experience. You can keep the cold mean streets of New York we walk to get to Vision Expo East. Despite those, Vision Expo East and West will always have a place in my heart and still have a place in our optical world. Those places though, seem to be shrinking, which is a shame.
I want to root for the home team. I would love it if our Vision Expo’s were the envy of every optical show around the world. I’m sorry to report they aren’t. Walk into SILMO in Paris and you can immediately tell the difference. There is a vibrance, exuberance, and visible metamorphosis in the trade shows of Europe compared with ours that shine bright and clear to anyone who has experienced them both.
There is something very refreshing about seeing new eyewear in Paris, Milan, London, or Munich even. I would encourage every shop owner to make that journey across the Atlantic sometime soon and see an entirely new world of optical.