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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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.