Celebrating 25 years of International Flare in Eyewear

By Evra Taylor

“Expand your field of vision,” ran the website slogan for the 25th International Vision Expo East (VEE) and Conference. And the event delivered on that promise for the more than 30,000 ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians from around the world who gathered at New  York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center from March 18 to 20 to attend the event.

VEE had a dual mission as a showcase for the latest and greatest from among 549 exhibitors displaying eyeglass frames, lenses and accessories, and featuring cutting-edge developments in medical and diagnostic products. The second part of its mandate was educational, with over 300 hours of continuing education offered. In addition, this year’s VEE experience provided an ideal opportunity for exhibitors to network with customers and see what the competition held in store. Tom Loughran, vice president for Reed Exhibitions, co-owners of the event with The Vision Council, aptly described it as, “Your one-stop shop for education, products, trends and solutions.”

Naturally, the tragic earthquake in Japan was on peoples’ minds. However, exhibitors and attendees reported a positive spirit that welcomed the introduction of new products and innovative technologies. By all accounts VEE was a resounding success, recording a seven per cent increase in attendance over 2010. And from a staging point of view, one of the hallmarks of this year’s assembly was a new layout in which The Underground and The Galleria were merged, making it easier to navigate the exhibits.

Overall, Canadian manufacturers and distributors were extremely pleased with the event as well as their return on the significant investment required to exhibit at a world-class trade fair.

Beverly Suliteanu of Montreal-based Westgroupe feels that the U.S.optical market is in an upswing. “We have enjoyed double-digit growth since we launched our products in the U.S.and so far, 2011 is on track to improve on this growth.”

Several opticians and frames manufacturers consider the European flair that informs Canadian design a decided advantage in product differentiation from the big global brand names. “A number of Canadian collections have enjoyed success in the U.S. I think our design aesthetic is a little more forward than that of a lot of the American companies, which makes our products stand out,” Suliteanu stated.

At Toronto-based Eyenigma, eyewear designer Stephen Kapoor voiced his satisfaction with this year’s event. “We signed some very good U.S.orders and several of my colleagues reported improved results over last year’s show. The Americans trust us and they feel comfortable doing business with Canadians.”

According to optician Charlene Bickell, from Oakley Optical in Winnipeg, who was attending Vision Expo East for the first time, it is an excellent way to strengthen one’s knowledge of fashion and design in the optical industry. “There is definitely room for Canadian companies to expand into the U.S.With all the sales reps gathered together in one place, it’s a great opportunity for them to share information about the latest trends.”

Don Armstrong, owner of i. Frame eyewear designers and distributors, reports that his firm is in the process of expanding its sales force and distribution operation. “The recession hit the low to medium size optical sector very hard. But in the luxury segment of the market, which is our target, it’s hard for us not to do well. We’ll be doubling our exhibit space next year. In our industry, if you cultivate relationships with your clientele and if your product is unique, you really don’t have competition,” he stated.

For Shiu-Chi Mo of McCray Optical Supply in Toronto, exhibiting at Vision Expo East proved worthwhile. “It was a very good marketing opportunity for us. This was our second year attending and the sales at this Expo increased over those of last year. Since this was our first year as distributors of Breitfeld & Schliekert in Canada and the U.S., we were able to display those collections and showcase unique niche items, such as our spring hinge tool kit.”

Fellow Torontonian Mel Rapp, owner of Rapp Optical, attends VEE as both a buyer and a seller. He feels that Canadian firms can do well south of the border as long as they have products that fulfill well-defined criteria. In the design end of his business, Rapp manufactures handmade eyeglass frames for several high-end retailers. As a result, he said, his key criterion is quality, not price.

Mehran Baghaie designer and owner of Spectacle Eyeworks in Vancouver came away from the Expo with a particularly positive economic outlook. “Our industry is definitively on the upturn in the States. No one was talking about the economy. Opticians are trying to look past the recession and surge forward. In fact, the recession hasn’t hurt our company. What affects us more are the Canadian and American currencies being at par.”

While eyewear and eyecare professionals took in the sights at Vision Expo East, the general public was privileged to view the exhibition “Eyewear from the Beginning to the Future – The History of Eyeglasses from their Invention in Italy to the Latest Trends.” The event took place from March 18 to 24 at Grand Central Terminal in New York City as part of the Made in Italy Eyewear initiative designed to highlight the excellence of Italian eyewear worldwide. Almost 200 eyeglasses selected from several museum and private collections reconstructed a virtual map of the history of eyeglasses from their origins to modern times.

With the month of March witnessing such spectacular eyewear-related events in both the professional and consumer sectors, it bodes well for the remainder of 2011 in terms of the industry’s continued growth and Canadian participation in it.