Bringing the profession together

Nathan Garnett, show director of 100% Optical, speaks to OT  about the show’s new dates, the potential changes ahead, and celebrating the profession after a year of challenge

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After a year in which events and trade shows have been postponed or cancelled due to restrictions aiming to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), event organisers are looking tentatively ahead to 2021.

Organisers behind 100% Optical announced the event will be taking place from 8-10 May instead of its typical January dates to ensure the optical sector will be able to meet in 2021.

The move followed announcements from the UK Prime Minister in September that confirmed the restart date for exhibitions and conferences would be delayed.

Discussing the industry response to the new dates, 100% Optical show director, Nathan Garnett, told OT: “The reaction was very positive. It allows people to plan with a bit more certainty. We feel much more confident about the May dates, and so does the venue.”

The AOP has supported 100% Optical as official partner and education provider since the launch of the event, while OT is the official media partner.

On the release of the new dates, Henrietta Alderman, chief executive officer of the AOP said the exhibition would offer members and the wider profession a “much needed opportunity to meet and network with colleagues, friends and suppliers,” as well as take in the “highly-valued world-class education programme facilitated by the AOP.”

Exhibitor attendance for the show is on track to be at similar levels to 2020, at around 200.

The gap in the events calendar through 2020 has brought challenges for optical suppliers, who have been unable to meet both existing and new customers.

“With practices so busy, suppliers have been struggling to meet with customers, so it puts more onus on the show to be that place where they can meet their customers,” Mr Garnett suggested.

“There is only so much you can do online, and there is a place for virtual – we have been running virtual ‘meet-the-buyer’ events - but I think the trade show comes into its own in that regard.”

The 2021 event may look a little different for a number of reasons, including the presence of the Federation of Manufacturing Opticians (FMO) at the event.

This follows an agreement announced over summer that Media 10 would take over the ownership of the Optrafair event brand from 2021, with the FMO announcing its support for 100% Optical.

Speaking to OT about the upcoming event, Mr Garnett highlighted that the additional presence of the FMO at the show “will only strengthen our offering.”

“There are new areas that we can explore with the FMO around the product manufacturer side of things. We will probably see a bit more content for them that we haven’t been able to do before,” he added.

While a relief that the agreement was finalised this year in such a challenging time for the industry, Mr Garnett did point out that the plan had already been in the works.

“We wanted, what we will still have come May, a big unifying event that will bring everything together, and that everyone knows they can put their faith in and get behind. Perhaps it will be quite a poignant time to hold the event, as hopefully by May we will be on a road to recovery and able to see a way through this. Having everybody there pulling in the same direction would have been vital,” Mr Garnett added.

On the announcement, Ms Alderman expressed the AOP’s pleasure that optical bodies representing different constituent parts of the industry “can come together at 100% Optical in 2021,” adding: “The sector as a whole will benefit from this new collaboration and together we will continue to lead the profession through a changing landscape.”

While, at the time of writing, it is still too early to tell what to expect from exhibitors, Mr Garnett shared: “From talking to equipment suppliers, we know there has been a need and a desire to update equipment because of the situation, so we expect that to be a strong part of the show.”

He added, “The eyewear side of the industry has had a really tough year, as everyone has, but we would expect there are some stored up new products to share with the market.”

As for attending the show itself, Mr Garnett emphasised that visitors can expect a “very safe environment.”

“That is probably our biggest frustration through this period, that the events industry has not been able to demonstrate what we know we can do very safely,” he shared.

The event will have a registration system and will be able to accommodate the NHS Test and Trace. Sanitation systems and signage will be visible features, and stands will be designed to have space for social distancing.

The ExCel Centre itself became an NHS Nightingale hospital during the lockdown, designated to support the NHS in the event of a surge of COVID-19. As a result, the venue has invested in ensuring a safe environment and has developed its own set of safety principles, including social distancing measures, cleaning regimes and training.

Bringing together the industry for what could be the first time in over a year, Mr Garnett expects the show will offer a joyful environment. He said: “I think there will also be a real buzz about the place - the joy of people being able to reconnect with colleagues and suppliers.”

“There will be a lot of new products, because it has been the longest period between two shows,” he explained, adding, “There have been no international shows either. The last optical show that ran on the international circuit was 100% Optical – and it could well be the first again.”

“We are working with the AOP on developing what is always a highly sought-after programme, which we hope to start sharing with visitors in the first quarter of 2021,” Mr Garnett added, recommending visitors plan early.

The hybrid event

Discussing the potential effects that COVID-19 could have on how future events may look, Mr Garnett suggested that technology will play a greater role.

He said: “In May, there will still be some optometrists who can’t come for a variety of reasons, such as if they are continuing to shield, and we don’t want them to miss out.”

The event is working with sponsors to consider how elements of the show can be presented virtually, alongside the physical events.

“One of the unintended benefits of this could be that we actually increase our audience, because we could introduce the show to people who have never been before and give them a virtual taster,” Mr Garnett observed.

There will be a careful balance to be struck, Mr Garnett said, with the concern that people could be becoming “screen weary” from the shift to virtual events through 2020.

“The key for us will be about making it engaging and valuable,” he emphasised. This could range from a livestreaming a catwalk show online, along with running more for visitors at the event, to considering if elements of CET could be delivered online, as well as ‘meet-the-buyer’ events.