In Focus: Back to the future

Yiannis Kotoulas reports on the recent return of the in-person SightCare Conference

Members of independent optical practitioners’ organisation SightCare returned to Telford’s International Centre for the first time since 2019 for a day of in-person networking and business lectures.

The Covid-19 pandemic led SightCare to forgo its annual conference last year in favour of a number of online webinars for its members, but with the easing of restrictions the organisation was keen to return to its usual venue and the benefits of in-person interaction.

A total of 125 delegates attended the 2021 conference on September 20, representing 70 practices. The conference seemed just as busy as in previous years, but several attendees told Optician they had decided to bring fewer staff with them either due to time pressures or because they did not want to risk too many staff being forced to isolate.

Speaking prior to the event, SightCare chief executive John French said: ‘Humans are social creatures, and we need face-to-face experiences. Given the option, independents are going to choose in-person as long as it’s in reach.’

Organisers made sure to consider safety concerns at the event, with all attendees required to produce proof of either double-vaccination status or a negative test taken on the day. Mask wear was also encouraged when moving throughout the event, and lunch and break times were staggered to reduce the flow of people through the conference hall.

Keynote speakers

The conference was opened by French who said it was a positive sign that practices had become busy following the easing of lockdown restrictions. He then reminded attendees of the opportunities that were available to them at the conference, and added that the exhibition this year was the largest SightCare had put together with 34 optical suppliers present: ‘Our partners are really keen to meet you all, and we even had to say no to some that wanted to attend because of space.’

French then handed over to the first of the day’s three keynote speakers, Steve Head. Head’s talk, along with the closing lecture delivered by Jules White, focused on inspiration rather than optical advice. Head, a motivational speaker and coach of England’s wheelchair rugby team, said that this moment in time was crying out for more positivity: ‘If I go to a practice, I want to have a nice time. Being positive is a hard one, but it is a choice.’ Head went on to detail how to practise positivity by consciously focusing on the good aspects of your day.

White, who closed the day, focused on the attitude that was required to become an effective salesperson. Having previously been offered money on BBC’s Dragons Den for her idea, she turned it down and built her own business. She told attendees that sales was not about being pushy, but immersing yourself in your customer’s world: ‘Sales is about your own mindset, can you be okay with yourself after rejection? Customers generally have a fear about being sold to because they’ve been sold to badly their whole lives. If you show interest in their lives, however, they’ll appreciate that massively.’

Education focused

Alongside the keynote lectures and exhibition, SightCare organised 14 different breakout workshops for attendees that dealt with diverse topics, from how to sell to women to contact lenses for presbyopia.

Independent practice owner Simon Berry hosted a workshop on sustainability within optometry that was well attended, evidencing an interest in environmental responsibility among SightCare’s members. He opened the session by asking whether it was right to aim at ‘saving the world’ in optometry, and suggested that optical practitioners should instead aim at being as sustainable and ethical as possible within their own practices.

‘We’re never going to understand all of the complexities of sustainability,’ said Berry, ‘but we can only try.’ He added the areas to focus on were mindset, the products stocked in practice and making concrete gains: ‘We need to direct our efforts more intelligently.’

Another talk hosted by optician, independent practice co-owner and optical style consultant Eva Davé focused on ‘what women want when buying eyewear, and why you should listen’. In her interactive session, Davé highlighted scientific research that revealed men and women approached buying in completely different ways but that companies usually did not cater to women.