Finding a seat at the table
Candace Boothby, CCE, president and CEO at the Newnan-Coweta Chamber in Georgia, likes to think of herself as a straight-shooter. At her job interview, she asked a roomful of board members a straightforward question: “In what ways is the chamber respected, and does it have a seat at the table?”
It was a question that no one wanted to answer. After a long pause, a board member finally spoke up: “Well, we’re at the table alright, but it’s the kiddie table,” he remarked to laughter from the rest of the room.
Boothby was undeterred, and her resolve to cultivate a new voice for the chamber has paid dividends. Since she took over the helm back in 2003, the chamber has nearly doubled its membership base from 550 to more than 1,000, and grown its annual budget from $281,000 to $825,000.
When discussing the chamber’s impressive numbers, Boothby answers matter-of-factly: “There’s no magic to this stuff,” she says. “Our chamber’s story is about understanding who we were, identifying our weaknesses and creating a culture that people want to be a part of.”
One of the first moves Boothby took as CEO was to unload some of the chamber’s events and programs, freeing up precious resources to focus on its core mission. The chamber gifted these away to other groups in the community, like the rotary club and the adult literacy program.
“Our new mission was to champion economic prosperity for our members, and these programs no longer fit the mission,” Boothby says.
The chamber reinvented its culture by promoting innovation and learning by trial and error. Boothby set the new tone by instituting a monthly “strategy week,” producing a comprehensive staff process handbook and encouraging employees to work remotely and hold meetings outside the office, in coffee shops or their own homes.
“We used the environment of the chamber as a laboratory to try stuff, and to have the freedom to make mistakes,” says Boothby. “Giving people more liberty to create their work environment has worked wonders for us.”
One of the biggest changes Boothby oversaw was revamping the chamber’s sales culture. She assembled a new sales team and hired a member retention specialist to spend 20 hours each week visiting members and collecting data. She also set an ambitious target to reach out to members 12 times each year, through a combination of phone calls, emails, written letters and social media.
Boothby advises her staff to keep all communications personal when reaching out to members.
“We send out handwritten thank you notes to all new and renewing members,” she says. “The key is to always add a personal touch.”
In 2006, the chamber began the accreditation process with the U.S. Chamber, not so much because it actually thought it could earn accreditation, but rather to use the process as a guide toward “closing the gaps,” says Boothby.
Boothby was in a meeting when she missed the call from the U.S. Chamber. “When I got out and listened to the message, I broke down in tears,” she recalls. “After seven years of hard work, it was the biggest reward to hear we had gotten the five-star.”
Another proud moment for Boothby was winning the ACCE’s Chamber of the Year award in 2015. She says the process of pursuing the award helped the chamber identify its weaknesses.
“I would highly encourage everybody to go through the process, because it’s a great way to learn about yourself,” she says. “It’s helps you gain self-awareness and figure out where to go next.”
Reflecting on the chamber’s turnaround, Boothby says her most important advice is “you’ve got to be willing to blow things up.” She encourages staff to ask the hard questions, like what would happen to the community if the chamber went away.
“You’ve got to have the courage to ask that question—to kill the sacred cow,” she says, adding: “the moment we get comfortable is the moment we take our eye off the ball. In this profession, we can’t afford to become complacent.”
Candace Boothby was recently featured as part of the ACCE’s Tales of Renewal webinar.
A chamber without members
Since the very beginning, the chamber of commerce business model has revolved around membership. At the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry, that conventional wisdom is now being turned on its head.
Earlier this Spring, the Lancaster Chamber became the first in the nation to abandon the traditional membership dues structure—a bold move that upends more than a century of chamber orthodoxy.
The chamber hopes that by getting rid of dues, it will reduce barriers that prevent smaller or growing businesses from joining.
“Our mission is to have Lancaster County recognized as a model for prosperity,” said CEO Tom Baldrige, adding: “if we really mean it, we need to make sure that we’re offering our services to all businesses in a way that is welcoming and non-restrictive.”
Historically, the chamber has had about 2,200 members at any given time. There are more than 13,000 businesses in the chamber’s home county of Lancaster, though like other chambers, members come from other geographic areas.
“The fact that we were only dealing with those that joined and were ignoring opportunities with 11,000 other businesses led us to conclude that the traditional model was stressed,” recounted Baldrige. “We wanted to create a structure that was engaging of all businesses in the county.”
But what about the revenue? To support itself financially, the chamber devised a dual business structure consisting of two components: a “business success hub” that offers customized services on a fee-for-service basis, and a “community prosperity hub,” which seeks investments from businesses to finance the chamber’s agenda to enhance the community as a better place to live, work and do business.
“We call them investors, because they’re investing in the agenda and priorities,” said Cheryl Irwin-Bass, vice president and COO at the chamber. “It’s about being at the table and part of the discussions that influence the future of Lancaster County.”
The investors are sorted into ten different levels, consisting of three tiers with three levels each and a Chairman’s Circle tier for the largest investors. “Other chambers often ask why we didn’t just go to a tiered dues system,” shared Irwin-Bass. “This is very different, because it’s not about bundling things—it’s about unbundling. There’s not a lot of extras that come along with it.”
The chamber pitches the new model to members as they approach renewal time. “Before, if they dropped membership, it was a mark in the loss column,” recalled Irwin-Bass. “Now, we can tell them about the programs and services they may still be interested in, and steer their dollars into another business unit,” she added.
At the chamber’s annual dinner last year, acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell used a sports analogy to describe the changes underway in the chamber profession. Gladwell compared soccer to basketball, noting that the key to improving a soccer team is to build up the worst players, whereas the key to improving a basketball team is to make the best players even better, so they can dominate the court.
“In decades past, we were playing basketball,” said Irwin-Bass. “It was all about the biggest businesses, and we made our decisions around what was good for those companies.”
“Now, we’re playing soccer,” she continued. “The only way we can realize our mission is if every business and individual can reach their full potential. The better the individual does, the better the community will do, and that’s what we’re ultimately trying to achieve.”
The Lancaster Chamber will participate in a panel on the topic at ACCE’s annual convention, hosted this Summer in Nashville.
Building the Lodi Jobs Academy
As Baby Boomers near retirement, employers are scrambling to find skilled workers to fill a raft of new vacancies. Among the hardest to fill are so-called “middle skills” jobs, which require more education than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree.
At the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, CEO Pat Patrick partnered with the local school district to create the Jobs Academy, which strives to equip students with the skills and education that employers seek. The academy stems from Patrick’s experience at the ACCE Fellowship for Education Attainment, a one-year program that challenges chamber execs to dream up regional action plans that address education needs in their communities.
Patrick says the academy will lower dropout rates in Lodi and prepare students for high-paying local careers. “Our goals are to reduce dropouts between ninth and tenth grade, to increase community college attendance and to help students find work here in the community,” said Patrick.
The academy was born out of a partnership between the local school district, the chamber and its industrial business group, a group of area manufacturers. To develop the curriculum, the chamber formed a series of “skills panels,” which consist of representatives from local industries like health, manufacturing and IT.
“We are bringing business together with educators to make sure the schools are teaching what businesses need them to,” explained Patrick. “The state of California is finally waking up and putting money into the system for this type of thing, so we really hit it at just the right time.”
In addition to building a skilled workforce, the academy focuses on teaching “soft skills,” the kinds of personal attributes that employers look for in workers, like responsibility, timeliness and communication. The academy, which offers a professional certification, will serve as a filter for employers to find students who are committed to working in the community.
“The idea is that employers will meet students and say, ‘this is someone we would like to have join us when they graduate,’” said Patrick. “It acts as a filter to find serious future employees and prepares them for a job that is far beyond minimum wage.”
The academy also contains an adult school, which caters mainly to young adults ages 18-24, although there is no official age limit. The adult school holds class during night hours, while the campus is reserved for middle and high school students during the day. Many of the adult students never finished high school and are looking for middle skills jobs that don’t require a college degree.
To promote the academy, the chamber used social media and robocalls to reach out to students and parents in the community. The chamber also plans to produce a series of promotional videos that will be shown in schools and online. Students will have the opportunity to attend a business fair and tour local plants to learn about the kinds of jobs that exist in the community.
Patrick credits the ACCE Fellowship for provided him with the resources and inspiration to pursue the initiative. “The Fellowship was invaluable to me, because I was exposed to a lot of ideas that expanded my thinking,” said Patrick. “The exposure to corporations like the Lumina Foundation and the research they’ve done helped me understand how to sell our program to the manufacturers back home.”
Looking ahead, Patrick is hopeful that the Jobs Academy will expand into neighboring North Stockton, a city of 300,000 just north of Lodi. “My hope is that we’ll be able to pull students from Stockton into an expanded campus and form a partnership with the Stockton district,” said Patrick. “I would love to see this move from a small community to a regional effort.”
Sales tales: Sales Training highlights
ACCE’s annual Sales Training Conference is an opportunity for chamber professionals to learn the latest membership development tips, trends and techniques from some of the best in the biz. This year’s event, hosted in St. Louis with the gracious support of the St. Louis Regional Chamber, brought together about 60 members from far and wide for a little March membership madness.
Here are a few takeaways from the gathering:
Chamber on the Go
Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, likes his staff to get out into the community for member interaction. Last August, the chamber launched its #BCC Visits initiative, during which chamber staff visited more than 500 local businesses. To get around, the chamber traveled by subway, bus, ferry and foot and used geocoding tools to target areas with the highest concentration of businesses.
“This was a way to deepen our understanding of what our members need and to put a face on the chamber,” says Hoan. “Instead of just getting emails and telephone calls, members actually see a real human being.”
One story stands out for Hoan. When the chamber visited a spin studio, its owner complained about a pothole on the street. The chamber contacted the appropriate agency and the pothole was filled soon after. The chamber would have never known about the pothole, and its member’s frustration, had it not ventured out into the community.
“People won’t open up to you through mass email or over the phone,” shares Hoan. “When you visit them and see for yourself what their issues are, you have clearly demonstrated the value-add of chamber membership.”
Content is king
The content-to-sales ratio should be 3:1, says Kyle Sexton, a marketing strategist and Sales Training Conference presenter. Instead of selling tickets and asking for money, chambers have an opportunity to produce – and lead members to – more engaging and valuable content.
“This economy rewards brands that put value in front of the transaction, not behind it,” Sexton says. “We need to add more value to the conversation and stop asking for money all the time.”
Sexton’s suggestions for chambers? Teach members about business; stop educating them about the chamber. One way for chambers to better engage members is to help them learn how to share their stories with the community.
“We can do a better job carrying on the conversations they care about,” says Sexton. "In order to do that, we need to think like an editor and act like a journalist.”
How you buy is how you sell
When it comes to selling membership, “how you buy is how you sell,” says Duane Weber, Indy Chamber’s director of membership and sponsorship sales. Take car buying, for example; some people spend months shopping around and test-drive six or seven cars, while others do a little research and make their purchase quickly. The key to selling, Weber says, is to tailor the pitch to the buyer’s preferred style of decision-making.
“Some people like to read the fine print,” says Weber. “I’m not one of those people. I’m a strategic, big-picture kind of guy. Just show me a summary.”
Weber says that when the seller’s style is mismatched with the buyer’s style, an uncomfortable experience can result. “As a big-picture buyer, it drives me crazy when a detail-oriented person sells to me. I’m thinking, ‘C’mon! You had me 10 minutes ago!”
Weber’s tip for connecting with prospects that have gone dark: try something unconventional. Give them an opportunity to say no. Send a message asking if they’re still interested; and offer to close their file if they’re not. “It’s okay to say you’re not interested!”
It’s about mission and community, not golf
Dues and sponsorship figures are essentially arbitrary sums, argues Doug Holman, a consultant with Holman Brothers, a firm that specializes in chamber membership. Chamber membership staff treat these numbers like they “came down from the mountain,” endlessly justifying how members will earn a return on their investment.
“We have to sell community,” says Holman. Too often, chambers err by selling events to prospective members, instead of their missions—which is what business leaders really care about. “They’re not paying you because they want to attend your annual dinner or your golf tournament,” continues Holman. “They’re paying you because they believe in what you do.”
Chamber pros are passionate about serving their communities, and this is what business leaders want to support. “There’s simply no way to guarantee results from attending chamber networking events,” says Holman. Instead, the goal is to help business leaders “recognize that without the work of the chamber, the community would be a very different place.”
Chamber pros tackle education pipeline, celebrate graduation
A group of 20 chamber of commerce professionals is celebrating this week because they’ve just completed ACCE’s year-long Fellowship for Education Attainment, which wrapped up Wednesday with an event in Indianapolis.
The 20 Fellows were invited to participate in the immersive fellowship program based on a handful of qualifications. Fellows must demonstrate a commitment to improving the birth-to-career education pipeline in the communities they serve. And, a community’s education attainment goals must be already defined by the chamber of commerce for applicants to be considered for the Fellowship.
“My favorite part of the Fellowship program is seeing how relationships are built amongst the Fellows,” says Michelle Vegliante, senior manager for community advancement at ACCE. “By the final session, they each leave with nineteen close-knit colleagues that they can call on for guidance and support. The transformation from peer acquaintance to lifelong friend is extremely rewarding to see.”
During the year-long program, Fellows study best practices in education attainment through interaction with national experts and inclusion in an unmatched peer-to-peer network that includes former Fellows. Each Fellow develops a Regional Action Plan that identifies and addresses specific education attainment and workforce development issues that impact the community they represent. Work conducted throughout the year-long program is compiled and included in a final summary report.
“There is no greater way to serve your members than by establishing a workforce that will economically sustain your community,” comments Pat Patrick, president and CEO of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce. “Postsecondary education is the answer, and ACCE’s Educational Attainment Fellowship is the best way to prepare for this critical challenge.”
The Fellowship for Education Attainment was launched in 2014 to provide chamber professionals with guidance and resources to mobilize efforts that improve education outcomes U.S. communities. As the Fellowship grows, ACCE tasks Fellows with helping chamber peers around the country build replicable programs in their communities.
“It’s nearly impossible to condense the superlatives about this Fellowship experience into a small space,” says Ann Kisting, executive director at the Chicagoland Chamber Foundation. “The sharing of insights, ideas and resources made this an inspiring, energizing and truly invaluable experience.”
You can meet the 2016–17 Fellows and check out their Regional Action Plan Summaries here.
Cultivating leaders in the City of Brotherly Love
When the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia asked employers in the region what issues they were most concerned about, the answers it received were nearly unanimous: retention of emerging mid-career professionals.
In partnership with its Young Professionals Council, the chamber’s Education and Talent Action Team crafted a questionnaire aimed at investigating mid-career professionals’ motivators in the workplace and at home. The final product was a survey focused on three key areas of motivation — professional, personal and civic — that was widely circulated throughout the community.
The survey, which received impressive levels of engagement, was designed to help business leaders understand what young professionals value, what they look for in a region and what factors cause them to view work as “just a job,” as opposed to a lifelong career.
The chamber’s survey data yielded some thought-provoking insight on what makes emerging mid-career professionals tick. When asked about workplace motivators, 44 percent said professional advancement was the primary motivator, compared to 34 percent who chose personal fulfillment and 19 percent who selected civic engagement.
The data also shows that income and salary often take a backseat to the possibility of career advancement. When asked about what factors come into play when considering employers, opportunity to grow was listed as the top choice, followed by company culture and income.
The respondents listed safety as their top concern when choosing a region to live in, followed by affordability and rent. (This order was reversed for respondents age 25–29 years old). When asked what factors would cause them to consider leaving a region, public education was the most popular response, again followed by affordability and rent.
Responses to the survey totaled 1,188 participants. Of these, 830 were 25 to 39 years old — the target age range of the study.
The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia hopes to continue its efforts at engaging emerging mid-career professionals by collaborating with chambers in peer cities, who would follow its lead by producing similar surveys and participating in peer-benchmarking.
The chamber will also continue to facilitate dialogue between emerging professionals and area employers to help craft the narrative about what it means to live and work in Philadelphia.
View an impressive infographic and full survey results here.
Self-driving cars driving the community forward
Few emerging technologies have the potential to be truly revolutionary. But if you ask the people of Howell, Michigan, the future looks promising for autonomous vehicle technology.
A recent event hosted by the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce provided expert speakers from Ford Motor Co. and the American Center for Mobility with an opportunity to discuss the future of self-driving vehicles and how the Howell community can best prepare for its impending arrival.
“There are so many businesses here that support the auto industry, from interior and exterior components to engine parts,” says Jessica Wicks, communications manager at the chamber of commerce.
Because of its proximity – about an hour’s drive – to Ford headquarters in Detroit and its share of automotive support industry manufacturers, Howell stands to gain from the mainstream adoption of autonomous vehicles.
Wicks, a self-admitted car-lover, says that Michigan’s deep love for cars and trucks aside, “The idea of not driving a car had always kind of freaked us out.”
The speakers from Ford and American Center for Mobility wanted to address apprehension about the new technology and assure event attendees – mostly business executives and elected leaders – that self-driving cars and trucks could yield huge benefits for businesses, people and the community at large.
An analogy shared by a panelist at the event, and passed along by Wicks, explains how the emerging technology could benefit all of us. “Your kids go to school, let’s say they leave the house at 7:15 a.m. A self-driving car takes the kids to school and comes back to the house to take you to work.” Wicks says, “That same car could drop you off at the front door at work, then go park or refuel. The car is working the whole time you’re working, which makes life easier.”
As for the business case for self-driving vehicles, the concept is simple. The new technology has the potential to provide huge efficiency gains to trade and global supply chains. Michigan companies, already experienced in the various parts of vehicle manufacturing, have the expertise and know-how to advance the technology.
And the chamber’s motive for hosting the event is crystal clear, too. “We need new talent. We need engineers. And we need forward thinkers who are comfortable with this concept,” said Wicks. “We know it’s coming, so it’s time to get comfortable with it and determine how to best seize the opportunities that new technology presents.”
This holiday season, "Take It Easy"
I used to say that the biggest fictions in "Chamberworld" were a staffer’s job description and a CEO’s calendar, but here’s an even bigger myth: a chamber professional’s holiday.
I know you’re probably taking some days off at this time of year, BUT you event planners and communicators will keep on worrying about deadlines. Chamber public affairs pros will scan state news websites and bosses will worry about everything, including 100 problems facing your members, the economy and the mayor.
BUT, in the immortal words of Glenn Frey and his neighbor Jackson Browne: “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy.” Your set of wheels is the drive to deliver, know, anticipate, assist, sell, please, build, articulate and show up. They hum and occasionally thump under you, even when you’re standing on a corner in Winslow, or next to an electrified tree resting in a bowl of water on your living room floor.
Just for a couple of days, "Take It Easy." I don’t want you crazy in 2017! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah! Onward to an exciting New Year!
Chamber Public Policy Leaders Meet in Cleveland
Senior government relations leaders from 21 metro regional chambers recently met to discuss priority issues, political activity, and advocacy best practices. The meeting was hosted by the Greater Cleveland Partnership, who also provided an update on how hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention impacted the city’s ongoing growth.
Highlights of the discussion include:
Transportation: Chambers across the country supported regional ballot measures to increase funding for critical transportation and transit projects. Nationwide, voters approved referendum that raised more than $200 billion in revenue, including chamber-backed initiatives Atlanta, Ga.; Austin, Texas; Charleston, S.C.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Los Angeles Calif.; Raleigh, N.C.; San Francisco, Calif.; and Spokane Wash.
Education & Workforce: Improving education at all levels to address workforce needs is crucial to economic vitality. Participants discussed chamber efforts all along the cradle-to-career spectrum, including an early childhood education funding ballot initiative in Cincinnati, K-12 reform in Milwaukee, apprenticeship programs in Denver and Charleston, scholarship programs in Detroit, efforts to upskill workers in Grand Rapids, and efforts to align talent supply with employer demand in Atlanta.
Political Action: Chambers are relying more on Super PACs, organized as 527 or 501(c)4 organizations, to promote key issues and influence elections. Participants also expressed an interest in increasing the scope and effectiveness of candidate development activities. From candidate identification and recruitment to policy education and campaign consulting support, ACCE will develop resources over the coming months to share best practices from around the country.
Advocacy Communications: Email newsletters remain the primary form of communicating policy priorities to members, but policy blogs, video updates and social media are more important than ever. The frequent updates help to raise awareness of chamber priorities and drive additional traffic to chamber websites. In fact, some policy blogs receive more web traffic than the main chamber websites. Examples discussed during the meeting include the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Policy Blog, Greater Cleveland Partnership’s Insights video series and the Indy Chamber’s Team 317 social media ambassadors program.
Special thanks to the Greater Cleveland Partnership President and CEO Joe Roman and Senior Vice President Marty McGann for hosting the event. Additional thanks to the Metro Atlanta Chamber for sponsoring the meeting and MAC’s Chief Policy Officer Katie Kirkpatrick for facilitating the discussion.
For more information about how you can get involved in ACCE’s Government Affairs Division, contact Will Burns at email@example.com.
Close Finish for Orlando’s WCF Bid
Orlando, Inc. (Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce) put together a powerful bid to host the 2019 World Chambers Congress, but in the end, voters from around the world gave a slight edge to Rio de Janeiro. Executive Director Jim Thomas, who crafted and presented the bid on behalf of the Orlando, Inc., the Central Florida Partnership and Visit Orlando expressed both pride in the team’s work and disappointment. Mick Fleming, who serves as vice chairman of World Chambers Federation was also saddened by the news, in part because the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives planned to combine its annual convention with the World Chamber Congress, producing the largest chamber gathering in the history of the world. In the end, issues like U.S. visa access provided a slim measure of victory for Brazil.
The World Chambers Federation Congress in 2017 will be in Sydney, Australia in September. ACCE will provide registration “scholarships” (rebates) for the first ten North American chambers that enroll in the Sydney Congress. Two different airlines have agreed to reduce fares 40 percent.