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Ben Goldstein on Thursday, December 21, 2017 at 11:17:00 am 

Nicki Anderson, president and CEO of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce, has a passion for customer service—something she brought with her from a previous role as owner of a personal training studio. As she explains it, customer service in the chamber of commerce profession has quite a few parallels to the her former industry.

“How many people join a chamber, pay their money and just expect magic to happen?” she asked. “It’s no different than in the health and fitness industry, when people come to a health club and expect to see results without doing anything.”

Anderson identifies as a “disrupter,” meaning she tries to experiment and do things differently than the competition. She believes that customer service in any organization is the number one differentiator that leads businesses, or in her case chambers of commerce, to stand out from the pack.

“In this profession, our customers are our members, because if they stop paying, then we don’t have a successful chamber,” she explained. “Nobody raves about average; my goal since day one has been: ‘What can we do to make our customer experience memorable enough—so they not only stay—but want to be an advocate and ambassador for us?’”

When she first arrived at the chamber, Anderson assessed the member retention data, and noticed that new members were dropping at an alarming rate. To find out why, she hired a membership engagement coordinator, who she tasked with contacting new members that declined to renew and asking them what issues caused them to leave the chamber.

“What we discovered is some new members didn’t get the direction they needed when they first joined the chamber,” she explained. “There is a small percentage of people who have a natural ability to dive in and get involved, but many of our newest arrivals felt lost and on their own without guidance.”

Another criticism from new members was the perception that the chamber was too cliquey. To correct this, Anderson began revamping the chamber’s culture, by having conversations with longtime members about becoming more welcoming to new additions.

“I told our ambassadors, ‘When you see someone that you don’t recognize, your first inclination should be to go up, extend a hand and welcome them!” she said. “Since making these changes, we’ve since noticed a dramatic shift in the way people feel a sense of belonging shortly after joining.”

Anderson cites ACCE’s Horizon Initiative: Belonging and Gathering as inspiration for the chamber’s new approach to customer service, which emphasizes the importance of making sure members feel connected to the organization, and part of a larger community.

“Retention wheels are great, but they aren’t enough; it needs to be deeper and more meaningful than just hitting the touchpoints,” she explained. “Everybody who joins an organization wants to have a purpose, and they want to feel like they’re part of something bigger.”

Want to hear more from Nicki Anderson about customer care? Watch our full webinar here.

Tags: Customer Service, Membership, Naperville Chamber of Commerce

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A town hall blitz in Corpus Christi

Ben Goldstein on Monday, December 18, 2017 at 9:05:00 am 

When Cleo Rodriguez returned to Texas to head the United Corpus Christi Chamber, his first order of business was finding out how the community felt about his organization. To do this, he arranged a series of five town halls in October.

“When I came back from D.C., one of the first things I asked my staff was, ‘when was the last time we asked our members how satisfied they were?’” recalled Rodriguez. “When I heard we hadn’t done that, I began planning this mini-tour, and told everyone to be ready to set ourselves up to potentially take a beating.”

The chamber organized the town halls into five different segments: community stakeholders, current members, former members, Spanish-speaking businesses and non-member businesses.

“I wanted to divide the town halls into those populations because I felt like the audiences had different priorities,” explained Rodriguez. “For the Spanish-speaking group, we went to a heavily-Latino part of town and did the whole thing in Spanish, so we could maximize participation.”

During the town hall sessions, Rodriguez posed two questions to his audiences: “what is the chamber doing well?” and “what does it need to improve on?”

“The biggest theme that came out of these conversations was small businesses—what are we doing to help them?” he said. “We have a huge port here and lots of major players in the oil and gas industry. Our small businesses would love to figure out how they can interact and work with some of these bigger guys.”

“Another theme was that our stakeholders and the public want to see us provide more consistent communication,” he continued. “Overall though, the feedback was mostly positive, and the criticisms we did get were helpful and constructive.”

Rodriguez says the chamber’s next steps are to use the feedback and insights from the town halls to formulate a strategic plan, which will be developed during a staff retreat. He plans to support the new plan with another round of town halls to continue the dialogue with the public.

“I want to go out and do town halls again to show the community that we heard their feedback and we’re moving the organization forward,” he said. “It’s a risk because I know nobody here has done this before. For us, the proof will be in the pudding when we can show everyone how the new plan is taking action.”

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Tags: Cleo Rodriguez, Community Engagement, Town Halls, United Corpus Christi Chamber

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Staying ahead of Industry 4.0 v

Ben Goldstein on Thursday, December 14, 2017 at 12:15:00 pm 

The Quad Cities Chamber, which serves business in the five-city metro region of northwestern Illinois and southeastern Iowa, launched its Manufacturing Innovation Hub in 2015. The Hub, as it’s called, was designed to be a one-stop resource center for regional manufacturers to learn about the latest technologies impacting their industries.

“We’re in the start of what we call Industry 4.0,” said Mike Coughlin, executive director of the Manufacturing Innovation Hub. “With all the information available now, the question is, ‘how do our companies actually utilize that information in their systems to become more efficient?’”

The program helps businesses identify opportunities for technology adoption within companies’ systems and supply chains. It uses one-on-one assessments, during which specialists tour facilities and workshops, administer questionnaires and meet with management to discuss current and projected trends in high-tech and manufacturing.

“We have local experts who go in and provide assessments to organizations looking for opportunities to add efficiency,” said Coughlin. “When we’ve identified such an opportunity, we provide them with local companies that possess the skill set to assist them in capitalizing on the knowledge they’ve gained.”

In 2016, The Hub launched its Technology Roadmap, which outlined regional strengths and weaknesses in manufacturing, as well as emerging technologies like virtual reality, robotics and data analytics.

“We gathered all the data and locked about 40 people with different skill sets in a meeting room for a couple of days,” recounted Coughlin. “The roadmap helps companies understand what the technology is, how it will affect them, how to integrate it and who to contact for guidance.”

“The goal of the meetings and conversations was to create a real understanding of how these technologies will disrupt our industries,” he continued. “We’re engaged with our local colleges and universities, so we’re able to bring them an understanding of what the business community is saying with regards to needs and training.”

Coughlin says the benefits of the program will be felt by all industries in the region, as the knowledge shared filters back into the workplace, leading to increased efficiency and productivity for manufacturers and businesses.

“These conversation need to continue so we can raise awareness and foster a community-wide dialogue,” said Coughlin. “The synergies you get from building this ecosystem and having conversations like this will enhance the opportunities for all businesses in the Quad Cities region.”

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Tags: Innovation, Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce, Quad Cities Manufacturing Innovation Hub, Technology

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LAUNCHing careers in South Central Kentucky

Ben Goldstein on Monday, December 11, 2017 at 9:15:00 am 

SCK LAUNCH is an initiative of the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce that encourages students to explore local career opportunities, while learning valuable soft-skills at the same time.

“We have about 6,000 open positions in South Central Kentucky right now,” explained Kim Phelps, vice president of communications and public policy at the Bowling Green Chamber. “This is a wonderful place to live and work, but as the community grows, we want our kids to stay, and we want our alumni to come back to work here also.”

The initiative was conceived as an extension of two successful programs in the community: The Leader in Me, which teaches elementary school students about leadership and soft skills; and LEAD, which further develops those skills for middle school students. SCK LAUNCH, in contrast, builds on those programs by exposing teens to local industries to get them thinking about potential careers.

“Our students are learning leadership skills from the time they’re in kindergarten all the way through graduation,” said Phelps. “When they get to high school, it becomes more about laying the hard skills on top of the soft skills, and when students graduate, they will have an industry credential of some kind,” she added.

SCK LAUNCH offers career shadowing to high school students to raise awareness about the variety of careers available in the region. Through the program, teens get the opportunity to tour plants and facilities, meet with employees and observe how they work in their natural environments..

Through “educator externships,” teachers visit companies to learn about the types of jobs offered and the education and skills required. Afterward, they can adjust their curricula and lesson plans to more effectively steer students into local career opportunities.

“A lot of teachers go from high school to college and then straight back to the classroom, so they actually don’t have a clear picture of what they are preparing their students for,” explained Phelps. “These experiences give them context, so they can help students understand why the work they’re doing is valuable.”

Phelps cites the newly-cemented relationship between business and education as the greatest achievement of SCK LAUNCH, and says she hopes collaboration will continue—even after the chamber eventually dials back its own involvement in the initiative.

“One of the things that has been so unique and rewarding for us is having the business and education communities sit down at the same table, look each other in the eye and actually talk to one another,” she said. “At the end of the day, the integration of the career mindset in our schools is really the goal.”

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Tags: Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce, Internships, SCK Launch, Soft Skills, STEM, Workforce Development

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Afterschool STEM for tomorrow's workforce

Ben Goldstein on Monday, December 4, 2017 at 9:00:00 am 

Chambers of commerce are partnering with the Mott Foundation’s 50 State Afterschool Network to advance high-quality programming for elementary school-aged students across the U.S.

Here are examples of two chambers — one in South Carolina, and one in Washington state — that are teaming up with their statewide networks to help kids get a jump-start on science, math and technology.

South Carolina 

In 2010, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce joined forced with the South Carolina Afterschool Alliance to promote STEM learning for students in the state’s public school system.

Initially, the focus was ensuring members' employees could remain productive between 2–5:00 p.m. on weekdays, said Cynthia Bennett, vice president of education at the South Carolina Chamber. Later, as the project evolved, its mission shifted to guaranteeing that networks were providing high-quality, STEM-focused learning opportunities for the entire community.

“We chose to work with the network because there was a common ground for mutual benefits and shared priorities,” said Bennet.  “We are the voice of business in South Carolina and our main goal and concern was—and still is—making sure we have an educated workforce that will be able to take over, as opposed to having to be retrained.”

Through their collaboration, the chamber helped the South Carolina Afterschool Alliance increase its visibility and credibility among the state's business leaders, as well as secure funding for additional science and technology exposure.

“As a mom of two boys, I understand being a working mother and having to decide what to do with my kids,” she said. “For me, as well as for the chamber, it wasn’t just about having a program—it was about providing something valuable. Were they offering something meaningful, or were they just babysitting?”

Washington

In Washington, Greater Spokane Incorporated and School’s out Washington have worked to promote statewide afterschool learning, with a focus on STEM skills and careers.

“School’s Out Washington is providing quality improvement and professional development support, and GSI is providing connections to business and STEM learning essentials that afterschool providers can use,” said Alisha Benson, vice president of education and workforce at GSI. “One of our greatest strengths as a chamber is our ability to convene many of the entities across the table on education and pipeline issues within the business community.”

GSI has implemented an initiative with SOW called Business AfterSchool, which is a series of industry skills workshops aimed at providing on-site awareness of Spokane’s high-demand jobs to students in the region.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for students to go into a business and take an in-depth look at those careers and how their skills work,” said Meg Lindsay, GSI’s executive director of education and workforce. “I think the really important piece of all this is that, as we enter a business setting, we’re really engaging business professionals in a way that kids just can't get during regular school hours.”

To learn more, watch our Webinar or visit Chamberpedia.  

Tags: Afterschool STEM, Education Attainment Division, STEM

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College town makes the grade

Ben Goldstein on Monday, December 4, 2017 at 8:00:00 am 

In early November, a group of stakeholders from Tuscaloosa publicly signed a memorandum of agreement outlining a shared commitment to integrate the region’s manufacturing and industrial base to better match the skills of students graduating from the University of Alabama.

The move was intended to realign the local economy to include more knowledge-based, tech-driven jobs, so the university city could retain a larger portion of its student population.

“The opportunity we have from an economic development perspective is diversifying our economic base,” said Jim Page, president and CEO at the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. “We’re hoping this formal partnership is going to lead to more knowledge-based jobs being created, so we can hold on to a larger percentage of our college grads.”

The memorandum was signed at the chamber’s annual State of the Economy event, in which it hosts local economic and subject matter experts to forecast trends for the upcoming year. The function was attended by elected leaders, university administrators and several local development agencies.

“The ceremony was really about generating public awareness, as much as anything,” said Page, adding that, “It was largely a symbolic gesture that shows we’re going to start working toward this new goal of collaboration.”

Page says the agreement was inspired by conversations from conference calls and roundtables with the University Communities Council, an ACCE peer-group that enables chamber pros from college towns to collaborate and share best practices. He credits Vern Squier from the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County in Pennsylvania and Lyle Butler from the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce in Kansas for introducing him to similar agreements from their regions.

“Right out of the gate, I’ve got two chamber colleagues who’ve had success doing this, so there was kind of a template for our group to use,” he said. “We never would’ve known about those agreements — and chances are we wouldn’t be where we are now — had I not been engaged with the University Communities Council.”

“We’re hoping this will enable us to grow and recruit more knowledge-based, white-collar jobs,” he added. “I’m hopeful that all of those forces working together can turn years of talk into real action, and that action will result in a diversified economic base that allows us to retain more of our best and brightest college students.”

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Tags: University Cities Council

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Midwestern momentum

Ben Goldstein on Sunday, November 19, 2017 at 9:35:00 am 

For Matt Pivarnik, president and CEO of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, the most important part of any strategic plan is the results. So when the chamber and its community partners began crafting Momentum 2022, he opted for a five-year plan, as opposed to some of the longer-running strategic documents seen elsewhere.

“We chose a 60-month plan because we wanted to have an immediate and measurable impact,” said Pivarnik. “We didn’t call this Momentum 2035 or Momentum 2050 for a reason.”

In its early stages, the plan was guided by a 43-member steering committee that drew from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Among the committee’s findings was a need for enhanced talent development efforts to build out a stronger workforce for the region.

“We put a very heavy focus on development of homegrown talent in Momentum 2022,” said Kayla Bitler, strategic coordinator at the Greater Topeka Chamber. “Some areas of emphasis are ensuring that all children are ready for kindergarten, and that every student has a pathway to college or a career.”

A second leg of the campaign is enhancing “quality of place” in the Topeka region, by building out amenities like pedestrian walkways, expanding access to the city’s riverfront and adding more recreational and residential offerings to the city’s downtown core—a process Pivarnik says is already underway.

“We’re seeing a real resurgence in restaurants and bars,” he said, adding, “If you want a loft in downtown, you’ll have to get in line, because right now everyone wants a loft in downtown.”

The plan calls for the consolidation of the Greater Topeka Chamber and three other economic development groups — GO Topeka, Visit Topeka and Downtown Topeka Inc. — into one umbrella organization, which will be called Greater Topeka Partnership. The organizations will retain their boards and CEOs, and will coordinate through a council including the four CEOs, their chair-elects and several at-large members.

“Bringing together these four groups will enable all of us to perform our work with a type of coordination we haven’t seen in the past,” said Curtis Sneeden, the chamber’s executive vice president. “We’ll enjoy a number of operational efficiencies just by being together under one roof.”

Pivarnik says he brought the idea for the consolidation of the four groups with him from his previous role at the Greater Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, which operates under a similar structure.

“When I was at the Tulsa Chamber, which has 15-plus organizations and brands operating under one umbrella, I didn’t understand how powerful that structure really was until I had to operate without it,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think it’s efficient for cities to have all of these separate convention and visitors bureaus and downtown organizations.”

Pivarnik says he hopes that by 2022, people from around the world will think of Topeka as a city that has undergone a rapid transformation in a short period of time.

“When people hear about Topeka, Kansas, in the future, I want them to think of it as a ‘renaissance city,’ and a magnet for entrepreneurial development and talent attraction,” he said. “We want people from around the world to know about all of the positive things happening in our region.”

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Tags: Economic Development, Strategic Plan, Talent Attraction and Retention, Topeka Chamber

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Immigration fuels the Great Lakes region

Ben Goldstein on Thursday, November 16, 2017 at 9:00:00 am 

The Great Lakes region is an economic powerhouse, fueled by manufacturing, international trade and a combined GDP of more than $6 trillion.

One of the biggest drivers of regional growth is sometimes absent from the popular narrative—immigration. That message is on display in a new report from the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition, published in partnership with New American Economy.

“We wanted to respond to the narrative that our region is isolationist and not welcoming of immigrants,” said Brandon Mendoza, manager of government affairs at the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. “We wanted to say, 'actually, immigration in this region has helped accelerate our economies away from what folks refer to as the Rust Belt and the manufacturing decline.'”

One important way that immigration fuels economic growth is by combatting population decline and out-migration. Immigrants were responsible for more than half of the region’s population growth from 2000–15. Foreign-born workers are also younger, on average, than their native-born counterparts, which helps keep the region’s workforce youthful and vital as Baby Boomers retire in large numbers.

“When you look at the top 25 metros in the Great Lakes area, immigration has been a net-positive in terms of reversing out-migration and growing their populations,” said Mendoza. “It’s a lifeblood for a lot of these cities like Pittsburgh, Rochester or Akron, where slow population growth really acts as a drag on economic growth, in general.”

But immigrants are not only filling jobs, the report found. They are also creating them, in large numbers. The study found that immigrant entrepreneurs make up 20 percent of small business owners, and have created over 226,000 jobs in the region from 2000–15.

“Immigrants, by their very nature, are risk-takers,” explained Mendoza. “They’re taking a big risk moving to a foreign country and restarting, so they’re more inclined to start new businesses.”

Mendoza stressed that immigration should be understood as a regional issue, not a national one.

“Our whole message is that we should be thinking about immigration in terms of regions,” he said. “In the Great Lakes region, we really need to make sure our immigration numbers are high and we’re supporting high-skill immigrants, as well as comprehensive legislation at some point in the future.”

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Tags: Great Lakes Chambers Coalition, Great Lakes Region, Immigration, Research, Survey

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Energized to save

Ben Goldstein on Monday, November 13, 2017 at 8:00:00 am 

Tony Rescigno, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, has seen a lot of things change in his 17-year career leading the organization. And even now, as he makes plans to step down from the helm, Rescigno is exploring ways to transform the chamber’s energy footprint to a more sustainable model better-suited for the 21st century.

He’s doing it through the Energize Connecticut initiative, a partnership between the state of Connecticut and its utility providers that helps businesses and residences trim energy costs. The program is funded through the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund, which, in turn, is paid for through a surcharge on customer energy bills.

“A year ago we went from having a lease that didn’t include energy costs to a new lease that required us to pay, and you have a different attitude when you have to pay for it,” said Rescigno. “Through this program, we’ve estimated projected savings of over $5,000 annually, which is huge for us.”

Rescigno says the chamber has already realized substantial savings by swapping out the chamber’s old lighting for 256 LED fixtures designed to reduce costs and improve lighting quality. Next, he wants to replace the chamber’s fleet of 45 heating and air conditioning units with newer, more efficient models through the energy initiative.

“The cost of energy in the state of Connecticut is unbelievably high, and it’s one of the major deficits we face trying to attract businesses,” said Rescigno. “The fact that we’re showing other businesses how to lower those costs by investing in energy efficient alternatives is something we’re very proud of.”

Through Energize Connecticut, workers from state utility United Illuminating visited the chamber and drafted a conservation plan to help it identify opportunities for saving. The chamber’s monthly lighting bills are already one-third lower, down from $1,500 to $1,000.

“The first thing they do is send somebody to do an analysis and literally count the light fixtures,” said Rescigno. “The total investment on our part is less than $4,000, and we plan on making that all up in a year or less, so we weren’t at all worried about putting up the cash for this.”

Rescigno, who announced plans to retire earlier this year, said he’s accepted a part-time position at Southern Connecticut State University as a business executive-in-residence. One of his tasks in that job will be facilitating collaboration between the local business community and its talented student population, which includes Yale University.

“My next job will involve connecting the business school with the students with the businesses in the region,” he said. “That plays into my strengths, because I’ve been around a long time and I know a lot of these people.”

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Tags: Cost-Savings, Energy usage, Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, Sustainability

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Think big, Shop Small

Ben Goldstein on Friday, November 3, 2017 at 11:00:00 am 

Small businesses are the backbone of local economies, and oftentimes are some of the most engaged members of chambers of commerce. Small Business Saturday, which falls on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, was launched by American Express in 2010, as a way to encourage people to patronize small businesses.

Each year, American Express invites community organizations, businesses and chambers of commerce to pledge to be Neighborhood Champions, and provides them with resources and marketing materials to promote the day.

Here are a few ways chambers are celebrating, and why they’ve made it a priority to do so.

How is the chamber celebrating Small Business Saturday?

Jessica Hart, Billings Chamber (Mont.): “For the past five years, we’ve made a Monopoly board featuring our small business members. Because it’s grown so much since then, we’ve decided to make a checkers board instead for this year. The way it works is people shop at the businesses on the board and return their game pieces to any of the participating businesses. That way they can enter to earn gift cards and prizes from our members.”

Robert Killen, Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce (Ore.): “Now that Small Business Saturday is fairly-well established, we’ve decided to launch a full suite of programs throughout the month of November, which we’ve identified here as business development month, like a leadership symposium, some lunch-and-learns and a half-day business conference. We’re also creating a bingo card filled with businesses participating in our downtown region, and once somebody gets five in a row they can turn that into the stores and enter into a raffle for some gift baskets we’ll assemble, too.”

Anna Rainhouse, Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce (N.Y.): “We’re having a kick-off party where we’re giving out goody bags of promotional materials and save-the-date pamphlets for our member businesses. We’re also promoting what we call the “12 Days of Shopping Small,” where we’re using little passports, and anybody who shops locally over the next 12 days can get their passport stamped and return it for prizes and rewards.”

What is the value of celebrating the work that small businesses do?

Jessica Hart (Mont.): “I think that small business is about building your community. Spending your money locally helps your friends and neighbors build something better for your community, so we can keep these businesses open and thriving.”

Robert Killen (Ore.): “Supporting small business is support for an entire community. We know that a dollar spent in a small, locally-owned business largely stays in the community in ways that making purchases any other way simply can’t. The more dollars we retain in a community, the stronger it is for everyone.”

Anna Rainhouse (N.Y.): “The small businesses in our area are really the heart and soul of our economic system in a small town like Watkins Glen, so promoting them and supporting them in any way we can is going to be really beneficial for the whole community.”

This year, ACCE invites members to participate in a contest that highlights Small Business Saturday successes. Tell us how your chamber of commerce is encouraging the community to #ShopSmall. Learn more.

Tags: #ShopSmall

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