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Congratulations, Chamber of the Year finalists!

Ben Wills on Tuesday, June 13, 2017 at 2:17:00 pm 

The Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives today announced finalists for the 2017 Chamber of the Year competition, proudly sponsored by Indianapolis-based WebLink International.

Finalists for 2017 Chamber of the Year are (sorted by category):

State/Province Category:

Georgia Chamber of Commerce
Atlanta, Georgia

Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce
Regina, Saskatchewan

Category Four:

Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce
Charleston, South Carolina 

Chattanooga Area Chamber
Chattanooga, Tennessee

Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce
Dayton, Ohio

Category Three:

Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce
Bowling Green, Kentucky

Huntsville/Madison County Chamber
Huntsville, Alabama

Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership
Ocala, Florida

Plano Chamber of Commerce
Plano, Texas

Category Two:

Kalispell Chamber of Commerce
Kalispell, Montana

North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce
Fitchburg, Massachusetts

Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce
Paducah, Kentucky

Category One:

Des Moines Downtown Chamber
Des Moines, Iowa

Effingham County Chamber of Commerce
Effingham, Illinois

O’Fallon Chamber of Commerce & Industries
O’Fallon, Missouri

In the final phase of the competition, a judging committee conducts in-person interviews with leaders representing each finalist chamber. One winner from each category will be named at the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

Learn more about Chamber of the Year here.

Tags: Chattanooga Area Chamber, Plano Chamber of Commerce, Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, Des Moines Downtown Chamber, Effingham County Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Chamber, Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, #ACCEAwards, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, Awards, North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce, O'Fallon Chamber of Commerce & Industries, Chamber of the Year, Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership, Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce

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Going green in the Gateway City

Ben Goldstein on Wednesday, May 31, 2017 at 12:00:00 am 

What can chambers of commerce do to get local businesses serious about going green? For Andrew Smith, vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation at the St. Louis Regional Chamber, the answer is surprisingly simple: challenge them.

It all started back in 2010, when the chamber teamed up with the Missouri Botanical Garden to introduce the Green Business Challenge, a competition that encourages organizations to draw up measurable road maps toward achieving sustainability.

“The Challenge works with companies to help integrate sustainability into the kinds of day-to-day operations common to every business,” explains Smith, who oversees the program on behalf of the chamber. “Our aim is to make sustainability work in accord with each company’s unique goals and culture.”

By leveraging corporate competition and public recognition, the chamber encourages  businesses to adopt sustainable policies and implement green practices.

“The global marketplace increasingly demands sustainability measuring, goal-setting and reporting up and down supply chains,” says Smith. “As companies engage locally with the basics of this range of accountability, they build resources needed to globally compete.”

Participating firms sign up for one of four program levels, ranging from “apprentice” to “champion.” They use a points-based scorecard to track progress, which gives businesses an efficient structure to plan and schedule work on a wide range of sustainable practice options.

“Each company determines its own strategy,” says Jean Ponzi who oversees the program at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “The categorized scorecard offers a comprehensive list of best practices to reduce waste, conserve energy and water, implement green purchasing and more.”

Companies are encouraged to assemble “green teams,” or groups of employees responsible for coordinating green strategy. Green teams collaborate with Garden staff, including Ponzi, who personally visits offices, plants and business campuses to advise firms on working with scorecard items that fit the company’s culture and capabilities.

“During site visits, we check out the supply closet, the break room, their parking lot and their dumpsters on the dock to get a sense of how green is working in each company,” says Ponzi. “Our customized coaching aims to improve financial performance, while reducing environmental impacts and engaging employees.”  

Now going on eight years, the Challenge has achieved impressive results. Of the 65 organizations that took part last year, 98 percent formed a green team, 97 percent established a corporate sustainability policy and 86 percent implemented a green purchasing policy.

One standout from last year was Hunter Engineering Co., a Branson, Mo.-based manufacturer of auto service equipment. Through the Challenge, Hunter installed equipment to reduce stormwater runoff, committed to purchasing environmentally friendly print materials and made the switch to more efficient, fluorescent lighting.

“The Green Business Challenge enabled Hunter to take a close look at a number of our business practices,” says Chip Hiemienz, director of business development at Hunter Engineering Co. “While converting to more environmentally friendly products, we were also able to experience big cost savings, too.”

At the chamber, Andrew Smith is hopeful that the initiative will pay off in the long run, by enhancing the region’s reputation as a leader in sustainability.

“Our achievements are still a pretty local story, but we have world-class players on our green business team who have had real success through the Challenge,” he says, adding: “We’d like to continue to foster successes like these—and we plan to.”

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Finding a seat at the table

Ben Goldstein on Monday, May 22, 2017 at 12:00:00 am 

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.

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A chamber without members

Ben Goldstein on Wednesday, May 10, 2017 at 11:37:00 am 

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.

 

Tags: Membership

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Cultivating leaders in the City of Brotherly Love

Molly Blankenship on Wednesday, April 5, 2017 at 8:39:00 am 

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.

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Self-driving cars driving the community forward

Ben Goldstein on Thursday, March 16, 2017 at 12:00:00 am 


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.”

Tags: Automation, Autonomous Vehicles, Howell Area Chamber of Commerce, Technology

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Smoky Mountains communities unite to support area tourism

Courtesy of Brenda McCroskey, CEO, Sevierville Chamber of Commerce (Tenn.) on Wednesday, December 7, 2016 at 12:00:00 am 

As the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee begin the recovery process following the Nov. 28 wildfires, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevier County (Tennessee) tourism officials have united to reinforce a strong message delivered by Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner.

"If you really want to do something for Gatlinburg, come back and visit us,” Werner said in a Nov. 30 press conference, encouraging visitation as a show of support to the popular vacation destination located next door to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nation’s most visited. Werner lost his home and business in the fire.

The area has received an overwhelming outpouring of donations, phone calls and support from community members. First responders from across the country helped battle the blaze.

“The generosity and concern shown to our community is a blessing beyond words,” said Mark Adams, Chief Executive Officer of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But it has also reinforced to us that our community is not just here at home. Our community is all the folks who have visited with us through the years, who feel a very special connection to our cities and these mountains. They continue to ask us how they can best help us because they, too, want to see this area rebuild.”  

According to Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Council Director Mary Hope Maples, tourism is the county’s largest industry. “Tourism is the lifeblood of Sevier County and its three gateway cities—Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Our tourism officials have an obligation to our residents to sustain our tourism industry to ensure that employees have jobs to support themselves and their families.”

A Community Resource Center opened on Dec. 1 to assist residents with insurance claims, unemployment filings, building permits for both residential and commercial structures, driver’s license replacement and other processes necessary during the rebuilding process. In addition, several employment agencies are on site to help displaced workers find jobs.

Sevier County tourism officials are reinforcing the message that the vacation destination’s many attractions, theatres, restaurants and lodging properties are operating as usual after recent wildfires in the area. In Gatlinburg, the area surrounding downtown Gatlinburg experienced significant losses this week; however, the heart of the city’s town is intact. The structures along Gatlinburg’s main strip still stand, including Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, Ole Smoky Distillery, the Gatlinburg Space Needle, and the Convention Center.

Businesses in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville suffered no damages, and are operating as usual. Dollywood, the state’s most-visited ticketed attraction is open. Also, Smoky Mountain Winterfest festival, which spans all three cities, continues through Feb. 28. Restaurants and lodging properties in Pigeon Forge are operating on normal schedules.

“Many people have asked us how to help. One of the best ways to help the Smoky Mountains recover from the wildfire’s impact is to come visit us and help keep our community strong and working,” said Brenda McCroskey, Chief Executive Officer of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce.

“We are happy to report that businesses along the Parkway in Sevierville, including Tanger Outlets and Apple Barn and Cider Mill, are open as usual and ready to help you enjoy your Smoky Mountain vacation,” McCroskey added.

“As we strive to keep our folks working so that they can support themselves and their families, our greater community can help us in several ways,” said Leon Downey, Executive Director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “If you have reservations, don’t cancel; come and see us during Winterfest. Consider us as you make your plans for spring break and next summer’s vacation. This will help us sustain our businesses and jobs.”

For more information about Smoky Mountain Winterfest as well as other information about visiting Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevier County, please visit www.SmokiesFun.com.

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Flint-Genesee Chamber Challenges the World with Social Media Campaign

Tania Kohut on Wednesday, April 13, 2016 at 12:00:00 am 

For many chambers located in areas hit by disaster, one of the hardest aspects of the recovery process is to make the world aware that the affected town or region is indeed “open for business.” When devastating pictures and stories of despair dominate non-stop media coverage, all this bad news can have lasting negative consequences on the local economy.

As Flint, Mich., finds itself in the midst of the ongoing water crisis, many of its businesses are feeling the pinch as a result of all the negative publicity. In response, the Flint-Genesee Chamber of Commerce launched in March a social media campaign to drive business and tourism to the city of Flint. According to the chamber’s news release, the #ChooseFlint campaign, which runs through early April, "challenges people to visit a local business or attraction, take a photo and share it on social networks – and then call on three friends to do the same." The chamber launched the campaign on its Facebook page with a video illustrating different ways to #ChooseFlint.

Elaine Redd, the chamber’s director of communications, says the nationwide support has been tremendous. “So many people have asked how they can support Flint during this time,” says Redd. “One of the ways they can help is to tell everyone they know that Flint is open for business. Make a conscious choice to ‘Choose Flint’ by patronizing Flint restaurants and other businesses, and challenging three of their friends to do the same.”

Read more about the campaign here and then head over to Twitter see the many cool ways people decided to #ChooseFlint.

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Superman and the Chamber of Commerce

Chris Mead, Senior VP, Member & Sponsor Relations on Thursday, March 24, 2016 at 3:00:00 pm 

It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s a borrowed idea.

As Superman and Batman battle in thousands of theatres in the coming weeks, it’s worth looking more closely at where the first of them – Superman – came from. Like a host of other successful creations of popular culture, Superman emerged from more than one mind.

Most of these beginnings can be seen in an MGM movie, “The Secret Six,” which came out in the spring of 1931. This film features six masked businessmen who were fed up with a local criminal and put him away. The criminal was named Slaughterhouse Scorpio and was loosely modeled on the famous evildoer of Chicago, Al Capone. The movie also included an idealistic, crime-fighting reporter named Clark. (This is Clark Gable, in one of his first major roles. He stole the show!)

 

Al Capone
So here, in one film, were key parts of the Superman story: secret identities, “good” vigilantes, and a crime-fighting reporter named Clark. Superman’s creator, Jerry Siegel, would name his idealistic reporter Clark despite the overwhelming (to that point) unpopularity of the appellation “Clark.” (That name did not even place among the most popular 200 boys’ names of the 1920s.) Siegel would later admit he named Clark Kent after Clark Gable. 

Superman with his Clark Kent alter-ego emerged for Siegel in late 1933. That was only 18 months after “The Secret Six” opened. It’s hard to imagine Jerry Siegel suddenly invented his Superman independently from “The Secret Six,” which also included secret identities, “good” vigilantes, and a crime-fighting reporter named Clark. That is a long string of coincidences.

“The Secret Six” film was in turn influenced by something else. The movie was partly based on the “real” Secret Six, a group of Chicago business people who went after Al Capone and other gangsters in the early 1930s. These businessmen were a committee of a chamber of commerce, the Chicago Association of Commerce. They were extraordinarily effective by most counts, including Capone’s himself. At one point the criminal said, “The Secret Six has licked the rackets. They’ve licked me. They’ve made it so there’s no money in the game anymore.” The group hired a chief detective, Alexander Jamie, who brought in his brother-in-law, Eliot Ness, to help on the federal side.

The “real” Secret Six (apart from their leader, who of necessity was a public figure – the president of the Chicago Association of Commerce) maintained secret identities because they didn’t want to be killed by Capone or his henchmen. But their secret identities were a part of their glamour and their idea for crime fighting was widely copied and popular in the media. Soon there was a Secret Five in Kansas City and later a Secret Seven in Cleveland, both formed by their local chambers of commerce. And, of course, speaking of media influence, the Chicago chamber’s fight with Capone inspired MGM to make “The Secret Six.”

Secret identities, which had been known before (as in “Zorro”), were extremely popular in the early 1930s thanks to people using them for real-life, high-profile, life-and-death activities. Also popular was the related idea of business vigilantes fighting the bad guys. And when Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion on Oct. 17, 1931, people could take heart that these groups were effective even against the most famous criminal of all time. This may later have been of some comfort and inspiration to Jerry Siegel, whose father died in 1932 when his store was robbed by hoodlums.

Jerry Siegel was a master chef, but he didn’t cook from scratch. He chose the ingredients available to him when he created Superman. And many of his ingredients were from the biggest crime-fighting story of his era, the catching of Al Capone, and from the movie loosely based on that story. Siegel’s genius was in taking his hero to the skies and making him human at the same time with a unique, very personalized secret identity, complete with love interests.

It is interesting how the high-profile struggle against one criminal by, of all things, a chamber of commerce, could have so many ramifications in American cultural life. Business people’s fight to take down the world’s most famous criminal (Capone) resulted, indirectly, in the birth of the world’s most famous superhero (Superman). Superman, in turn, begat Batman and a host of other comic-book heroes.

The Chicago Association of Commerce didn’t create Superman; Siegel did. But Superman couldn’t have existed without the chamber’s Secret Six and the MGM movie made about them. Without secret identities, without the concept of “good” vigilantes fighting crime, without a crusading journalist named Clark – just what would there have been left for Superman to be?

Mead is senior vice president of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives and the author of “The Magicians of Main Street:  America and its Chambers of Commerce, 1768-1945.”

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Family United… With a Lot of Help

Donn Ingemie, Chamber Member Services (ChamberMail) on Friday, January 8, 2016 at 12:00:00 am 

As a member of ACCE and a service provider for the chamber industry for eight years, we’ve always experienced great service from our counterparts serving in the chamber industry. But recently, Central Holidays West went beyond the definition of customer service.

I’ve traveled with Central Holidays West on a few European trips, and they always deliver what they advertise and more. Last November, when a group of ACCE members traveled to Sicily, was no exception. The itinerary allowed plenty of free time to explore on our own, but there were also interesting excursions and guided tours that gave us a taste of the island. We picked and pressed olives, enjoyed a home-cooked meal in a tiny villa, and climbed Mt. Etna for the season’s first snowfall.

But the “above and beyond” moment I have to share was a highly personal experience. Both of my grandparents are from Sicily and, although we’ve never met, I still have family on the island. My dream for this trip was to meet some of my relatives for the first time. My Sicilian relatives were a couple hours’ drive away and I doubted that I could pull off a visit, particularly without disrupting the group’s experience. But I asked our amazing tour guide Lorenzo Tarzia anyway, to see if it might be possible.

Within an hour, Lorenzo met me in the hotel lobby and told me that a car would pick me up in the morning and drive me to the small, out-of-the-way village where my relatives lived. I would then be able to meet up with the rest of the group later in the day. 

“Really?” I asked.  “Yes,” he replied, “you’re all set.”

This was a "bucket list" item for me and he’d made it possible in an hour. I was blown away. This guy is amazing!

As promised, the next morning Sebastian from “Sicily with Sebastian” arrived at the hotel in a beautiful new Audi.  Lorenzo was there, like a father watching a daughter leave for prom, to make sure I was all set. Sicilian-born Sebastian speaks fluent English and knows every spot on the island and its history. Besides being a historian, he’s also an avid photographer. Throughout our two-hour excursion he’d pull over at one amazing vista after the next, making sure I didn’t miss any photo opportunities.

When we arrived at my relatives' business to meet them for the first time, Sebastian acted as an interpreter and photographer. We spent 4-5 hours touring the village and saw where my grandparents lived, went to school and church. By the time we left, Sebastian and I both felt like family. A couple of hours later I was back with Lorenzo and the group.

Central Holidays West and their local connections made this a trip of a lifetime for me. Thank you Ian, Kent and Lorenzo for making this a trip I will cherish the memories from for the rest of my life!

 

 

 

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