The chamber executive was in a dark mood. His chamber hadn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession and he wasn’t sure it ever would. Were chambers becoming obsolete? Did anyone care about them anymore? Was history leaving us behind?
This longtime chamber executive, encouraged by ACCE, decided to go on offense instead of simply to play defense. He found a way to double his budget, while increasing his membership as well, in only about two years. Now he is looking to expand still further, concentrating on obtaining funding to advance work on some of the big policy issues of his region.
This story illustrates that:
The excitement over ACCE’s Horizon Initiative: Chambers 2025 report shows that many chamber executives, as well as their staff and board members, believe they are capable of greater things. And through the cold light of financial and membership statistics, there are chambers that have proven they can translate such hopes into reality. In this article you will find examples of creativity and unusual success at attracting members, retaining members, and building budgets. Let’s take a quick look at people who have planted the seeds of growth, strengthened retention rates or both.
A tenfold jump in budget is a massive achievement in just about anyone’s book. McCroskey did it mostly by doing her job well and not being afraid to ask for funding when it could be justified. Her best moment in the job came in her first week, when she told the city council that tourism promotion was going to grow the tax base, not be a needless expense, and she was rewarded with a $600,000 budget increase. Similar increases followed at the city and state level as tourism ballooned.
On the other end of the spectrum, McCroskey’s most challenging week on the job was fall 2016 when fires destroyed hundreds of homes in the area, especially in nearby Gatlinburg. Fortunately, most businesses survived and are “Smoky Mountain tough.”
Speaking of tough – McCroskey was faced with an unusual challenge at an annual dinner of the chamber’s. The audiovisual equipment broke down – music and everything else. She finally began making jokes, one after the other, and eventually was able to make it off the stage, still laughing. Talk about Smoky Mountain tough.
From 450 members to 1,100 in about three years? Not a bad showing. And the budget’s almost doubled from 2012 to the projected level for 2017. Robert Heidt said the biggest change he instituted when he arrived was “having a member-first approach and advocating for our business community.” He loves his job; it’s not “work” to keep his members happy. The 92 percent renewal rate indicates that most members must appreciate the effort. (The rate also shows that one geographic area can have a wide variation in membership performance: this author remembers a chamber in a different part of the Phoenix metro area, before the Great Recession, with a renewal rate of 67 percent.)
Robin Sollie joined the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce in 2008, when it had 300 members. She and her team have managed to more than double the number of members and to quadruple the budget. One key to her success: “Always be available to your members and listen to them; this is their chamber, not ours.” She’s found some practical ways to boost member satisfaction, such as tracking the referrals that member companies get via the chamber’s website. (Her WebLink software makes this possible.)
Candace Boothby exudes southern charm and hospitality. But along with her welcoming smile, she’s constantly reaching for improvement. One of her favorite sayings is, “How do you measure missed opportunity?” How does the chamber turn a good meeting or program into an exciting, memorable one?
She convinced her board to follow the steps to U.S. Chamber accreditation, not expecting to win the honor, but to learn how to be better. After a while, she and the board decided that after doing all that work, the chamber might as well go for the gold. On March 19, 2013, she got a call from the U.S. Chamber’s Ali Ehrlich, IOM to tell her the chamber had won five stars – a huge honor considering where the organization had come from a decade earlier. Boothby missed the call, but Ehrlich left a message, which Boothby still has saved today. “I listen to it every now and then to remind myself to stay focused and how grateful I am,” said Boothby.
She felt similarly when her chamber was named ACCE’s Chamber of the Year in 2015. All that work was paying off. But she noted that it was also a reminder of how much work the chamber still has to do.
Part of the focus is on mission, part on financial goals. The chamber redefined its mission to that of building economic prosperity – which meant “gifting” of various programs to local groups: STAR Student to Rotary, Labor Day road race to Main Street Newnan, Citizen of the Year to Kiwanis Club and Public Safety Appreciation Luncheon to the sheriff’s office. Now the chamber can sink its teeth into business meat. Moreover, in 2010 Boothby had the chamber tighten its goals around a sales culture, using a CRM system to build its sales funnel and track leads and conversion rates.
“It’s a people business,” Boothby says.
Connect people and resources and develop systems and processes aimed at improvement
April Wehrs was a breath of fresh air for her mostly volunteer-driven chamber. She brought a professional attitude and a sharp pencil to cut money-losing programs and build on the success of others. She cut expenses and improved the profitability of programming and events. Moreover, she added programs such as community leadership training and beefed up government affairs and public policy work. While doing all this, she got her employees to take advantage of the full capabilities of their ChamberMaster member management system. After these activities and buying and refurbishing its first owned building, the chamber had $600,000 in assets against $110,000 in liabilities in mid-2015 – a much better position than an asset base of $80,000 four years earlier. The chamber was recognized twice as chamber of the year by the Louisiana Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives during this time.
Then disaster struck. As Wehrs was flying home from ACCE’s annual convention in Savannah, floodwaters were beginning to collect in the parish. Eventually more than 45,000 homes in the community, 90 percent of businesses, and three municipal buildings were flooded. The brand-new chamber office had $75,000 in damage from flood waters that covered nearly four feet of the lower level floor. Businesses were devastated as customers left the area. It was a massive problem for the chamber and its members.
Immediately the chamber, following damage control of its own building, turned into an information source with a social media reach of more than half a million people. Within a week the chamber had launched a Back2Biz promotion showcasing companies that were back in operation. Advocacy on behalf of the businesses kicked into high gear. Members, including those who helped with the original construction and expansion, kicked in again to offset some of the rebuilding costs.
The chamber ended up with $600,000 in assets, and just $68,000 in liabilities, at the end of rain-soaked 2016. Wehrs, who retained her position as 2016 chair of the Louisiana Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives through all the flooding and recovery, isn’t in the mood to quit anything. And she knows where her bedrock of support is. “Without the support of strong leadership on the board, there is no success,” she says.
The Murrieta Chamber’s office was housed inside a high school when Patrick Ellis arrived to the job. He immediately set about figuring out how to get out of that space and into the business community. Drawing on the “Field of Dreams” psychology (“If you build it, they will come”), he told local developers and leasing agents that the chamber was going to find a space, and it wasn’t going to pay retail because the chamber would be a draw for any building it was in. People would visit the chamber’s office constantly because of its many meetings and activities.
Sure enough, he found a great space at a great rate, but it was still a stretch for the chamber’s budget. So he convinced his board to go ahead with the lease and to work with him to grow membership and revenues, fast. It worked. When people realized that the chamber was going to be in “real” space and would be working hard to provide up-to-date services for members, they joined.
Ellis’s happiest moment at the chamber was “seeing everybody’s eyes wide open” at the open house in the new space. They had their new chamber. And sure enough, he and his team kept the money coming in, more than doubling the revenues in less than five years. The culture is built on providing value to members. Ellis believes chambers are in no danger of losing their importance in the community, provided they actively look for new members and for ways to serve existing members, and not merely wait for people to show up.
Cheri Hottinger came aboard this chamber in 2004 and left in 2016, succeeded by her longtime lieutenant, Jennifer McDonald. These two and the rest of their team were able to engineer extraordinary growth in a county that did not grow nearly as quickly (although population did rise by 13.6 percent from 2000 to 2010, slightly ahead of the U.S. rate of 9.7 percent). On coming aboard, Hottinger pushed for and got U.S. Chamber accreditation and tightened up services for members. By 2011 the membership was 716. Then, in a single year, the rolls jumped by nearly 300 as the chamber instituted a special associate membership just to provide workers’ compensation. Today the regular memberships number 770 and the associate memberships total more than 1,000.
The chamber’s innovation didn’t stop with the associate memberships. It pushed for and received U.S. Chamber reaccreditation (and was recently reaccredited with four stars). McDonald initiated three projects that together bring in a large share of the chamber’s $125,000 in annual event revenue: Brew and Wine Fest, Rockin’ Auction and Slice of Licking County. There’s even an annual Groundhog Breakfast, complete with a groundhog mascot whose bedraggled costume had a badly needed makeover not long ago and was the subject of a video that kept the community in stitches.
Strong and steady growth has worked well for the chambers mentioned, but the merits of rapid fire growth can’t be ignored. Take the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce in Texas, for example. It set the modern U.S. record for membership drives in 2015. With the help of Your Chamber Connection and the hard work of more than 400 volunteers, the chamber added 910 members and grossed $140,000 in just two days. While it’s understood that drives often result in low retention rates, Tyler Area Chamber President/CEO Tom Mullins says the average post-drive renewal rate at his chamber is slightly over 50 percent. His team accomplishes this by such activities as an expo for new members, encouraging committee involvement and finding various ways to build exposure for member businesses.
Solid growth is as much about attracting new members as it is about retaining existing ones. You can’t grow without retaining. Two chamber execs – Gina Taruscio, former executive director of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce (Idaho) and new executive director of an affiliated organization called Partnership for Economic Prosperity and Jackie Krawczak, president/CEO of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce in Michigan – report that personal outreach to members is one of the key ingredients of their secret sauce. The renewal rates at the chamber of commerce in their communities hover at 97 percent or higher.
If chambers can renew members, can they renew themselves? Surely the answer is yes. The examples in this story show that even if some see gloom on the horizon, it’s possible to find ways to make the sun shine. Neither fires near Sevierville nor rains in Livingston Parish have kept their chambers from moving forward. Whether it was being housed in a high school, dealing with wrenching financial issues, or – worst of all – facing a seemingly apathetic business community, these chambers learned how to turn things around.
And in just about every case, the success came not from the abstraction of the chamber as an institution, or of major trends such as the spread of social media and the rise of polarizing politics. The success came straight from the heart: approaching members as people. It’s human feeling that’s the foundation of politics and of civic life and most important for us in the profession, chambers of commerce. As Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” Just as voters must feel their ideas are being heard, so must chamber members know somebody cares about their lives and their businesses. Local and regional chambers aren’t mostly about China trade or Middle East disturbances or debates in Congress. They’re about people you can touch and call and text.
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