Magazine Article Archive
Camere di Commercio: Cuore e Anima della Comunità*
I just returned from Italy. It was nearly half a world away from home, but I felt very much at home. Different country and different modes of operating for businesses and chambers, but I was amazed at how alike we all are.
At the heart of every chamber of commerce is advancement of free enterprise and the promotion of our region as a great place to live, work and visit. After a week in Italy’s Piedmont region with a group of adventuresome chamber leaders, I know these core purposes drive not only North American chambers, but chambers across the globe.
Whenever ACCE assembles a group of chamber executives, the conversations quickly shift to shared ideas and insights that can be applied at home. In that spirit, I’ll share some insights I took away from this phenomenal trip to Italy.
• Partners are crucial. Fabulous sponsors and hosts can make the difference in any chamber program. ACCE is lucky to have Central Holidays as its official travel partner. Last year, Central Holidays helped several chambers avoid disaster with their travel programs. I don’t know how they can top the amazing experience they put together for ACCE in November.
• Your story is vital. Prior to this trip, what I knew about Turin I learned during TV coverage of the winter Olympics. None of the cities we visited has the name recognition enjoyed by the usual Italian travel destinations. But after touring these unique cities and towns, and meeting their chamber executives and business leaders, I was captivated by the quality of their work, their traditions and their style. Every community has a great story to tell, and chamber leaders can be the best messengers.
• Competition is global. This truth became real for me when staff from the Turin chamber shared details about their cluster-based economic growth strategy. Many of their focus areas—aerospace, IT/Technology, clean energy—are also key to economic growth for my community in the Puget Sound region. The Turin chamber is doing impressive economic development that we should benchmark against.
• Personal attention is cherished. Of all the wonderful communities we visited, Biella, nestled in the foothills of the Alps, won my heart. Biella probably drew the short straw since they won the privilege of entertaining us over the weekend. But we never felt like a burden because of the warm welcome we received from Biella Chamber President Andrea Fortola. Twice he missed dinner at home to deepen personal connections with each member of our group. None of us will ever forget Andrea or Biella. The people you go out of your way to welcome will never forget you.
• Access is a chamber’s most important product. In Biella, Andrea and his chamber lined up an impressive array of executive meetings for us—on a Sunday, no less. We met with Laura Zegna, granddaughter of fashion icon Ermenegildo Zegna, for a private tour of the corporate museum and an exquisite lunch at the family estate. Franco Thedy, the 5th generation owner of Menabrea brewing company, opened the doors of his brewery which still operates on the site where it was established in 1846. That night we dined at Palazzo Lamarmora as guests of the Marquis, whose family has owned the castle for more than eight centuries. You might not have a royal palace in your community, but you have exceptional access and you can open important doors.
Besides the fabulous food, camaraderie and beautiful scenery, this trip was a stark reminder that chambers of commerce are the heart and soul of a community. CEOs and leaders of local businesses, working through chambers, can broaden their relationships and leverage their clout to promote the best interests of our communities. Una carriera da camera è la migliore!**
*Chambers of Commerce: Heart and Soul of the Community
** A chamber career is the best!
President and CEO Bellevue (WA) Chamber of Commerce
ACCE Board Chair, 2013-14
By Mick Fleming
I’m probably on the road 80 nights per year, which is, in all honesty, a luxurious split between inside and outside focus. Many of the trips are spectacular, others are routine and a few are torturous. Some road work involves merely showing up, but most trips provide fascinating insights, even if locals admit their lifestlye is not “destination living.”
About twice a year, I get to travel outside North America for work. I serve on the World Chambers Federation board, which meets in some pretty impressive places. Even if I’m pinching ACCE pennies, trading in airline miles for flights and limiting my time on the ground (36 hours in Dubai, 40 in Istanbul), I still manage to wander early in the morning or late at night in every town I visit. As Jon Bon Jovi (and others) put it: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
This fall’s trip, which I stretched to two-and-a-half days, was to the port city of Hamburg, Germany. Interestingly, I grew up in Hamburg . . . New York. If my exurban childhood community near Buffalo is “the town that friendship built,” our German namesake is the town that commerce built. I’m talking a bucket full of commerce: Shipping (2nd largest European port); manufacturing (20% of jobs, including Airbus mega-plant); retail (like Fifth and Madison Avenues in one neighborhood); finance (Barclays and Bank of Iran are neighbors), and entertainment (“I grew up in Hamburg, not Liverpool,” said John Lennon).
Of course, there is precious little architectural history in this low-rise city (fires in the 19th Century and bombs in the 20th), but you get the sense that corporate leaders would have remade it 10 times even if Allied planes hadn’t forced the issue. This is a place completely tied to history, but not restrained by those ties. They keep the progress wheels churning and it is the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce that provides the fuel and grease.
I’ve never seen anything like that chamber for innovation and reach. It began in the 1600s chasing North Sea pirates and now runs immigrant welcome centers, owns a university and two community colleges and has a secret (?) passage from the board room to neighboring city hall.
American chambers can’t compare themselves to the quasi-governmental chambers in Europe, but the Hamburg chamber is more entrepreneurial than bureaucratic. It is indeed something to behold—a grand building and even grander economic aspirations. Programmatic comparisons between chambers here and there can be made. After all, the Durham Chamber’s entry in the World Chambers Federation competition beat the Hamburg Chamber’s submission in 2013!
The best thing about serving as vice chairman of the WCF is not the destinations; it’s the personal interaction with diverse people. These are chamber people like you, who are trying to achieve the same things we’re driving for in our regions and nation, i.e., profitability for our members today and prosperity for our communities tomorrow. It is inspiring, instructional and sometimes hilarious to hear these international chamberfolk describing their efforts to achieve these dreams in their various circumstances.
The few hundred start-up chambers across Russia struggle to make ends meet in a hostile business climate, relying heavily on, of all things, Certificate of Origin fees to pay the bills.
My new friend Olive from the Uganda Chamber fights against corruption and crime, rather than taxes and regulations. The Georgia (no, the other one) chamber exec loves the U.S. and the American economy, even as he sees a future in which Georgia’s position in the energy economy is threatened by new U.S. oil and gas reserves.
The representative of a chamber in Korea brags about Samsung, and the Israel Chamber exec proposes that the World Chambers Federation pass an “employer’s bill of rights” (a good idea, actually!). Emmanuel (unpronounceable last name) seems bewildered by circumstances in his beloved Greece, and ACCE’s friend from Dubai tweeted our words and moods regularly throughout the meeting.
The head of the Tehran Chamber had just been tapped to serve as chief of staff for the new president of Iran, and the Barcelona Chamber was adjusting to the sudden end of mandatory chamber dues in Spain. And you thought you had a revenue problem!
The entire General Council of WCF gathered for dinner the final night at the elegant Uber Zee Club with members of the Hamburg Chamber Board. These folks all seemed indistinguishable from the board members of your chambers, except their English is better. Before the meal, we posed on the stairs for a photo, feeling as one Australian lady noted, like it was “prom night.” Awkward standing too close together and quietly proud that we had made the stage.
An eloquent speech by the woman who had just won the Oslo International Business for Peace Prize captured the essence of our gathering. Her award was earned through her company’s inspiring work with employees and other partially disabled folks in the workplace. She talked about the joy that can be realized when people in influential positions do the right thing as part of their quest to do the profitable thing. And of course, I thought of you.
Mick Fleming is president of ACCE.
By Sarah Myers
Help, Expertise & Resources Online
Your HERO team has been busy sending out various Toolkits (especially Disaster Recovery), giving webinar demos on how your staff can use the HERO portal, revising and creating Chamberpedia pages, uploading documents to the Samples Library, working on custom research projects and customized Operations Survey presentations, and much more. Here are a few of the recent hot topics we’ve worked on for ACCE member chambers.
QUESTION: I have members who have not paid their dues in over 90 days and I need an example renewal letter to send. Can you help me?
ANSWER: We get this question at least once a month. Renewal letters are often called “drop letters” or “we want you back” letters, and the HERO team has numerous examples available and ready for you to download and adopt for use at your chamber. Just go to our Membership Retention page in Chamberpedia. Some of the examples explain the process of sending renewal letters with periodic timing, such as after 30, 60 or 90 days. You’ll also find other resources such as checklists, retention plans, and return on investment tips to promote membership value.
QUESTION: I need to know what to do to prepare for a disaster. What are other chambers doing and how have other chambers dealt with disasters?
ANSWER: Building on the experiences of chambers that have dealt with floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other disasters, ACCE prepared a remarkable member resource called the Disaster Preparedness & Recovery Toolkit, plus a Chamberpedia page on Disaster Preparedness. The Toolkit (available as a PDF download) is a playbook you can follow when disasters strike, and more importantly, it’s a guide to strategic preparations you can make before a disaster strikes. The toolkit is a collection of articles, worksheets, samples and other resources designed to help you prepare for the worst and connect you to the best resources to speed your community’s recovery. The Chamberpedia page on Disaster Preparedness goes even further, with links to Chamber Executive articles covering disaster topics, blog posts from ACCE staff with lessons learned, numerous samples including emergency response plans, operations plans, checklists, contingency plans, recovery plans, and “hardship membership” information. Additional online resources include numerous links to helpful sites such as Ready.Gov for Businesses, RestoreYourEconomy.org, U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Assistance, DisasterAssistance.gov, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) resources, and more. In a recent update, we included information on grants and loans, such as the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG), CDBG Active Disaster Grants, FEMA Grants, Disaster Assistance from SBA.Gov, and disaster-related recovery grants through Grants.gov. Remember, when a disaster strikes you may lose internet access (and electricity) when you need it most. It might be good planning to download, print and store disaster prep information before you actually need it.
QUESTION: Our chamber is considering moving to a tiered dues structure. Do you have examples?
ANSWER: ACCE receives many inquires about dues models, and the HERO team is constantly updating our online resources to help provide examples for our members. The cover story of the Fall 2013 issue of Chamber Executive is an in-depth examination of different dues models, and it’s part of our expanded Chamberpedia page on Dues Models. Resources are broken down into “Tiered” or “Fair Share” models, with numerous samples of dues schedules, investment structures, links to online membership applications, membership brochures, and explanations of membership options and benefits. You can access article archives, surveys and research on revenue models, related books and e-Books, and courses and presentations.
Need help solving a problem? Email HERO@acce.org and the HERO team will promptly respond. Also, we’d love to hear from you if you have examples of excellent work you can share with other ACCE members.
Sarah Myers is Co-director of Information and Research at ACCE.
By Katherine House
TRCs can fetch impressive revenues year after year,
but for some chambers there are too many downsides.
CRAZY. That’s what some people call Karen Humphrey when they learn she’s managed total resource campaigns for 19 years. In fact, Humphrey, director of resource campaign and affinity programs at the Tulsa Regional Chamber, has overseen the Oklahoma organization’s TRC every year of its existence. While peers may view her unrelenting efforts to plan reward trips and oversee hundreds of volunteers as over the top, there’s a more apt description of her work: insanely successful.
In its first year, Tulsa’s TRC brought in $100,000. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, the campaign has exceeded the $3 million mark. Today, it’s one of the largest TRCs in the country, contributing more than 25 percent of the chamber’s total budget. The 10-week campaign recruits about 160 volunteers annually, who are rewarded with cash incentives, and, for the top producers, a nice vacation.
TRCs, sometimes called total resource development campaigns, were developed in the 1980s at the Atlanta chamber. On the surface, the premise behind them is simple: recruit an army of volunteers to leverage their connections to sell memberships, sponsorships and other products during a finite period of time. TRCs can be complicated, involving everything from the development of a campaign theme and recruitment of campaign leaders and sponsors, to the training of volunteers and, ultimately, fulfillment.
When it comes to TRCs, most chamber leaders seem to fall into one of two camps: those who believe in them and those who are quick to note downsides such as the staff time required and the uncertainty of relying on volunteers to target the best prospects. Others may resist TRCs because their tiered dues structure contains multiple sponsorships, although it’s certainly possible for TRCs and tiered dues structures to co-exist.
Why Run a Campaign?
Bob Morgan, CCE, president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, sees many advantages to TRCs. This year, the North Carolina chamber’s campaign brought in a record $5.1 million, “very little” of which consisted of in-kind donations, he says. The revenue constitutes 60 percent of the chamber’s annual budget, says Lori Lewis, the chamber’s chief revenue officer. Only about 20 percent of dollars generated come from membership renewals, with a much smaller amount from new member sales. (Of total renewals, about one-third come through the campaign.) The overwhelming majority of TRC dollars are derived from sponsorships, she says.
“Many of the volunteers can sell the chamber better than I can with their testimonials,” says Morgan. Not only that, but he likes the affordable cost structure of a campaign. “The cost of goods sold through a professional sales team is extremely high,” he says. By contrast, it cost less than $500,000 (not including staff time) to run this year’s campaign, he says. Without the resource campaign, the chamber would be smaller, with less money to fund its core mission.
TRCs can do much more for a chamber than generate revenue. “If you can get the ball rolling, you really do wind up with a group of dedicated volunteers who buy into what you are doing, who help shape and fashion what you are doing, and, in many instances, wind up being key members of your organization’s leadership,” says Harvey Schmitt, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce in North Carolina.
“I really see TRCs turn chambers around—not just financially, but in energy, enthusiasm and awareness,” says Joyce Powell-Johnson. She owns YGM LLC, a Lenexa, Kan., consulting firm that helps organizations plan and carry out TRCs.
Volunteers and Clients
TRCs also provide an opportunity for volunteers to gain recognition within their companies. “I can’t stress this enough,” says Morgan. A young, upcoming professional at a company could get “face time with an executive that might influence” his/her career through their work on a campaign together.
Additionally, by using a large pool of volunteers, chambers “cast a much wider net” than staff members could, says Humphrey. Volunteers “have very unique relationships that we don’t have,” says Matt Pivarnik, CCE, IOM, executive vice president and COO of the Tulsa Regional Chamber.
Tristan Johnson, vice president of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce in Wyoming, concurs. The chamber no longer turns to “the same handful of businesses over and over again” seeking sponsorships. Thanks to the TRC, “We are getting businesses [as sponsors] that we never thought would be interested.” Morgan says volunteers leverage their contacts outside Charlotte to make investments in the organization, which he describes as “a beautiful thing.”
“A TRC is not about getting more from the big guys [major investors],” explains Powell-Johnson. “It’s about getting a lot more clients.” Advocates of TRCs also like the fact that most of a chamber’s sales efforts can be consolidated into a short timeframe. This “one-stop shopping” benefits staff and would-be investors alike.
Before the Cheyenne chamber began its TRC, “every month, it seemed like we were down to the wire to get sponsors for that month,” says Johnson. “I think it has taken a lot of the stress off events because we are getting sponsors in advance.” As a result, the chamber can now “focus more on the bigger picture.” The TRC has allowed the chamber to hire a consultant in Washington, D.C., who keeps the chamber apprised on issues important to the local community, Johnson says. TRC volunteers also can cement relationships with existing members by clearing up misconceptions about the chamber, she adds.
On the other hand …
For many years, starting in 1999, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce in South Carolina ran a total resource campaign. In 2010 and 2011, revenue from the TRC accounted for about 40 percent of chamber’s budget. But there was a price to pay for this success. “TRC took up an inordinate amount of staff, leadership, volunteer and board meeting time,” says Bryan Derreberry, president and CEO. “It took our top volunteer and professional staff members away from the valued work they should be doing on behalf of the membership.”
In 2012, the chamber discontinued its TRC. The time investment wasn’t the only factor behind the decision. The chamber was undertaking a $5 million investment campaign, Accelerate Greater Charleston, and leaders “did not feel that our membership could handle both this ask and an almost $2 million ask from the TRC,” says Derreberry.
Instead, the chamber initiated Annual Partnership Meetings with its top 110 members. During these visits, chamber executives discover top business priorities and needs, ask for an evaluation of the business environment, and seek recommendations for top chamber priorities. The meetings, which involve two staff members, typically last 75 to 90 minutes. During the calls, the chamber team also offers suggestions about which chamber programs the members might consider investing in. Then, within five to seven days of the calls, the chamber e-mails a custom “electronic partnership package,” explains Derreberry.
The program has been well received. The chamber’s overall budget, including Accelerate Greater Charleston commitments, is up 25 percent, he says. “Annual Partnership calls allow for a sound delivery and review of membership dues, AGC annual commitments and sponsorship engagement,” says Derreberry. The calls also counteract another issue. “I consistently heard from our larger members that the only time they ever heard from the chamber was when a volunteer or staff member had their hand out for TRC,” he says.
Paul Miloni, vice president of membership development for the Charleston chamber, has first-hand experience with TRCs from his previous tenure at the Lincoln, Neb., chamber. It discontinued TRCs several years ago, and even now Miloni has no desire to undertake another campaign. Although TRCs can do “a great job” of helping the events side of the chamber ledger, he believes they do a disservice to the membership department. A campaign “doesn’t allow a chamber to message what its core value is to a new member,” he says.
TRCs have the potential to create membership churn after a few years, says Miloni. Members may join primarily to help out friends, but fail to renew, leading to a low retention rate. There is also potential for volunteers to help subsidize a membership if doing so will make them eligible for the rewards trip, he says. It also can be challenging for chambers to bring on a large number of new members in a two- or three-month period, he says. “If you have a huge influx, can you really get them on board, engaged and educated about what you offer?” he asks.
TRC proponents say campaigns generate more community awareness about the chamber. Miloni sees a potential downside to that, however. “[It] gives the impression that the chamber has deep pockets for sending volunteers on trips,” he says. “It does not give the right message.” The Charleston chamber faced similar concerns. “Many of our larger members frowned on the expensive trips to celebration destinations and others were prohibited from taking part in the trips,” says Derreberry.
Keys to Success
What does it take to run a successful TRC? Commitment, say the veterans. “Until you get board buy-in, you are not as successful as you can be,” says the Tulsa chamber’s Humphrey.
“The most important decision after you decide to do a campaign is who you get to chair it the first year,” says Powell-Johnson. “It must be a key strong business leader to get some credibility and get other business leaders behind it.”
Executive and staff commitment is equally important, says Schmitt of the Greater Raleigh Chamber. If a campaign is driven by the board or staff but lacks the support of the chamber CEO, it will not last more than a year, he says. And, “you have to have your own staff team committed to making the process go well.” The staff must “view the campaign as an integral part of the culture of the organization and treat it with respect.”
For campaigns to work well, “You need a sense of community and a perception that the chamber makes things happen,” says Powell-Johnson, “That’s harder to accomplish in some areas than others.”
Commitment from local businesses is also critical, says Lewis of the Charlotte chamber. Companies must commit employees to be leaders of the campaign, and volunteers must be committed to introducing you “to people you may not have access to,” she says.
“To run a good total resource campaign, you have to have a bunch of volunteers,” says Marc Jordan, CCE, IOM, president/CEO of the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We do not have a lot of volunteers here.” That’s because many of his members are sole proprietorships. For the most part, owners are simply too busy in the summer months to help out, and many of them take time off in the off-season.
Jordan says it’s easier to run resource campaigns where there are concentrations of banks, hospitals and utilities—businesses that are generally willing to supply teams needed to run a campaign.
Morgan agrees. In Charlotte, large corporations, including two banks and Duke Energy, have bought into the campaign concept. He says “super-competitive” corporate leaders have been instrumental in setting the pace. “That friendly competition was absolutely essential to our early success,” he says. It helps, too, that the Charlotte area is growing.
Morgan believes the chamber’s significant role in economic development and public policy initiatives has been a contributing factor to the campaign’s success. “We deliver on the ROI that companies sell,” he says.
What’s the key to success year in and year out? “One reason we are still so successful is that we do have several long-term volunteers,” says Humphrey. Once a volunteer sells to a company as part of the campaign, that volunteer is given the opportunity to sell to the same company the following year, she explains. In Oklahoma City, a volunteer this year won the top producer award after working with the same company all 20 years on the campaign and reaching the milestone of raising more than $1 million for the chamber.
In Texas, the Longview Chamber of Commerce ran its third resource campaign in 2013. Kelly Hall, CCE, IOM, president, wishes she had started the campaign 10 years ago because it has brought in added revenue. An enthusiastic believer in the system, she is also aware of the challenges of TRCs. In talking to her peers, she learned that the third year had the potential to be “a bubble year.” Why? In part because of volunteer turnover. “The lifespan of a volunteer in an association is historically two to three years,” she says. That statistic is reflected in her experience: this year about half of her campaign volunteers are new to the TRC.
Hall also knew that retention of new members brought in through a campaign could be lower than the rate of those brought in by staff. Again her research proved accurate. To counteract this, she spent a lot of time emphasizing to volunteers this year that the campaign is not about simply selling a membership, but selling a membership to the chamber’s ideal candidate. For this reason, she emphasized “the sweet spot,” or profile, of that type of business.
She benefited from other sage advice. She asked peers what they wished they had done differently in the first three to five years. Some of them said they wished they always brought back a consultant to help train volunteers. “They’re professionals and perceived as professionals,” she says. “The volunteers respond to that.” Hall says chambers may not need the services of a consultant “every year for everything,” but they are invaluable for volunteer training.
For chamber staff, the work is far from over when a campaign ends. It’s critical that the staff have adequate internal systems for tracking all commitments, she says. There are thank-you letters to send out, and you may need additional staff. Hall added a part-timer to help with fulfillment. “When you bring in additional revenue, you are also increasing your workload,” she says.
In recent years, some chambers have run across corporations whose ethics policies prohibit employees from receiving cash prizes or going on rewards trip, thus eliminating some key incentives driving resource campaigns. Schmitt says the Raleigh chamber has found ways to work within these limitations. For example, an employee may be allowed to participate if he or she gives winnings to a charity, foundation or even the chamber. In other cases, employees may be permitted to receive cash prizes but are prohibited from going on the rewards trip.
The Tulsa chamber still gives cash prizes, but knows of some chambers that now use gift cards instead. Several years ago, the Charlotte chamber stopped paying cash incentives. In the post-Enron world, these commissions came under greater scrutiny, says Morgan. But eliminating the cash incentives did not lead to a decline in participation. “Our volunteers are remarkably committed to the mission of the chamber,” he says. And, the trip is “still highly motivating.” Plus, some corporations provide their own incentives to volunteers, whether in the form of recognition or something more tangible, such as tickets to a sporting event.
After multiple campaigns, it may be tempting to take a lot in trade to meet goals, says Roy Williams, CCE, IOM, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. This strategy can backfire. Rooms in a typical suburban hotel will not be useful if the chamber needs rooms in a five-star downtown hotel, he says. Likewise, an airline’s offer of $50,000 in credit towards flights is not as good as it sounds since it will charge a premium price when you might have been able to get the tickets cheaper elsewhere. For these reasons, the Oklahoma City chamber only accepts in-kind TV airtime from a cable company. Ordinarily, it buys that advertising, so a trade saves the chamber cash on something it planned to spend anyway, says Williams.
In Cheyenne, chamber staff members continue to appreciate the TRC model. Every day, it seems, someone says, “We wouldn’t be able to do this without TRC,” says Johnson.
Katherine House is a business writer based in Iowa City, Iowa.
By Cathi Hight
Chambers are uniquely tied to the communities they serve, even though the economic health of a region may not correlate with the fiscal condition of its chambers. One of the reasons for this occasional disparity is the wide range of revenue sources and funding mechanisms of chambers of commerce.
While some destination-focused entities generate significant cash (and some net revenue) from festivals and traveler advertising, those in other kinds of communities find more success in leading economic development initiatives or by conducting all-inclusive “asks” through a Total Resource Campaign. And, of course, the reliance on membership dues varies anywhere from 15 to 90 percent of budget.
To better understand current revenue trends, I surveyed 328 chambers across the U.S. and Canada about their revenue sources, their successes and their challenges in generating funding. Recognizing that ACCE already did substantial research on chamber operations, I tried to vary my questions to get a somewhat different flavor.
As in ACCE’s results, we found that total revenue increased over the last year, but membership size is flat. This was reinforced by evidence that event and sponsorship receipts have risen. Health insurance and office supplies remain the strongest sources for affinity income. The largest and smallest chambers I questioned were least likely to have seen revenue grow, year-to-year, with the mid-size chambers more likely to see budget expansion. Chamber revenue sources have not changed much over the last few years.
Diversify or Die?
The data from the Hight and ACCE surveys only tell part of the story. Anecdotally, chamber leaders are reporting a need to constantly work on diversifying revenue streams. Several chambers in upstate New York now have staff members who are licensed and certified to sell health insurance under the state’s new exchange. While the ACCE Operations Survey indicates that most small and mid-size chambers rely heavily on dues, Laura Lane, president of the Livingston County (NY) Area Chamber of Commerce, reports that her organization has 40 percent of its budget coming from government funding for tourism and 15% from a health insurance program.
Canadian chambers have similar challenges with flat membership counts. Unlike chambers of similar size in the U.S., who often increase revenue opportunities through economic development and CVB activities, many Canadian chambers have seen a decrease in such sources. “In Ontario, the government has taken over much of the ED and tourism activities,” says Stuart Harrison, president of the Peterborough Chamber of Commerce. “So much of our revenue now comes from trade shows, travel programs, and leasing office space. Last year alone, leases brought us about $60,000.”
Walt Page, executive director of the Fentress County Chamber in rural Tennessee, says his chamber receives 80 percent of its funding from government sources for CVB activities and contracts tied to supporting a small pool of manufacturers. “We’ve figured out innovative ways to generate revenue from non-traditional sources like the internet,” says Page. “Year-to-date, we’ve earned $7,500 from Google AdSense for viewers’ clicks on our web banner that promotes Fentress County.”
The OnlineMBAPage.com rated the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce 13th in its 2013 Top 100 Social Media Friendly Chambers in the U.S. It’s the only California chamber in the top 20. This is no surprise to David Nydegger, president, an 18-year industry veteran. “While other chambers chased after affinity programs, our team ventured into publications and online advertising,” he said. “We were an early adopter of technology and started offering web banners and online advertising several years ago when we converted to WebLink. We continue to earn advertising revenue from online and print sources.”
Butts In Seats
Attendance revenue, whether for large events or small training opportunities, seldom generates net income for the chamber, especially after covering the cost of staff time related to the programs. Yes, many events offer genuine value for members, making them critical for membership retention. They also provide opportunities for sponsor support, which actually adds to a chambers’ bottom line.
Events vary so widely, from regional community-focused programs (festivals, home shows, etc.) to traditional membership centered gatherings (award dinners, business-after-hours, etc) that it is hard to quantify the value and financial impact they have on chambers as a whole. Computing averages or trends is an unproductive exercise, but sharing and identifying “winner” programs to emulate makes great sense. Virtually every chamber we spoke to and surveyed reported that events were a part of their funding stream.
Mission-Based Resource Development
Most chambers generate revenue from non-dues sources, but among them are some who attract revenue to support companies and the economy of the region. John Seymour, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce in Alabama, is a 30-year chamber boss who has seen a shift from generating money from community-wide events to a focus on economic development initiatives, education attainment and programming focused primarily on employers. “The most significant change I’ve seen since I’ve been in the industry is that we’re no longer afraid to focus on things that need to be done in our community, rather than on popular products,” Seymour says. “We take a leadership position on advocacy and ED and don’t really worry so much about funding sources. Our investors and members support us to get things done, and we don’t nickel and dime them.”
Larger metro chambers generate most of their non-dues revenue from economic development campaigns and investors who support their long-term initiatives. John Moore, president of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, was inspired after reading the Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton. He embarked on the creation of a “Committee of 100” to respond to the strategic question: What can we work on that will have the greatest impact on Memphis’ growth (workforce, entrepreneurship, etc.)? These investors (he’s already up to 92) were asked to kick in $25,000 above their fair-share dues level.
In the past, Moore said, “the government led economic development initiatives with private sector support. Now the initiatives are led by the private sector with public sector support. The chamber provides the opportunity for an influential group of change-makers to convene. The chamber is now a vehicle for transformational leadership and the staff executes on their plan.”
What conclusions can we draw from our research and ACCE’s? Although revenue sources haven’t changed dramatically over the last few years, chambers across North America continue to depend less and less on traditional fare-share dues checks. The trend in the present, and probably for the future, is a combination of non-dues revenue flowing from sources other than attendance. Many larger and mid-size chambers are moving more toward investor revenue tied closely to their missions as advocates for economic advancement. Smaller organizations may be moving in that direction as well, but they will probably continue to depend on funding derived from strong programming, valued affinity programs and government contracts related to tourism. For all chambers, the drive to new technology across all sectors of the economy will push them toward tech solutions of their own. The mission to serve communities and employers won’t change, but the methods and funding to do so will never stop changing.
Cathi Hight is president of Hight Performance Group and has more than 20 years of experience in performance improvement. She works with chambers of commerce to align their membership models, benefits and organizational structure with their strategic direction. Contact Cathi at (512) 354-7219 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Gina M. Spagnola
Look for lemon shortages the first Sunday in May
as Lemonade Day spreads to more communities.
Galveston weather the first Sunday in May was breezy and warm, a beautiful day that I spent visiting lemonade stands. Yes, drinking 35 cups of lemonade was all in a day’s work! It was the 2nd Annual Lemonade Day Galveston.
As I drove around the city, it looked like the entire island had been doused in yellow, with more than 500 lemonade stands, most of them painted yellow, and hundreds of citizens wearing yellow in support of 700 entrepreneurial kids.
Lemonade Day is about business. The kids learn how to start, own and operate their very own business: a lemonade stand. They learn valuable life skills such as setting goals, making and working a plan, earning their own money and achieving their dreams. May 5 was the day to put those lessons to work, and they were excited.
I stopped at as many stands as I could to cheer them on and buy lemonade. In addition to teaching sales, marketing, customer service, product development, budgeting, and business location considerations, we encouraged the kids to:
- spend some of their profits
- save some
- share some by giving back to the community
If you google the word “lemonade,” you get 11 million hits; “lemonade stand” returns less than seven million, but “lemonade day” gets 45 million.
Lemonade Day was conceived by philanthroper Michael Holthouse, founder and president of Paranet Inc., a small computer network services company that he grew in six years to a $100 million business which he ultimately sold to Sprint in 1997. The Holthouse Foundation for Kids focuses on at-risk youth, teaching life skills and entrepreneurship. Lemonade Day, a 14-step process for aspiring entrepreneurs, was launched in Houston in 2007 with 2,600 kids participating. In 2013 some 200,000 kids were involved in Lemonade Day in 50 cities across the U.S. and Canada. The goal is one million kids in 100 cities.
I had received an email more than two years ago asking if the chamber would be interested in producing Lemonade Day Galveston. As a busy chamber executive, mother, wife, friend and community volunteer, I reminded myself that I couldn’t do everything, so I quickly filed the email away. But I couldn’t get Lemonade Day out of my head—or my heart.
The next day I reviewed the email and began researching the program. I wanted to hear about it from kids who had been involved, so I dug a little deeper. As I watched the kids’ online testimonies, I realized that we had to bring Lemonade Day to Galveston Island. My board of directors agreed 100 percent. My staff, always thinking outside the box, knew this event had our name written all over it. Businesses lined up for sponsorships and support. The mayor, city council and volunteers were committed and passionate about empowering today’s youth to become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. They understood that sparking dreams by building lemonade stands could help fuel growth in Galveston for years to come.
The entire community embraced the concept and stepped up to educate our youth about how to become entrepreneurs. Our future leaders were mentored and supported by members of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce and the business community.
I’ve been producing events for 30 years, and I’ve never before seen an event with the power to connect and unite a community like Lemonade Day. Our local sponsors, schools, non-profit organizations and businesses partnered in a way that was unique to this program, which truly made an impact on the lives of kids all across Galveston Island. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am that we said yes to Lemonade Day Galveston, which has been recognized for excellence by the Texas Chamber of Commerce Executives and the American Chamber of Commerce Executives.
Gina M. Spagnola, IOM, is president of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce and city director of Lemonade Day Galveston. If you’re interested in bringing Lemonade Day to your community, contact her at email@example.com or (409) 789-5906. Learn more at Galveston.LemonadeDay.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LemonadeDayGalveston. Or, visit lemonadeday.org.
By Lance Barry
Economic development, not charitable outreach, is the
strategy for Cincinnati’s Minority Business Accelerator,
a model program for diversity and inclusion.
A dozen years ago, when Cincinnati was mentioned in conversations, often it was for the wrong reasons. Rioting and racial tension between police and the black community had left the city scarred and divided. But today’s Cincinnati is a better place for all, largely due to the hard work of many in our community, including the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and its Minority Business Accelerator (MBA.)
The MBA celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, counting not only its success in Cincinnati, but also the fact that it’s being used as a model for economic inclusion across the country.
The role of Cincinnati’s MBA is to foster the growth of local minority-owned businesses and to expand the region’s minority entrepreneurial community. By developing minority-owned businesses, the organization helps to build a more competitive supply chain for corporations here and beyond our region, while creating jobs and growing investments in our community.
The MBA provides a number of services to help prepare minority business enterprises for growth:
- strategic planning and financial services
- ongoing efforts to provide access to potential capital opportunities
- business support
- education and networking opportunities
In addition to priming minority businesses for advancement, the MBA encourages mutually beneficial business relationships between minority business enterprises on the supply side, and the corporate community and the private sector on the demand side.
“Ten years ago, our leadership recognized the widespread advantages that successful minority-owned businesses deliver across the board,” said Crystal German, vice president of economic inclusion for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. “We purposefully chose not to view minority business development as charitable outreach, but as a true economic development strategy. Making the supply chain more competitive for corporations and creating jobs for our community is imperative to our region’s economic vitality.”
German also is founding chair of ACCE’s Diversity & Inclusion Division, which has more than 300 members and is growing. It was formed in 2011 and provides networking and best practice sharing for chamber leaders seeking practical ideas on diversity, inclusion and minority business development.
Businesses that participate in Cincinnati’s Minority Business Accelerator must be committed to investing time, energy and resources to grow their companies and the region, and they are selected based on several criteria:
- Revenue performance: Firms must have generated at least $1 million in revenue in the previous 12 months and demonstrate their ability to have greater than 10 percent future growth.
- Strength of management and operating teams
A Growing Trend
After 10 years, Cincinnati’s MBA boasts impressive numbers. In 2012, the average revenue of MBA firms reached $29 million, and the total number of MBA firm employees reached 3,360. The number of Corporate Goal Setters, companies with established minority spend goals, reached a high of 31, and these corporations set a new record by spending $771 million with minority-businesses, compared to $594 million in 2011.
Cincinnati’s success has spawned other accelerator programs in Charlotte, N.C., Lexington, Ky., Cleveland, Dayton and Greenville, S.C.
Tyrone Tyra, vice president of community and minority business development for Commerce Lexington in Kentucky, points to the “connection” aspect of Cincinnati’s MBA as particularly appealing in building the Lexington program. “Our goal is to encourage and foster business relationships between minority businesses and the corporate community and private sector,” Tyra says. “Cincinnati’s MBA has done a phenomenal job matching the supply and demand sides, which is certainly one of the reasons we chose to model our initiative after Cincinnati’s.”
Belinda Matthews-Stenson, director of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce’s Minority Business Partnership, cites community buy-in as crucial to the process. “We began our initiative five years ago because of community-wide concern that minority businesses weren’t being included in corporate spends,” says Stenson. “My words of advice to chambers looking to build a minority initiative: Get community leaders on board. Spend the time to understand your business community and find an influential community leader to drive the process.”
Nika White, vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Greenville (S.C.) Chamber, says that establishing a network of peers who have built successful accelerators can be advantageous. “In Greenville, we’ve developed a hybrid of the Cincinnati and Charlotte minority business initiatives, and have relied heavily on guidance from those who’ve been where we are,” says White. “Don’t expect to use another chamber’s model exclusively; you’ll have to tweak it to fit your business climate. But support from those who’ve been where you are is key.”
“Every major project in Cincinnati now has an inclusion economic component,” says German, citing the construction of Cincinnati’s new Horseshoe Casino and downtown’s Washington Park renovation as two recent examples. “We also see inclusion initiatives being embraced by our community’s arts and charitable organizations, as well as the rise of the largest ethnic chamber in Ohio, the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce.”
Naturally, there have been hurdles to clear, including community buy-in and money. “Early on, we received feedback that a minority business initiative didn’t belong at a chamber of commerce,” says German. “Aside from the fact that chambers are historically non-inclusive, in Cincinnati minority firms are a small fraction of the region’s businesses. Critics questioned why the chamber would put money and resources behind such a small percentage.”
German’s predecessors had to make the case that minority business is a critical piece of the success of the region, noting that demographic shifts in national and global economies make the minority segment more important than ever.
When it came to funding, German says, “We knew it would take some money, and we found that it needs to be three-year pledges or commitments. In building funds, we had to make a strong business case for the model, while aligning it with the strategic plan of the community and the chamber. It’s about figuring where the tie-in is for the community, and determining the metrics of success.”
As for the future, Cincinnati’s MBA is charging ahead. It’s currently in the investment phase of a $2-5 million fund that will provide regional African-American and Hispanic-owned firms better access to capital. Also, The L. Ross Love GrowthBridge Fund (growthbridgefund.com), founded in memory of Cincinnati entrepreneur and philanthropist Ross Love, will provide flexible debt capital to finance growth projects of established, highly-competitive, African-American and Hispanic-owned firms in the region. Average loan size will be $175,000, and fund leaders anticipate making three to four loans per year.
“We have the channels in place to connect minority business owners to corporate supply chains, but accessing capital can be challenging,” says German. “The L. Ross Love GrowthBridge Fund will address this issue while further stimulating economic development in the Cincinnati region.”
Another goal is to increase the region’s number of minority-owned businesses. Cincinnati’s MBA currently adds three to four minority firms to its portfolio per year, a number German would like to grow. “We’ve succeeded in assisting our region’s established minority firms make the connections they need to ensure continued growth,” she says. “Now we’re increasing the focus on our start-up minority firms.”
Lance Barry is public relations manager at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.
By Jessie Azrilian
Business and Education Unite to Prepare Students for College and Career Success
In 2010 Kentucky became the first state to adopt more rigorous performance assessments for English and mathematics known as Common Core State Standards. When the first set of test results applying the new standards were released for the 2011-12 school year, the number of elementary and middle school students who were ranked “proficient” in reading and math the previous year dropped by a third.
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and Greater Louisville Inc. (GLI) viewed the new assessments, which emphasize deeper critical thinking, as a way to ensure Kentucky graduates would be more competitive in a global economy. The two chambers worked aggressively to engage the business community and alleviate anxiety among parents, teachers, employers and civic leaders by explaining that standards preparing students for college and careers should reflect international benchmarks and that achieving these objectives would take time. When the lower scores were unveiled, education stakeholders across the state were prepared for a public backlash, but were instead met with a community resolved to reach the bar that had been raised.
Kentucky’s Foundation for Education Reform
The Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), an ambitious education overhaul passed two decades ago after the State Supreme Court deemed the Kentucky education system unconstitutional, had done little over the years to improve students’ dismal English and math scores on national tests. In 2009 bi-partisan state legislation mandated that Kentucky adopt more rigorous assessment and accountability standards. At the same time, a consortium of state leaders, educators, and subject-matter experts, led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, was developing a blueprint for new academic standards for K-12 education that aligned with college readiness expectations and international benchmarks. Kentucky joined the consortium and adopted the Kentucky Core Academic Standards. Because the common core English and math standards were still in draft form, Kentucky recruited collegiate faculty and K-12 teachers across the state to review and edit the state’s new assessments and standards.
In Kentucky, early communications about common core attempted to:
- prepare the public for the initial shock from lower test scores
- alleviate parents’ concerns that their children were being forced to meet unreasonable demands
- highlight teachers’ support and frustrations as they implemented the new standards
More recently, messaging has focused on countering charges that common core standards are federally mandated (they are not) or that the government is taking local control away from the schools. (The federal government favors common core standards, but leaves curriculum and instruction decisions to states and local school districts.) As 45 states begin to roll out next generation standards and assessments based on common core, other issues will arise such as the cost of implementation and the preparedness of teachers and schools for such a large undertaking. Early adopter states like Kentucky, and the work of the Kentucky State Chamber and Greater Louisville, Inc., are models of how to unite business and education stakeholders in preparing their communities to meet education standards once the bar has been raised.
Firm Grounding in Education Issues
GLI has a longtime relationship with the Jefferson County Public School District (JCPS). GLI supported the new superintendent and worked with the school board to strategically align education competencies with the needs of the business community.
Both the Kentucky Chamber and GLI work closely with the Pritchard Committee for Academic Excellence (PCAE), a private non-profit organization that advocates transparent and accurate information regarding public school standards. In 2009 PCAE, in coordination with the Kentucky Chamber Foundation, formed Business Leader Champions for Education, a group of business leaders supporting higher standards for Kentucky’s education system.
The office of former Louisville Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson (2003-11) was highly engaged in the city’s K-12 education system. In 2008 he convened a meeting of business, education, civic, and community leaders focused on raising education attainment. In 2010 the group signed the Greater Louisville Education Commitment with the goal of adding 40,000 more bachelor’s degrees and 15,000 more associates degrees by 2020. The non-profit organization 55,000 Degrees was launched as a result of the commitment of newly elected Mayor Greg Fischer, who assumed the role of board chairman.
GE Foundation has supported college-readiness in Kentucky through a series of multi-year grants for advancing science and math achievement and for increasing graduation and college-enrollment rates. Jefferson County’s was the first school district in the country to receive GE Foundation’s Developing Futures in Education award to implement science and math initiatives. Representatives from the JCPS, GLI and the Kentucky Chamber are regular attendees of GE’s two-day business and education summit focused on the importance of providing a unified business voice about common core state standards.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding to the Kentucky Chamber Foundation to develop the chamber’s communications and business outreach campaign to build a coalition of business leaders advocating for college-and-career-ready standards and assessments in Kentucky.
Lumina Foundation supported the development of 55,000 Degrees, a public-private partnership seeking to increase education attainment by creating 55,000 more bachelors and associates degrees in Louisville by 2020.
Building a Campaign
GLI partnered with the Jefferson County Public Schools superintendent and PR department, as well as the Louisville Metro Government, to prepare a strategy to combat the potential backlash from the release of the test results reflecting the new standards. The strategy included writing op-eds, gaining parental buy-in through the local PTA, and maximizing partners’ and stakeholders’ networks and communications platforms to propel their message.
In Jefferson County, a local school board election that coincided with the common core outreach campaign provided another opportunity to influence the future of the new assessments. With three open seats to fill, GLI brought extra attention to the election by stressing in its endorsement process the candidates’ stances on reform and common core standards.
The Kentucky Chamber and the state’s Department of Education developed a statewide awareness campaign targeting employers.
- Dave Adkisson, CEO of the Kentucky Chamber, and Terry Holliday, Kentucky Education Commissioner, travelled across the state to meet with workforce investment boards, business organizations, chambers of commerce, and rotary clubs to present the case for how higher standards prepare Kentucky’s workforce to be competitive in a global economy.
- The Kentucky Chamber website features a short video with employers being interviewed on the importance of rigorous K-12 standards for workforce development, and customizable resources for businesses to use as their own. At least 3,000 employer toolkits containing templates of newsletters, letters to the editor, and issue briefs were distributed across the state to the chamber’s membership and state human resources organizations.
For both the Kentucky Chamber and GLI, two factors were critical for a successful communications campaign:
Consistent Messaging: Shortly after common core adoption, GLI worked with advocacy organizations and held focus groups to develop a communications plan that would engage education advocates and target the business community. Once talking points were developed, it was critically important to maintain a consistent message.
Tailored Communications to teachers, parents, employers and civic leaders: Both chambers approached outreach with an organized strategy to use all available networks.
- The State Department of Education distributed materials to schools. In Louisville, the local school district and PTA directed their outreach towards parents, creating PSAs, assembling information packets, and providing content and narrative for the media. The business community delivered its message through business journals, op-eds, and board meetings; GE Foundation, working with GLI, created information packets for business owners and employers.
What about your chamber?
“A key element of the new standards is that they are designed to make students ready for the workplace as well as college,” says Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “This is particularly important to Kentucky’s employers who want workers who are equipped with the skills, particularly critical thinking skills, to be internationally competitive. We strongly support these more challenging standards in Kentucky’s schools and will continue to push for their full implementation.”
Chambers are intermediaries, bridging the education and business communities in seeking a well-prepared future workforce. In leveraging their networks, community relationships and staff expertise, chambers are poised to lead the effort that will ensure America’s students are globally competitive for the first time in decades. Consider:
- Employers and business leaders lend credibility as advocates because they are the ones who depend on a skilled and competitive workforce. Harness their voices through op eds, Letters to the Editors, signed ads in business publications, and published testimonials.
- Chamber staffers who handle policy, government relations or workforce development can coordinate the effort, with the membership team leveraging their relationships and the chamber’s communications team using their networks and platforms.
- Seek outside resources for support in developing materials, covering transportation and meeting costs, supplementing staff support and providing consulting services.
- Partner with an education advocacy organization with existing relationships in your state to help propel your message.
- Reach out to your chamber peers to learn best practices and lessons from their experiences.
Jessie Azrilian is manager of ACCE’s new Education Attainment Division. For more information and to see a roster of your chamber peers engaged in education and workforce development.
Take a Broader View of Your Plan
It’s my privilege to serve as your ACCE Chairman this year. I take over leadership from Roy Williams, CCE, who did a tremendous job as our leader last year and is a rock star in the chamber world!
With more than 25 years in the chamber industry, I feel really lucky to have a job where my finger is on the pulse of my community and where I have the opportunity to make a difference. Every day I see disruptive economic forces in our marketplace, and I’m amazed how businesses respond to these impacts and are successful at adapting and changing their business models. A couple recent examples:
- Bartell Drugs, a family-owned chain of 59 drug stores that has been in business for 100+ years, was recently in our local news for serving draft beer—lots of it—on Fridays at one of their stores. Yes, this is unusual for a traditional drug store, but Bartell holds its own competing with national drug store chains on virtually every corner. How does beer mix with the drugstore business model? Amazon headquarters moved in nearby, and Amazon work teams can drink beer on Fridays. Bartell offered a growler filling station for the Amazon workers, and it was a huge hit. (A growler is a reusable jug, usually 64 ounces, that you fill at breweries or brewpubs.) Takeaway: What opportunities do we see moving into to our communities that chambers, or chamber members, should exploit?
- Outerwall, a publicly traded company you may know as Coinstar or the company that bought Redbox, was started by a local college student. He was sitting in his dorm room looking at the jar of coins on his desk and thought there should be an easy way to turn them into cash. From a grad school project a business idea was born: a machine that counts coins. Ironically, the original concept is now but a small portion of the company’s revenue. Outerwall realized its business model was automated retailing, not automated coin counting. In a partnership with Starbucks, Outerwall is rolling out thousands of coffee dispensing machines and soon will branch out to fresh food kiosks, beauty products and more. Take-away: When scanning the environment for opportunities, don’t limit yourself with your current plan or your current product, no matter how successful it is.
I’ve highlighted these examples because I’m a strong believer that as chamber leaders we need to change our business models to be sure our organizations are responsive and successful now and into the future. Every day, I look at trends and new developments, and try to analyze the impacts or opportunities. Then I use ACCE resources to benchmark my thoughts and possible strategies.
We have a tremendous national organization. It’s our key repository of best practices and actionable information for chamber leaders, and our best lookout for emerging trends that might affect our businesses, our communities and our careers. I challenge you to explore the possibilities for advancing your chamber’s mission by checking out the resources ACCE offers. From HERO (Help Expertise and Resources Online) to ACCE U online training, to mentor groups and the peer connections you can make from your desk or at meetings such as our annual convention, you have access to invaluable information.
Make sure that ACCE is your essential business partner!
President and CEO Bellevue (WA) Chamber of Commerce
ACCE Board Chair, 2013-14
By Kelly Hall, CCE
A Chamber’s First Intercity Visit
Last fall the Longview (TX) Chamber of Commerce led a delegation of business and community leaders on their first ever intercity visit. Their destination: Chattanooga, Tenn. An intercity visit, sometimes called a “leadership exchange,” is a trip to another city or region taken by a diverse group of leaders from a community’s public, private and nonprofit sectors. The visitors discuss their community’s challenges and opportunities with leaders from the host community. The interaction among leaders facilitates the exchange of best practices and lessons learned between the two cities. Kelly Hall, CCE, president and CEO of the Longview Chamber, discussed the trip with Ian Scott, ACCE’s V.P. of Communications and Networks.
What made you decide to launch an intercity visit program?
The visit was designed to inspire new ideas. We wanted to make sure our corporate and civic leaders are taking time to think creatively about the future of Longview with a 40-year time horizon. The intercity visit was designed as the annual mechanism to facilitate that kind of creative thinking. In my opinion, a chamber’s unique strength is its ability to convene all the right people needed to develop and implement a shared vision for the region. We’re using the intercity visit to facilitate visioning and shaping the future of Longview.
How did you select your destination?
First, we considered existing issues/concerns. Downtown revitalization has been a priority for our organization for more than 10 years. One of our long-term goals is to ensure we maintain a vibrant downtown. We also wanted to select a destination where our team could learn about the importance of developing a shared regional vision, building a collaborative economic development team, and fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Lastly, selecting a community with similar demographics was important. Community leaders felt they needed to visit an area that reflected our demographic makeup, only larger, but not so large that our delegation couldn’t relate.
I wanted to visit a community that has taken its own intercity visits. It was important to me that our first trip was to a community where civic leaders understand what an intercity trip is and have experienced success from the research and development process. Perhaps most important was selecting a community that knows how to tell their story!
The final decision was based on the input of our partners: the city, county and EDC. It also didn’t hurt to have leaders who had personal and professional connections with Chattanooga and had been part of the transformation process.
What did you learn that you didn’t expect?
The most important lesson we learned was not to expect. This message came through loud and clear from the mayor of Chattanooga who was part of Chattanooga’s inaugural intercity visit 30 years ago. He advised us not to approach the trip with specific goals in mind, but to explore, learn, and “allow the process to get messy.” The messiness is uncomfortable but it encourages healthy dialog that allows meaningful solutions to emerge. We resolved to allow the process to evolve and then become strategic. Of course, this is hard to do for someone with an A-type personality.
Has anything changed since you’ve been back?
While we didn’t enter the trip with specific goals in mind, a lot has happened since we returned. We’ve contracted with MindMixer.com to launch LongviewTexasListens.com, a moderated online forum that facilitates a two-way conversation about key issues. We think this will be a more effective tool than town hall meetings to shape and ultimately win public buy-in for our emerging regional vision.
Also since our visit, the city has appointed an I-20 Task Force to begin addressing redevelopment along the interstate corridor. Our past chairman, who helped champion the intercity visit process, was asked to chair the task force—a perfect example of how strategic alignment works.
Anything new planned for your next trip?
For our visit to Fort Collins, Colo., this fall we plan to add break-out group sessions on more specialized topics such as how to fund redevelopment, affordable housing, zoning and healthcare. After seeing an innovative community bike-share program in Chattanooga, we’re exploring how to become a bicycle-friendly community. As a group we’ll dig deeper into how to enhance our community brand. It’s imperative as we shape the future of Longview that we remain true to the brand and create experiences that stimulate commerce with a vibrant downtown, fun tourism activities and successful redevelopment efforts.
One thing we’ll be sure to keep from last year’s trip is an opening dinner where we assign seats to pair up board members, city department heads and elected officials with their counterparts in our host city. That produced some great knowledge sharing and started us off on the right foot.
Any words of advice for other chambers considering this kind of program?
Plan, plan, plan. I can’t overemphasize the amount of prep time one of these trips takes. They can’t be thrown together. Involve your staff early in the process and learn to delegate. Expect to spend lots of time developing the program with key stakeholders, staff, and the community you are visiting. I leaned heavily on ACCE’s Guide to Intercity Visits and the Regional Planner from Hamilton County, Tenn.
Also, budget time to research your community. It’s important to know the history of your community’s planning process as well as the progress that has been made over the past 20+ years. We produced a “looking back” historical prospectus and a demographic cheat sheet that attendees loved and used throughout the trip. This piece allowed attendees the opportunity to reflect and contrast data with the host community.
Be mentally and emotionally prepared to return feeling overwhelmed and invigorated. Your leadership will have seen first-hand opportunities they want to become a reality tomorrow. Consider having strategies in place to help direct conversations so your organization doesn’t move into “fix it” mode before your community has had a chance to conduct meaningful research.
Finally, I strongly suggest that you join another chamber’s intercity visit to see one executed first-hand. Better yet, take your chairman or chair-elect with you so they fully grasp the concept. I didn’t do this, but wish I had. And make sure your board has your back before embarking on this kind of trip because they inevitably generate some conflicts and tough questions along the way. Remember, conflict can be healthy! It encourages creative thinking which spawns innovation.
The 5-Star Accredited Longview Chamber operates the CVB and Main Street Council for Longview and manages retail and commercial development recruitment and expansion projects.
Kelly Hall, CCE, is a 26-year veteran of the chamber industry and has led the Longview Chamber for eight years. She earned the Certified Chamber Executive distinction in 2010 and currently serves on the ACCE Board of Directors.