Part 1 of 3

Chambers face a changing climate

Business organizations fight to stay relevant

By Jennifer Smith and Chris Rotar
Posted

The American Chamber of Commerce Executives’ website (www.acce.org) defines a chamber of commerce as “an organization of businesses seeking to further their collective interests, while advancing their community, region, state or nation. Business owners in towns, cities and other territories voluntarily form these local societies/networks to advocate on behalf of the community at large, economic prosperity and business interests.”

Some other basic information about chambers, as detailed on the website:

• Membership: “Membership rolls in a given North American chamber can range from a few dozen firms to more than 20,000, so there is no real ‘average’ or typical chamber of commerce.”

• Service territory: “The geography of any one chamber of commerce is seldom defined by any political or legal jurisdiction. More likely, the territory is defined by the catchment area of a chamber’s membership. The locations of the businesses that compose the membership tend to define the chamber’s footprint and ‘claim’ to a territory.

• Structure: “Chambers of commerce in the U.S. operate almost exclusively as non-profit entities known as 501(c)(6) corporations. Unlike charities, these 501(c)(6) non-profits have the authority under state and federal tax rules to represent their members in public policy debates. They may lobby and take positions on actual or proposed legislation, subject to local, state and federal laws.”

The front door to the community isn't what it used to be.

Newcomers to a city or town these days rarely feel the need to stop by the local chamber of commerce to pick up a map or a list of restaurants.

"I think the front door to the community is now Google, or whatever your favorite search engine is," said Dave Kilby, president and CEO of the Western Association of Chamber Executives.

Meanwhile, business professionals have more options than ever when it comes to networking — long touted as a major benefit of chamber membership, but something that today can be facilitated with the click of a mouse on sites like Facebook and Meetup.com.

And while economic development is still an important role of chambers, it is one they increasingly share with municipalities' own economic development departments.

Those are just a few of the challenges facing chambers of commerce, which must navigate a terrain altered by technology and evolutions in business and government.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge is finding a way to remain relevant.

"In this fast-paced business environment, every organization has to focus on its relevancy," said Shiley Johnson, interim CEO at the Metro North Chamber of Commerce.

"We are a collection of many businesses and industries, and the only way for us to help them remain relevant is to remain relevant ourselves."

Many chambers have learned to adapt to the new climate, but just as many haven't. Kilby said nationally there is roughly a 50-50 split when it comes to chambers that are growing and ones that are shrinking in membership.

Of the Denver metro-area chambers that responded to a May survey conducted by Colorado Community Media, the majority said they are in a growth mode. But they overwhelmingly agreed that change is coming — and is needed if the organizations are to thrive into the future and be known for doing more than merely putting out a welcome mat.

Solving problems

John Brackney spent 10 years as president and CEO of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce before resigning in March. Even before his tenure with the Centennial-based chamber, Brackney, a former Arapahoe County commissioner, looked at the organization as a vital resource.

"When I was a commissioner, it was good one-stop shop to check the mood of the business community, and a place to brainstorm," he said.

"(Today) technology has opened things up — you get (millions of) hits when you Google 'Denver business groups.' "

Brackney now works for a marketing firm that provides many of the same services chambers do, but he believes chambers will survive because they are adept at adapting.

His predecessor as South Metro's leader, Brian Vogt, now the CEO of Denver Botanic Gardens, agrees and stresses the chambers' advocacy role. Chambers, he believes, can work on the bigger picture.

"It's usually things that no business would do, that no individual organization would have the resources to do alone," he said, noting the chamber's influence in creating C-470 and the City of Centennial.

Andrea LaRew, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Highlands Ranch, says the advocacy role is being "the fearless voice for businesses" in the community.

Using that voice to strengthen the local economy is what today's chambers should be most focused on, said Kilby, whose organization represents professionals in 18 Western states, including Colorado.

"What business are the chambers of commerce really in now? I think they're in the solutions business," he said during a phone interview last week from his Sacramento, Calif., office. "The problem in your town is different than the problem in my town. When we solve that problem we strengthen the local economy and make the community a better place to live."

Worth the price?

Pam Ridler, whose 16 years of service as president of the Castle Rock Chamber of Commerce makes her one of the longest-tenured chamber leaders in the metro area, says membership fees should be considered part of a company's financial plan.

"They are an investment in your business," she said.

Depending on the size of a chamber and the level of membership a business or municipality seeks, annual dues can run anywhere from around $500 to $10,000 or more.

Colleen Mello, executive director of the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce, says businesses often choose a chamber based on need and budget.

Mello believes that small businesses often join their local chamber to help support the community. But, she said, "Larger businesses might join the larger chambers because of political reasons, like a lobbyist to represent their needs in big government."

To Kilby, that brings up a key question.

"Will a majority of businesses, especially small businesses, be willing to pay enough money to fund chambers to represent their interests with the government?" he wrote in W.A.C.E.'s April newsletter.

Kim Geiger does double duty as the senior vice president of Colorado National Bank and the owner of K Cherie Spa in Littleton. She believes chambers are beneficial for companies of any size.

"I feel like the chamber is good way to connect to the business community, as well as giving guidance to the small businesses to find the resources they need in order to make their business successful," she said. "The chamber can provide direction on marketing, advertising, local resources, consultants, events, etc. I don't think businesses use the chamber as much as they should, maybe because they don't always know how to."

Donna Russell, a board member for and founder of the Lone Tree Chamber, agrees that people do not always get what they are hoping for out of their memberships.

"According to research, the No. 1 reason members become disenchanted with their chamber membership is because they don't manage to engage once they have joined," she said.

"Our objective, then, needs to be to discover how to help them engage and help them increase their business."

But a big problem chambers face, Kilby said, is an inability to communicate just how they can help businesses. Often, they fail to illustrate the value of what they do.

Don Rosier, a commissioner for Jefferson County, which is a member of two chambers, said perception is crucial.

"Chambers that are viewed as not beneficial in the community typically falter and eventually fail," he said. "Those who provide a quantifiable service to their members and the community thrive for years."

— Amy Woodward contributed to this report.