Chambers strive to make connections
Networking is not a lost art, business groups’ leaders say
High heels, ties knotted tight, cell phones set to silent mode.
Polite conversation permeates the room. Business cards are dealt with a smile.
Eggs, bacon, breakfast burritos.
Captains of industry sip coffee. They’re juiced.
They are gathered at a chamber of commerce function, in a town near you, in hopes of gleaning the nuggets of wisdom that can take their business to the next level.
This morning’s presentation could be on commercial real estate sales, or it could be on the need to expand public transportation. Some might say, however, that what happened in the minutes before — the handshakes, the eye contact, the heaping helpings of conversation — is the main attraction.
No doubt, networking remains vital in the business world.
But are scenarios like the one above as important as they once were?
Name tag vs. hashtag
Lakewood resident Ernie Witucki was the CEO of chambers of commerce in Colorado, Indiana and New Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s. He believes convincing chamber members to attend networking events can be a tough sell.
“It’s hard to get chamber members to break away from work,” said Witucki, who remains active in chambers in Jefferson County. “Social events are good, but you’re only reaching a very small portion of your members.
“Everybody’s in a rush today. It is tough to get chamber members to attend an event after, let’s say, 9 a.m. Once they get entrenched in their business, they try to protect their time.”
Most Denver metro-area chambers that responded to a Colorado Community Media survey say they are embracing the Internet’s role in facilitating connections.
Andrea LaRew, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Highlands Ranch, said there is no doubt the web is changing the game. She sees businesses doing more with less manpower and, like Witucki, acknowledges members’ time constraints.
“We recognize that the Internet is often the first place people go for answers,” she said. “Therefore, we have increased our online presence in an effort to meet our members’ needs.
“We are implementing new ways to engage our members through online communities, webinars, and new software that allows our members to communicate with each other.”
To Shiley Johnson, interim CEO at the Metro North Chamber of Commerce, the Internet is an essential tool if chambers are to remain relevant.
“In that regard, we have put technology to good use, creating a website that enhances our sense of community,” he said.
In addition to their own websites, chambers can use tools like Facebook and Meetup.com to broaden their reach. At the same time, those and similar online tools can be utilized by businessmen and women in lieu of chamber membership.
“The chamber is important, but there are lots of other new groups,” said John Brackney, former longtime president and CEO of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s hard to determine whether any of them are valuable or not. It’s easier to get the message out, but there are a lot of them. You get lost in all the messages.”
Keeping it real
Denver Botanic Gardens’ CEO Brian Vogt, who preceded Brackney as chief of the South Metro Chamber, can testify to the benefits of technology’s evolution.
“First, fax machines were the greatest thing ever, then the Internet. You don’t have to print so many things, like newsletters and bulletins… It’s a huge cost savings, and a huge pain-in-the-neck savings.”
Just as it can promote going green, the Internet can be a handy alternative to attending networking events in brick-and-mortar buildings. But to many, a primary benefit of joining a chamber of commerce is face time.
“While it’s true that many needs can be met on the Internet, I passionately believe that chambers of commerce will remain relevant because they are people-based,” said Donna Russell, a board member for the Lone Tree Chamber of Commerce.
“People still rely on other people. A business can create exposure for itself through the Internet, but there is only one way to bring a community together, and that’s by bringing them together and putting a face on personality, integrity and, ultimately, a professional.”
The same can be said for enticing people and businesses to town, chamber leaders say.
“Yes, people can go online and research a community,” said Pam Ridler, president of the Castle Rock Chamber of Commerce. “When they get here, though, you have to have that human connection. So we try to provide that kind of thing. How can we introduce people in the community? You can try to do it online, but to me, that isn’t long-lived.
“We create relationships.”
— Jennifer Smith and Amy Woodward contributed to this report.