Chambers of Commerce Face the Same Challenges as Their Members

Coping with a Changed Landscape

Kate Phelon says she misses her members.

Claudia Pazmany recalls the early days of this crisis, when she was bought to tears on an almost daily basis by the stories related to her by devastated business owners.

Nancy Creed says it’s become her mission to provide members with comprehensive and reliable information as they try to navigate their way through a crisis the likes of which they’ve never seen before.

Collectively, these chamber of commerce directors — Phelon in Westfield, Pazmany in Amherst, and Creed with the Springfield Regional Chamber — spoke not only for each other, but for colleagues across the country as chambers confront COVID-19.

And ‘confront’ is certainly the right word.

Indeed, as individual chambers work to keep members informed and assist them with the task of keeping the doors to their businesses open (figuratively if not literally — many of them have been ordered closed), they are in what amounts to survival mode themselves, especially since they are not at present eligible for federal stimulus money, though they’re lobbying to be included in the next stage of funding. And some of them may not, in fact, survive.

“I was on a call recently with our national association,” Creed recalled. “And they were saying that they expect 25% of the chambers not to survive this.”

The reasons for such dire predictions are obvious. Indeed, to serve their members, chambers rely on revenue from two primary sources — membership fees and events. And both are imperiled in some ways, the latter far more than the former, although overall membership and simply collecting fees that are due are certain to be impacted by this crisis.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“I was on a call recently with our national association. And they were saying that they expect 25% of the chambers not to survive this.”

As for those events, they range from the small — monthly after-5s, for example — to the large — the annual golf tournament in Westfield or Amherst’s Margarita Madness are in that category — to those in between, like regular breakfasts and legislative luncheons. Some events have been rescheduled for later in the year, but others have simply been lost, like Westfield’s popular St. Patrick’s Day breakfast — the first time it hasn’t been held in 40 years.

“At the same time as we’re worried about our members, we’re also worried about our chambers,” Phelon said. “There’s a huge concern for the chambers — we’re not having our events, which generate much of our revenue, and many of our members are really struggling.”

On March 6, the Springfield Regional Chamber staged its annual Outlook lunch at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield. For many business leaders in the Pioneer Valley, that was the last large gathering they attended. Everything since has been wiped off the calendar; BusinessWest has no need to publish its Chamber Corners section dedicated to listing upcoming chamber events because there are none for at least several more weeks.

But while chambers work to maintain their own bottom lines, their primary function of late has been a conduit of information to members who desperately need it.

They’re doing it through their websites and webinars, through polls — the Springfield Regional Chamber has conducted a number of them — and through conference calls with state and national leaders, during which they relay questions from their members, such as a Tele-Town Hall with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, staged by the Springfield Regional Chamber on April 7.

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon

“At the same time as we’re worried about our members, we’re also worried about our chambers. There’s a huge concern for the chambers — we’re not having our events, which generate much of our revenue, and many of our members are really struggling.”

Phelon said she and other chamber leaders have taken part in regular conference calls with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; Mike Kennealy, secretary of Housing and Economic Development; and a host of other officials. It started with one call a week, and now there are two, she noted, adding that such sessions have not only provided information to the chamber leaders, but provided them a chance to convey what’s on their members’ minds.

“They want to hear from us — they want to know what the issues are,” she said. “They take all our questions, and it’s been very helpful for us.”

Meanwhile, chamber leaders have been doing a lot of listening — and that in itself has been hard.

Pazmany said Amherst, a college town with no college students and restaurants, taverns, and museums that can’t open, has been particularly hard hit.

“It’s like summer here — only it’s far, far worse than summer,” she said. “No one needed for summer to arrive this soon; many businesses in this community have been just devastated by this.”

Overall, most chambers are experiencing what their members are experiencing — an ultra-challenging time dominated by questions that are often difficult to answer.

Plain Speaking

Since the pandemic fully arrived in Western Mass., and especially since the governor ordered all non-essential businesses to close, the primary function for area chambers has been to act as a combination sounding board and conduit for information.

And the emphasis has always been on providing information that is accurate and reliable, said those we spoke with, adding that there is plenty of news, if it can be called that, which does not fall into that category.

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany

“It’s like summer here — only it’s far, far worse than summer. No one needed for summer to arrive this soon; many businesses in this community have been just devastated by this.”

“We’re trying, on a daily basis, to grab credible sources, and we really rely on the administration, because that takes rumor out of it — it comes straight from the horse’s mouth,” said Creed. “Our polls are just to get a pulse of the community so we can see what’s going on and pivot as we need to and gauge the sentiment of the business community — so it’s by no means scientific.”

Elaborating, she said her chamber has been partnering with other groups, such as the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, in an effort to inform business owners, but without overwhelming them.

“If there are other subject-matter experts out there, we want to partner with them instead of recreating the wheel,” she explained, “because there’s so much information, so much activity, that we certainly don’t want to overwhelm members — they already have enough on their plates.”

Pazmany said her chamber has created a ‘Resources for Business’ page on its website that is updated daily in an effort to help keep members informed at a time when they cannot gather in a room for a breakfast or educational seminar.

Phelon said her chamber, like all others, has been focused on providing information and connecting members to resources, which is what it has always done, except now it’s doing more of it, and that role has perhaps never been more important.

“Some chambers are putting information out daily, and we’re doing it at least weekly,” she said, adding that chambers are doing all this under unique circumstances.

“Most of us are dealing with reduced staff, some of us are working at home, some of us are in the office,” Phelon went on, noting that chambers are considered ‘essential.’ She does go into the office, but remains at least six feet away from her assistant and sanitizes the space on a daily basis.

Pazmany said her chamber, located on Main Street in downtown Amherst, has closed that office and has staffers working at home, in a nod to edicts concerning social distancing.

“We have a very small space, and we’re used to getting a lot of people in the door, and we thought that keeping the office open wasn’t the right thing to do given the circumstances,” she explained. “We like to say that, while the door may be locked, we’re open for business.”

While life has changed for chambers, it has for their members as well, certainly, and chambers are adjusting as these members struggle to keep their own doors open.

“We’re giving our members options on payments, and we’re even deferring it for 60 days,” Phelon explained, noting that many chambers are doing the same. “We understand the impact this is having on their business, and we want to be sympathetic.”

She noted that one additional challenge for chambers is that the needs of the members vary, generally with the size of the venture, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for providing assistance.

“We’ve got our very small micro-businesses that really need the help — it’s overwhelming for them; they’re struggling, and they don’t know if they’re going to make it,” she explained. “We also have major corporations that have an HR department and have significant resources, and everything in between. So it’s challenging.”

Lost Days

Beyond providing information, the other major role for chambers, historically, has been to provide networking opportunities for members. And it is this role that has been most impacted by the pandemic.

Indeed, gatherings of more than 10 people have been banned, which effectively eliminates after-5s, breakfasts, tabletop events, golf tournaments, annual meetings, legislative luncheons, and more — events staged to inform, bring members together, and generate revenue.

While some events have been pushed back or canceled altogether (like the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in Westfield), chambers are looking to create what are being called ‘virtual networking events.’

They’re not exactly like the real thing, said those we spoke with, but they do enable people to see one another and interact, even if it’s on a computer screen, rather than in a local restaurant, golf course, banquet hall, or the showroom at Mercedes-Benz of Springfield. That was the site of a large after-5 involving a number of chambers early in March, said Pazmany, adding that, in a number of ways, that seems like a long time ago.

“We had 300 people there — it was a great event,” she recalled. “Who could believe that we’re now all sequestered in our homes?”

While looking to stage some events virtually, chambers are pushing their spring events further back into the calendar year. Phelon had a legislative luncheon slated for later this month and is now eyeing June. Meanwhile, her golf tournament, that chamber’s largest fundraiser, slated for East Mountain Country Club, was set for May, but it’s now rescheduled for June 22, with the hope that this is far enough out.

Pazmany said all of her chamber’s events into June have been canceled or moved back. Margarita Madness has been rescheduled for Sept. 24, but she’s not sure if that will work.

“We thought it was a safe date, but you just don’t know,” she said. “Every day I look at all the statistics, and I can’t tell you that date is safe.”

Creed told BusinessWest that the Springfield Regional Chamber is fortunate in several respects. For starters, it was able to stage perhaps its largest fundraiser of the year, the Outlook event, before the ban on large gatherings was put in place. Also, the chamber has reserves that it has not had to tap into as yet, and it has been able to “repurpose” staff members — its events coordinator has been shifted to member-engagement duties, for example — rather than lay them off, as some chambers have.

While the Outlook lunch went on as scheduled, the Springfield Regional Chamber has been forced to move its Fire & Ice signature cocktail event, which gave area bars and restaurants a chance to shine, said Creed, noting that it was scheduled for March. The next large fundraiser is the Super 60 event, which is scheduled for mid-fall and thus has not been impacted yet.

“Our events are so diversified that, if we lost one, we would still be in good shape,” she noted.

It remains to be seen if other chambers can say the same.

Spreading the Word

Summing up the situation for the business community and the chambers serving it, Phelon again spoke for all her colleagues.

“We’re all feeling … I wish I knew the right word; we’re all feeling the pressure and the concern,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re trying to stay positive, too, thinking ‘this will pass.’ But there are so many unknowns. This is unprecedented.”

It is, and for chambers, it’s an extreme challenge that comes when they already had their full share of challenges.

Like their members, to come out on the other side, they’re going to have to be resourceful, persistent, and willing and able to find new ways to do business.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]