A Different Time
Years ago, joining the local chamber of commerce was a knee-jerk reaction for a new business or a venture moving to a new community. Today, it’s far less a given, especially with the budgetary and time constraints facing all business members. To attract and properly serve members — and their communities — chambers must focus on creativity and collaboration, as we learned from several chamber leaders relatively new to their roles.
They call it ‘Run the Runway.’
Because that’s what you do.
Indeed, participants in this reincarnated version of the Greater Chicopee Chamber’s fundraising 5K road race actually run down the runway at Westover Air Reserve Base on part of the course. They traverse roughly three-quarters of the main runway’s length, turn off along one of the aprons, pass under the wing of one of the giant C-5s, and then back again.
The second edition of the event will be staged June 8, and while the inaugural run was hugely successful, this year’s version will raise the bar much higher — and probably raise considerably more money. That’s because organizers have added a large ampersand to the event logo, as well as the words ‘Festival’ and ‘Car Show.’
“This used to be a minor fundraiser, but now it’s probably our biggest,” said Jessica Roncariti-Howe, president of the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce. “And having our major fundraiser be an event that is signature to Chicopee and highlights some things are very unique to our city is really heartening to us; it’s very exciting.”
“We try very hard to stay away from the ‘mingle around the bar with a glass of wine’ model; our goal is to bring some fun to everything we do.”
Thus, Run the Runway is in many ways a solid example of changing times for area chambers of commerce and the need to adapt to these changes. In this climate, chambers are being more creative, finding ways to bring more value to members and the communities they serve, and doing far more partnering and collaborating — with other chambers, different business- and economic-development-related agencies, and civic groups.
In the case of Run the Runway, these partnerships are with Westover itself, Westover Metropolitan Airport, and the Galaxy Community Council, said Roncariti-Howe, who is one of several area chamber leaders relatively new to their assignment — she’s been at the helm for roughly two years.
For this issue, BusinessWest talked to several of the region’s new chamber leaders about their work, how it is changing in many ways, and what chambers must do to remain relevant and maintain strong membership at a time when joining such an organization is far from the given it was a generation ago.
Claudia Pazmany is another of these new chamber leaders. She took the helm at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce roughly a year ago, at a critical time in the history of the agency.
Indeed, the Amherst chamber had gone through several directors over the previous decade and had become a volunteer organization for a short time before the board handed the reins to Pazmany, a veteran development strategist and consultant — she’s worked for agencies ranging from Providence Ministries for the Needy to CHD’s Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County — with the goal of putting the chamber on far more solid footing.
She told BusinessWest her basic strategy has been to raise the chamber’s profile, inject some energy, and establish the chamber as a valuable resource for members, and she believes she’s achieving results. Those efforts are summed up nicely in the name she chose for the newsletter she distributes weekly: “In Your Corner.”
“I’ve been reintroducing the chamber to people and sending a consistent message — we’ve really upped our game with our e-contacts and e-newsletter,” she said, describing these efforts as ‘Marketing 101,’ but something that wasn’t being done at the chamber.
She added quickly that there are many challenges facing chambers today, and, more than ever, these agencies must be focused on those three letters so well-known to everyone who sells a product or service: ROI.
Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce (FCCC) since late last fall, agreed.
Szynal was looking for a challenge — and a job, really — after coming up short in her bid to succeed the late Peter Kocut, the state representative she served for many years as district representative.
She said the chamber job is in many ways a natural for her because she can easily find a number of similarities between serving constituents and serving business owners — and the communities of Franklin County.
“This was a natural progression, to trade constituents for businesses. In both cases, there’s a lot of listening and responding to what you hear,” said Szynal, adding that the FCCC will be celebrating its centennial this year, a milestone that will be marked in a number of ways.
As it looks toward the next hundred years — or even the next few years — the goal will be to continuously find new and different ways to make membership not a cost, but an investment — a challenge shared by all the area chambers.
As Roncariti-Howe talked with BusinessWest in the Greater Chicopee Chamber’s conference room, the office was noticeably quiet.
She was the only one in that moment — and in a few weeks, she noted, that would be the situation for some time to come.
Her two staff members are both leaving the agency (one is going to work in the mayor’s office), leaving Roncariti-Howe alone — and also with a chance to take a hard look at the organization and perhaps do some restructuring and reorganizing.
Indeed, she went through this same scenario roughly a year ago, she noted, adding quickly that finding, retaining, and ultimately replacing talent is just one of the challenges she’s taken on since coming to the chamber after several years spent in nonprofit management, most recently with the AIDS Foundation. And she acknowledged that she’s certainly not alone.
“I tell people I’m in their corner. I want people to know that we’re reliable, we’re consistent, and our marketing is here to support them; we’re here to highlight our members.”
Other challenges include membership — numbers are way down from years ago, when chambers were able to include health insurance to members as part of their package, and maintaining current levels is always a struggle — as well as finding new and creative ways to engage members and bring value to their participation.
Roncariti-Howe explained her work this way: “Working for a nonprofit, I always served one mission. This job gave me the opportunity to serve 300 — to figure out what helped the local business community, what made all these individual organizations tick, and how to build relationships among them and bring them together.”
To explain how she goes about all that, she summoned two words that provide some alliteration — ‘creativity’ and ‘collaboration’ — and offered a quick explanation.
“Creativity manifests in the form of creating events that are either in unique or attractive venues or have some sort of draw that’s different than what other people would typically get,” she said. “We try very hard to stay away from the ‘mingle around the bar with a glass of wine’ model; our goal is to bring some fun to everything we do.”
A few decades ago, chamber leaders didn’t have to worry much about providing fun — or about membership in general. Pazmany, like the others we spoke with, noted that, in the past, chamber membership was in many ways a knee-jerk reaction for new business ventures or those moving into a community. Today, it is anything but, especially with the time and budget constraints facing small-business owners today.
So the chamber has to make membership worth the time and expense, said those we spoke with, adding that this is being done in a number of ways, from offering resources to providing valuable content in newsletters, and creating networking opportunities that, as Roncariti-Howe noted, go well beyond a glass of wine at the bar.
“I tell people I’m in their corner,” said Pazmany, adding that her chamber lives up to the name on its publication. “I want people to know that we’re reliable, we’re consistent, and our marketing is here to support them; we’re here to highlight our members.”
Working with graduate research students at UMass Amherst, the Amherst Area Chamber, which also represents Hadley, Pelham, and other communities, has worked to fill holes on its website and update Google Analytics to provide optimal exposure for members on that website.
“Some people’s member listings are coming up higher than their own,” said Pazmany, with a large dose of pride in her voice, adding that this is one of the ways the chamber is providing value and ROI. “We want to remind people that a chamber membership can be part of their marketing plan, and if they do it well — meaning they’re networking, they’re showing up at events, they’re sponsoring an event or speaking at an event — they can really benefit.
“But they need to take full advantage of it — it’s a partnership,” she said of chamber membership. “Signing on is the easy part; it’s how you show up. You get out what you put in.”
Concepts That Are Taking Off
That’s especially true with the FCCC, which, as that acronym denotes, represents not a city or a few communities but an entire county, one populated by small and very small communities, some with fewer than 100 residents.
“We try to focus on things that can help county-wide,” said Szynal. “We focus on supporting businesses and social-service agencies — we have many of them in this region — but we also focus on tourism and especially outdoor recreation, and in doing that, we’re able to help communities across the entire county. We’re unique — most chambers are much more focused in terms of the number of communities they serve — and we have our hands full, but we’re doing it.”
And doing it largely through a focus on collaborative efforts with other agencies — because that’s how things get done in such a rural setting, she went on.
“I’ve learned there’s a huge amount of collaboration up here, more so than I’ve ever witnessed anywhere,” she explained. “Businesses and organizations really want to work together to grow the economy in Franklin County and make this a place that’s great to live and work in, and it’s very encouraging to see that; by working together, we can do so much more than we could by ourselves.”
Those sentiments bring us back to Run the Runway.
Only a few years ago, the chamber was hosting a 5K run as one of many annual fundraisers, said Roncariti-Howe, adding that, by collaborating with the Galaxy Council and other entities, it has become a much larger community event.
As noted earlier, the run is a particularly poignant example of what all chambers must do today to effectively carry out their missions — collaborate, be creative, and focus on ways to not only serve members, but strengthen the communities they serve.
The Greater Chicopee Chamber is doing that in a number of ways, said Roncariti-Howe, who had only to gesture around the conference room to get that point across.
“They need to take full advantage of it — it’s a partnership. Signing on is the easy part; it’s how you show up. You get out what you put in.”
Indeed, that room — and the outside rooms as well — were crowded with works of art as part of the Lights on Art and Culture program, which, as the name suggests, puts a spotlight on the arts by engaging local businesses, and the chamber, in displaying the works of local artists, a constituency that now includes Roncariti-Howe, who showed off one of her paintings.
“We do this quarterly, and we do something different each time,” she said, adding that the most recent offering featured live music, tours of new living units in redeveloped mills, food trucks, and more. “It’s a collaboration among the chamber, Cultural Council, city, and downtown businesses, and it’s one of the ways we support our local businesses and our community, which is an important part of our mission.”
Szynal agreed, noting again that, with the FCCC, ‘community’ means one city (Greenfield) and 25 small towns with a total population of roughly 70,000 people.
“There are differences among the communities and what their focus points are,” she said. “But they’re all unique, and they all contribute to the rich fabric here in Franklin County in their own special way, and we work to support each one of them.”
Pazmany told BusinessWest that some of her members had remarked that there weren’t enough pictures of her in “In Your Corner.”
“I told them that it’s not about me, it’s about them,” she said with a laugh. “It’s all about our members.”
It always has been, but today, that mantra is even more important than at any time in the past. And as these chamber leaders noted, it’s not about getting members, it’s about providing value to them, retaining them, and working with them to improve their community.
That’s why you can now run the runway — and many people are.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]