Survival skills top chambers
Facing the prospect of tougher renewals and tougher times recruiting new members, tri-county chambers of commerce are trying to help more than 10,000 businesses weather the recession.
That’s the result of an informal survey of Chamber leaders conducted by the Business Times in early December. The presidents acknowledged the severity of the economic downturn, but they all said they were confident their organizations will be able to guide member businesses through tough times.
“Like most chambers, we’re experiencing a slowdown on membership renewals,” said Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Hatch. “I think people are being very cautious about spending because of the economy.”
Some chambers are rolling out new services to attract and retain members. Others have turned to community activism to validate their role as pro-business organizations.
Nancy Lindholm, president and CEO of the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce said her organization celebrated its landmark 100th anniversary, with a major effort to reach out to chamber members.
“We really ramped it up a lot more in the past quarter,” Lindholm said. “When we discovered that our members wanted to know more about labor laws and technology and other business-related topics, we started doing a lot more seminars that focused on those topics.”
In fact, most chambers have made efforts to provide low- or no-cost small business education seminars to their members. San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Garth said his chamber is also offering workshops “now more than ever.”
“Especially in times like these when businesses are more susceptible to litigation, we want to offer seminars on things like employment,” Garth said. “We feel like this is a very valuable and much-needed service that we can provide for our members at a reasonable cost.”
Events added to agenda
The Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce is also adding to its events lineup. In addition to the popular after-hours mixers and seminars on public policy and disaster preparedness, a monthly members’ networking breakfast will be offered, starting Feb. 3.
“In response to the economy and the changing needs in the community, we’re slating lots of new events,” said Kristen Amyx, president and CEO of the Goleta Chamber. “Half a dozen companies have already stepped forward to sponsor the first six months of the new Business-to-Business Breakfast.”
The Camarillo Chamber recently offered a series of discounts and membership enhancement programs under a campaign called H20.
Others chamber leaders, like Hatch, are putting just as much emphasis — if not more — on expanding and reinforcing their existing programs.
“The Santa Maria Chamber isn’t handling anything differently,” he said. “We want to keep everything as straightforward as it can be, so we’re still just pushing our big, ongoing ‘Shop Local’ campaign, which is helping sales tax revenue stay in the community where we live.”
Garth said businesses should be careful about when and where they hang Shop Local signs.
“Shop Local is a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s great for local business – most of the time – but you don’t want the signs to deter shoppers who aren’t local. That’s how you lose business.”
Election results impact
Lindholm said Oxnard came close to losing quite a bit of business last month, had no-growth initiative Measure V been approved in the Nov. 4 election. The measure would have used sharp curbs on traffic volume to limit growth and development in the largest city in the Tri-Counties.
“We campaigned really hard against that,” she said. “We donated time and money and facilities, and we were overjoyed when it didn’t pass. We’re still celebrating and may do so for months and maybe years to come.”
Lindholm said her organization’s role in defeating Measure V brought in some new members and she expects her membership to post a small increase over the 735 it reported at the end of 2007.
The Goleta Valley Chamber was also relieved when the election results were announced. The chamber members had crossed their fingers that Measure A would pass, allowing for the extension of a sales tax to fund the expansion of Highway 101 and other projects across the county.
“That was such a relief to us,” Amyx said. “I don’t know what we would have done. We needed that freeway widened to open up the transportation corridor. Now we’re assured of countywide circulation of goods, services and employees.”
“During economic highs, businesses come to us to get ideas on how best to grow and expand,” Amyx said. “But they come to us during times like these too, and that’s when we get back to basics. So in a way, bad economies tend to make us more effective. So we get business during the good times and the bad.”
Garth agreed, insisting that whatever looms on the horizon is manageable, provided the business community handles it in the right way.
“After 34 years at the SLO Chamber, I’ve seen my fair share of troubles,” he said. “I’ve been through three or four recessions, and although this one seems different, I think we’ll do OK.”
“Even though there’s less disposable income to go around, I think most Central Coast businesses have enough wherewithal to withstand the situation,” agreed Hatch.
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