BRITISH COLUMBIA – One of the more subtle casualties of the Covid Pandemic has been membership in Chambers of Commerce throughout the province.
When the business organization decided to shift its marketing messages towards networking, it sounded good. However, by doing so and backing away from an emphasis on speaking up for its members to various levels of government, it placed the Chamber in a precarious position. Not only did it abandon its strongest raison d’etre, it put it into competition with numerous business organizations that existed solely to provide networking opportunities that pay directly back to participants in terms of meaningful relationships and solid leads.
Groups like Business Network International, the Capital City Executives Association and Nanaimo Executives Association and the Okanagan Business Referral Group, Connect Kelowna, Kamloops Networking Association and others have proven they are champions in providing tangible, direct payback to members for their time and dues. The reason they exist is to meet other business owners, managers and salespeople to share ideas and, most importantly, information about new opportunities coming to their area. An “early warning system”, so to speak, giving other members a chance to make key contacts with projects before they are made fully public.
These groups aren’t threatened by Chamber announcements of network event expansion. They’re already too far down the road and hold major advantages when it comes to providing the service to members. They are closed groups as well, and typically limit participation to one business per sector, ensuring that members don’t have to compete with other members for the same business.
One group our company was involved with was so good at it, they referred to a section of the membership as “the cartel”, as numerous businesses worked collectively to present their services to prospective clients, an unofficial “group buy”, where members were comfortable working together, and were set up to provide much of what the client needed in terms of products and services.
Conversely, Chamber-style networking differs in that it is an open forum, allowing for attendees to meet other companies in hopes of fostering business. It can be effective, but anyone is allowed to attend – as they should – which means there is no exclusivity, or pre-screening. Even if a contact is made at a meeting, they would need to be vetted in terms of suitability for future work or referrals. That has already been done in the aforementioned groups.
Chambers are positioned so they can attract larger, random crowds, something that can be obtained by using its reputation to bring in high profile speakers. The quality of the speaker obviously has a direct effect in the size of the crowd, and what federal or provincial cabinet minister would pass up a chance to address any city’s most recognizable business organization?
When Covid restrictions prohibited public meetings, public organizations like the Chamber were at a standstill as they couldn’t meet. Other groups found a way, through Zoom or email, to continue to operate, generate and share leads – because that’s what they do.
So then, if networking was what the Chamber offered as its most valuable asset and meetings weren’t allowed, why would a company continue to pay membership dues? Many did not, and the resulting downsizing and staff to reflect smaller revenues and activities was inevitable. Many Chambers have not fully recovered.
If they’re looking to return to prominence, choosing the networking route is arguably not the best decision – because that isn’t the strongest suit the Chamber has to play.
That card is advocacy, plain and simple. No other organization is suitably positioned to speak on behalf of its members to anti-business and governments who ensnare and prohibit commerce on several levels. Just by the sheer number of the company members they represent, as well as the jobs they create, a clearly voiced statement from what is typically the longest-serving and respected business organization in the area cannot be ignored or brushed aside by politicians or bureaucrats.
Here is where the Chamber can shine brightest. If one or a handful of members have an issue with city hall, for example, they recognize that speaking up on their own could potentially limit their opportunities for future business with the city. If, however, the Chamber speaks on behalf of the entire business community, the volume can be as deafening as necessary, and the individual members can hide behind the Chamber carrying the torch. It’s Three Musketeers in real time: All for one, one for all.
Business networking groups cannot make those stands. It’s not why they exist. Chambers can, and innumerable examples have demonstrated what happens when they do.
Taxes are reduced. Needless restrictions are removed. Red tape is cut. Political persuasions are minimized. Governments change course.
It takes courage to take the stance as an advocate, but it is well worth it. Groups like the BC Construction Association and the Canadian Taxpayers Association have been doing an excellent job speaking robustly to government about real economy-squeezing problems, and their memberships are evidence of their effectiveness.
But who is doing that at the local level? If the Chamber of Commerce isn’t, which group is ideally positioned to zero in and speak to critical situations in their own backyard? It isn’t likely that any politician or bureaucrat is going to have the intestinal fortitude to slam the door in the face of someone speaking for 300, 500, 800 or more local business people and the jobs they create.
Chambers of Commerce, here’s the most potent weapon in your arsenal: Speaking up for those who cannot. Use it, and you’ll not only benefit existing members, but you’ll undoubtedly attract new ones when you demonstrate in real time why it’s important to belong to your group.
Mark MacDonald is President of Communication Ink Media & Public Relations Ltd. and Author of the book “It Worked For Them, It Will Work For Me: The 8 Secrets of Small Business I Learned From Successful Friends”, which can be obtained by reaching him through: firstname.lastname@example.org