All too many of us experience the pain in working with an outdated program or outdated branding but discovering just what the community needs can feel like an insurmountable task for even a seasoned chamber exec.
Chris Romer, President/CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, experienced this same discontent. His chamber and the local economic development people sat down and mapped out a program that works for their community. It addresses the unique needs of a tourism area and focuses on bringing year-round growth to its area businesses and 868 members.
Here’s what he had to say about chamber programming, the unique needs of tourism, and how chambers need to think like startups. Get your pencils out. You’ll want to take some notes.
No one has time for programs that don’t resonate with the community so how does a chamber professional figure out what topics and offerings are the best fit for the membership?
So many of us the Chamber industry lament that our members don’t utilize our programs and benefits, yet few of us take the necessary step back to look at our programming from the eyes of our members and stakeholders.
I’d opine that our industry needs to look at our programming in much the same way that many tech start ups and other providers do (think Uber or AirBnB) and provide solutions to problems. In our case, it’s problems facing our business community. We need to look external and ‘fill the gaps’ that exist in the marketplace by developing relevant programs that meet a need.
As outlined in the Horizons Initiative from ACCE and on the Chamber Pros Facebook group, it’s clear we can’t continue to offer the ‘same old, same old’ and expect positive results moving forward – chambers need to reinvent themselves to ensure relevancy with a new demographic and in a new marketplace that relies less on traditional bricks and mortar and more on online providers.
What’s been your most successful chamber programming and why?
We run a variety of programs, many of which are unique to our organization/community (including our Lodging Quality Assurance Program https://www.vailvalleypartnership.com/signature-programs/lodging-quality-assurance/ and our MyPartner Career Network http://vailvalleymeansbusiness.com/about/services/mypartner-career-network/), but our most successful program is probably Vail Valley Economic Development, our economic development program.
Economic development efforts were floundering when we initiated our regional economic development programming; it had been stagnant for a number of years, with no significant momentum or outputs. We were invited to the table in an attempt to add new energy to the effort; within one year, it was determined that Vail Valley Partnership should be the home to our regional economic development efforts – the county and all municipalities supported this change.
This programming was historically reactive, and frankly mediocre; we initiated a variety of community focus groups, a new advisory council, and led a community effort to re-brand the effort under the Vail Valley Economic Development moniker (http://www.vailvalleymeansbusiness.com). This rebranding effort was an eight month process, led by industry, to redefine our community as a place to do business – not just a place to vacation. Vail Valley Means Business focuses on storytelling, with a variety of business profiles, and has a variety of business resources and tools for prospective and current businesses.
The economic development programming has grown and evolved to include a full business retention & expansion program, a trailing spouse referral network, and data tools for businesses. The business community has found great value in the resources and programming and our voice has expanded at the regional and state level.
The great benefit of the program is the value to the business community, and the voice our community now has at a regional and state level. In many ways, it is our “stake in the ground” showing meaningful work in the realm of economic vitality and advocacy for our community.
What should a chamber professional do when they think a program is no longer serving their membership? What are the steps involved in deciding whether it should be sunsetted or revamped?
I’d suggest that all programs operated by a Chamber need to be mission focused and aligned with the needs of the business community we serve. There are many tools available to determine the needs of your community (surveys, focus groups, ambassadors) and it is incumbent upon Chamber execs to ensure our programming is relevant and that our organizations are service-driven.
Service mapping is a tool that can help determine if a program needs to be eliminated, or if the program needs to be adjusted and evolved. Service mapping is essentially looking at programs or services from the perspective of the user, and outlining the pain points that impact service delivery. A chamber program can easily be applied to a service mapping scenario: What is the program? Who is the target audience? How is it being delivered? When and where is it being offered?
By using a service map, Chambers can quickly determine if a program or event is fundamentally flawed (program no longer meets the needs of the stakeholders, or the target audience is getting the value more efficiently through another channel), or if a program needs to be tweaked (the day/time the program is offered conflicts with another industry event, or the target audience wants it delivered in a different way).
The key question that can be addressed is “why are we doing this program?” If it’s for the good of the chamber (we’ve always done it!), it’s probably time to sunset the program. Alternatively, if it’s done to meet industry/community needs, it’s probably worth revamping it. Regardless, it’s all about the members and their needs.
What do you expect chamber programming to look like in the future? If someone wanted to get ahead of the trend what would you suggest they look into?
Specific to programming, I’d expect Chambers to “fill in the gaps” by identifying key areas that are not being fulfilled by other groups. Fortunately, this plays into our hands well as efforts including advocacy will play a bigger role in keeping us relevant and meaningful. Chambers are also uniquely positioned to facilitate and convene various groups – public, private, industry, non-profit – to tackle important issues facing our communities. Chamber programming in the future will likely center around the chamber as the community convener and facilitator, bringing stakeholders to the table to address hard issues (broadband, affordable housing, transit) that impact the business community.
The Horizons Initiative from ACCE addresses some key challenges and opportunities facing Chambers moving forward. It should be required reading for all chamber execs as it raises some hard questions and will give people a look into industry trends. It’s a must-read for chamber execs.
Chris Romer, IOM
Romer is President & CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership (VVP). Vail Valley Partnership is the regional chamber of commerce, which supports local businesses and strengthens the community by leading collaborative efforts between business owners, chambers and associations, and elected officials. As President & CEO, Romer leads the Partnership team to help positively impact the community via various programming, economic development, and tourism endeavors.