Opportunities for Chambers to Evolve as World, Businesses Adapt to the ‘New Normal’

What do you think the chamber industry and the “new normal” will look like when we come out of this?

Mary Beth Sewald
President and CEO
Las Vegas (NV) Chamber

Who could have imagined just two months ago we would be where we are today? This thing called COVID-19 has changed our world.

Today the Vegas Chamber is fundamentally different than it was two months ago. It’s different today than it was last week. Our business model is changing every day and we are exhausting all means to stay ahead of the needs of Nevada businesses.

As I look at the Chamber and assess the situation, I consider three things. First, the responsibility to balance the financial health of the organization. Second, maintaining the Chamber’s ability to deliver on our brand promise. “Nevada thrives when Nevada businesses thrive. Cultivating growth and prosperity is our purpose.” Third, balancing the staffing levels and resources and rebuilding for the “New Chamber Future.”

We have identified opportunities to cut expenses completely, defer payments to vendors we are temporarily not using—and even vendors we are using now. In addition to the “normal” reductions, we are also assessing how the Chamber will look in the future. Other things we are developing to create a different cost structure moving forward.

Some events will continue to be in person like our signature government affairs “Eggs & Issues,” which is host to the Nevada delegation and attracts 500 people per event. Some events will go online, and some will go away completely. We have identified new ways to have social events through online platforms and different “rooms” where people can mix and mingle online. We are monetizing these online events as demand for information and socialization is at an all-time high.

Internally, some accounting procedures have changed. We are cross training every position and identifying backup roles. Our team is creating new standard operating procedures and best practices across every department and documenting them so they can be memorialized as we go.

Financially, we explore four scenarios: short-term and longer-term, from best case to worst case, over approximately the next year. What we thought prudent last week is different this week, and I expect that to be the case indefinitely. We crafted a budget reforecast and a phased approach matrix to further address a possible increased negative downturn with those four scenarios and their corresponding solutions over time.

The intent of these strategic scenarios is to ensure that the Chamber not only weathers this storm, but emerges stronger, more efficient and more robust on the other side of this pandemic.

Jake Mangas
President and CEO
Redding (CA) Chamber

The WACE Brand Initiative charges us as chambers of commerce to live by the code of the 3 C’s: Convener, Catalyst and Champion for our business community. It can be easier said than done. You know those time-intensive “sacred cows” that prevent us from truly embracing the higher calling of influencing positive change, otherwise known as annual events? Many of them have been postponed or canceled, thanks to a new “C” word—COVID-19.

I think this presents an opportunity. We should stop chasing a few dollars and instead be grabbing our ice axes and crampons and guiding our business community up the mountain like the Sherpas we were designed to be. This health crisis and subsequent economic crisis have forced us to pivot as chambers of commerce. Now is the time to ask the hard questions made easier by the financial pressures to keep our own chambers open. What is our MVP (Minimum Viable Product)? Who can we strategically partner with to help our business community to survive the crisis of the moment and ultimately recover in the months ahead?

I believe that this unprecedented time has given us a gift. That gift is to see what we should have been doing all along and what we now must do going forward, and that is to be the business organization that leads, steps into the arena, and charges forward courageously when those around us are paralyzed by the anxiety that comes from the uncertainty which surrounds us. It is easy to be the local chamber when times are good. Now is the time to earn the respect that comes with showing that you are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure your community emerges stronger, like gold tested by fire.

Maria Salinas
President and CEO
Los Angeles Area (CA) Chamber

In a period of unprecedented disruption and many unknowns, as a chamber executive, one thing is clear: the chamber industry is a sought-out partner in applying critical thinking and facilitating real-time collaboration to address business sustainability and recovery. Chambers have demonstrated they are the trusted partners and that large and small businesses, government, philanthropy and education systems turn to us for guidance and support. In this current health emergency, chambers have been the voice of reason, quick to respond with insight and advocacy, and a thought leader in considering economic implications in recovery.

We’ve reflected on the “new normal” for business and our economy and we know that it will drive the “new normal” for our chamber organizations. Our members look to us for leadership in the here and now and in what may be lurking around the corner. How do we make sure that we are not only prepared, but strong enough to weather the next crisis and to lead business in any crisis? Our collective goal should be to build resilient business communities.

As we re-imagine our work, we must consider the health and safety of our employees, the collaboration in our advocacy work, and embedding technology in convenings.

Our employees are our greatest asset and ensuring that they are healthy and able to be in a safe environment will be of paramount importance. Our path to reopen will mean that we consider the health and safety aspect in everything that we do, meeting with members, holding programs and events. Implementing health and safety standards into our daily work will become the norm.

Collaborating with statewide and national business organizations has proven to be of great value. We benefit from information, resources and best practices from our fellow chambers and business organizations, enriching our relationships and strengthening the business voice. The chamber industry is the watchdog for our business community. With intentional collaboration and partnership, we can assure our valued members that they are well-represented, and their voice is being heard on a larger platform, a new norm.

Can technology lead to a “chamber on-demand” model? As we grappled with virtual convenings in the early days of this health crisis, these new virtual forums gave us the opportunity to bring members together who would have been limited by distance or time. With the use of technology, we have opened the doors to reach the next generation of leaders, and offered access to state and national leaders, and subject matter experts to provide in-the-moment information. We found that our webinars, virtual mixers and recorded content can augment the engagement with our chamber, a new norm to engage with our community.

The new normal will continue to evolve, but at its foundation, it will be about how we perform. Solutions. Collaboration. Leadership. We are the trusted partner for businesses and our communities to navigate to success going forward.

Shannon Buckmaster
Chehalem Valley (OR) Chamber

When our industry emerges from pandemic-related challenges to our “new normal,” we’ll hopefully have embraced several opportunities for evolution: we’ve released archaic and irrelevant technology or “rules” for professional engagement; we’ve created flexible systems that are quickly responsive to the actual needs of our businesses; we’ve engaged the humanity and psychological strengths of the services we provide; and, most important, we’ve unapologetically and thoroughly justified our chambers of commerce as critical economic and advocacy champions.

The work we’re doing now is shifting the perceived value of our organizations and cleaning up our financial practices so that we are financially solvent with the most mission-driven revenue sources.

John Brewer
President and CEO
Billings (MT) Chamber

There are a wide range of potential “futures” for our organizations based on actions we take today and how we prove our worth during this crisis. As conveners of leaders and influencers, we need to be positioned to remotely and virtually solve challenges such as retraining workforce, advocating for business-friendly candidates and municipal funding. Remote work and social distancing are weaving into some level of permanency in our society.

The pandemic has created an info-demic that can paralyze small businesses. Chambers will be well-positioned as trusted and honest sources of information business need to survive.

The value of Main Street businesses has been elevated. 85% of the 8,700 businesses in our county are small businesses. The impact of their temporary closures has been felt by every citizen and awareness of how small businesses affect our economy, employ our neighbors and define our unique community character is stronger than ever. We are finding new ways to elevate their value while connecting them with opportunities to thrive.

We are addressing how best to monetize virtual connections, provide value through our remote networks and adapt to a new landscape for events to tell our story and secure programmatic revenue. As with our members, I believe chambers with a strong entrepreneurial spirit and ability to pivot (not once or twice, but frequently) will thrive.