Chambers: The Good, Bad and Ugly

Dave Kilby

As the old saying, which, I frankly don’t care for, goes: “If you’ve seen one chamber, you’ve seen ONE chamber (not them all).

Looking back on the last year and recalling the hundreds of conversations that I’ve had with chamber CEOs around the West, it’s clear that the chamber industry is experiencing all three: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The Good

The number of chambers that have embraced and are living the 3Cs — being a Catalyst for business growth, a Convener of leaders and influencers to get things done, and a Champion for a thriving community — has soared and become a reality in chambers everywhere.

Many chambers have clearly stepped up during the pandemic crisis and have become THE resource and THE advocate for economic recovery.

It’s clear that the “eulogy virtues” — how chambers will be remembered — have skyrocketed and have been positively enhanced many times over during the past year. As an industry, most chambers are doing the right thing and people are acknowledging this leadership.

The Bad

Chamber execs and staff professionals seem to be “running on empty” and closer to burnout than I can ever remember.

I had one chamber CEO tell me: “I’m working six days a week, 12 hours a day to try to get everything done.”

My response was: “Stop it! You are no good to your chamber or, more importantly, your family if you’re sick and if you keep doing what you’re doing, you will get sick.”

A common trait of chamber professionals seems to be an overwhelming desire to take care of everything and everybody (except possibly themselves). Many have a VERY hard time saying NO, prioritizing and doing what’s truly important.

The Ugly

The sad part is you don’t have to look very far to see that many chambers are struggling. The reality may be that they were struggling before the pandemic and COVID was the last straw or the dagger in their heart.

Just like many small businesses, it looks like these chambers may never recover. Many held on to their pre-2020 business model and are sinking or have already sunk.

The truly sad part is that these chambers often are right next door to chambers that are doing well, so geography is not the reason. It’s also revealing that many of these chambers and their CEOs did not invest in professional development when times were good…so they didn’t have the tools or playbook to pivot appropriately and quickly when the pandemic hit.

Just as pivot was the most-used word of 2020, “light at the end of the tunnel” may be the top phrase we’ll hear in 2021. While we have no clear idea what things will really look like when we get to the “end of the tunnel,” one thing’s obvious to me: the chamber business will have been changed dramatically by The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Dave Kilby is president and C.E.O. of W.A.C.E. and executive vice president of corporate affairs at the California Chamber.