Chambers Explore Service Revenue Opportunities
Photo Credit: Grand Rapids Chamber
By Katherine House
Ken James has enjoyed a long career in the diversity, equity, and inclusion field, but even while attending events organized by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce as recently as 2015, he didn’t envision working there. Now he can’t imagine a career anywhere else. James has a role at the Michigan chamber because it offers a unique slate of DEI training and consulting services, which he manages as director of inclusion.
The Grand Rapids Chamber and others profiled here provide innovative fee-for-service offerings that drive member engagement, align with mission, and contribute to the bottom line. They are not alone. As chamber executives seek additional sources of non-dues revenue, some are scrutinizing operations to see how they can monetize their expertise or thought leadership in new ways. That reflects a trend across all types of associations, said Dean West, FASAE, founder and president of Association Laboratory Inc., in Chicago. “Historically associations, including chambers, acted as a conduit between buyer and seller,” he said (think trade shows). Now executives are saying, “I’m responsible for members, and I see a need… If their needs match our competencies, why shouldn’t I be the one to supply it?”
That’s what happened when executives of the Greater Phoenix Chamber learned it was challenging for employers to attract and retain talent from elsewhere. They created Find Your PHX to jumpstart executives’ engagement in the Valley of the Sun.
The Grand Rapids Chamber entered the DEI space more than 25 years ago to address racial disparities in the community, said Rick Baker, president and CEO. Over time, the chamber has developed programs and services that help businesses hire and retain diverse workers.
Interest in revenue diversification is not new, of course; it’s been accelerating in part because association executives have become more entrepreneurial over time. That mindset, combined with the pandemic, may be creating the perfect storm to try out innovative ideas. Board members are busy with the challenges of the moment. “Executives are getting more freedom to make decisions,” West said. “Before the pandemic, people had more time to be deliberative. Nobody has the time now, especially when it comes to revenue.”
Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce
Asheville, North Carolina
When the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) in western North Carolina wanted to measure its local economic impact, it did not look far for help. A member of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, MAHEC hired Riverbird Research, a division of the chamber, to create a comprehensive report to substantiate for stakeholders its role in the region’s economy. Riverbird compiled detailed data, including the number of direct and indirect jobs MAHEC creates; total taxes generated; and the center’s value-added contribution to the gross regional product. Conducting custom research for clients is a natural outgrowth of the chamber’s robust research services that support its economic development mission, said Heidi Reiber, senior director of research.
“We have built a reputation that the chamber is a go-to resource for good, solid data,” she said. That reputation began more than 20 years ago when chamber leaders created a community research center that fields up to 400 information requests of all types annually. Developing Riverbird was part of a broader effort to uncover sources of revenue aligned with the chamber’s mission, explained Kit Cramer, president and CEO. In fact, she challenged employees to think like entrepreneurs, and the concept of creating a separate division to market its custom research abilities was born. To enable staff to broaden its research business, the chamber hired a research analyst to focus on day-to-day requests, freeing Reiber to concentrate on more complex projects.
“I love it when you can use your expertise or connections in a way not previously anticipated to generate revenue,” said Cramer, who noted that custom research for “individual entities in the community helps them tell their story better.” In addition to supplementing the bottom line, such research “has helped us understand our community in ways we would not have,” said Reiber. For example, Riverbird completed a life science and biotech industry analysis sponsored by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a local utility and the regional workforce development board.
To develop the Riverbird name and identity, the chamber worked with an outside firm on a branding initiative. It was important to come up with a name that was not Asheville-centric because “research has no boundaries,” Reiber explained, and some potential clients might not want to put a name on a report linked to a single city or region. Riverbird seems “to have really resonated with lots of folks,” she said, and evokes the natural beauty of western North Carolina, known in part for its many rivers. As part of the branding process, the chamber surveyed its board of directors to receive input on direction and focus. The chamber garnered the branding expertise at a reduced rate by providing some research the marketing firm needed.
Over the past three years, custom research has brought in about $50,000 in gross revenue, said Reiber. That small but growing amount does not include work done in trade. “We have the expertise and advanced tools in house that go into really technical reviews, much as a consultant would,” she said. The chamber has not encountered local competitors, which is important, she said, adding, “We know our lane and our niche, and we are not trying to be everything to everybody.” Depending on the project, Riverbird produces detailed reports up to 50 pages; fees are based on project scope. All Riverbird’s work has the same aim: to provide accurate research and expertise for decision and policy makers.
Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Diversity, equity and inclusion assessment, consulting, and training
A leader in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) space, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce hands out Diversity Visionary awards annually. Historically, the chamber waited until businesses took action in the field, then recognized their work, said Rick Baker, president and CEO. A few years ago, Baker decided the chamber would be more proactive by developing an assessment that could be used as a basis for determining award recipients. After creating the assessment, which measures key metrics related to DEI initiatives and highlights areas for improvement, Baker and his team discovered that businesses wanted to use the tool regardless of whether they sought recognition.
The DEI assessment rates businesses in five key areas from rising star (one) to five stars, said Ken James, director of inclusion. The categories are executive leadership; overall makeup of the company; human resources practices; supplier diversity, if applicable; and community engagement. “We take a deep dive on HR practices,” said James, who noted one area of scrutiny is treatment of nursing mothers, including the existence of lactation rooms. To get the assessment process started, James meets with a top leader--typically a chief executive officer, chief financial officer or chief human resources officer--for an intake meeting and asks them to identify a mid-level manager who will serve as a point of contact. That liaison supplies confidential information, including birthdates of board members, and veteran, disability, diversity and LGBTQ status for employees. James provides the contact with written questions that the two work through together. Once all the data and answers are submitted, he uses a rubric to develop the rankings.
In 2020, the chamber charged $2,000 to members and $2,500 to non-members for this service. Members who commit to the highest level of tiered dues are entitled to a complimentary assessment.
As part of the fee, James delivers the results and offers recommendations for next steps. Depending on the areas that need improvement, he may recommend one of the chamber’s training programs in the DEI field. These include implicit bias training and the Institute for Healing Racism. Other times, James recommends that a firm develop inclusive hiring practices; in that case, he provides a referral to a chamber member specializing in that area. In addition, James, himself an executive certified diversity coach, offers consulting services that can include multiple meetings to help businesses craft a to-do list or sessions aimed at examining a company’s business model through a DEI lens, he explained.
When James first conducted an assessment for a manufacturing firm, only 2 percent to 3 percent of its employees were people of color. James referred the manufacturer to a firm that could help it implement inclusive hiring practices. About a year later, 10 percent of the firm’s employees were people of color. In 2020, James completed eight assessments with 10 to 12 planned for 2021. In some cases, nonmembers have joined the chamber to take advantage of the assessment process, and other members have increased their investment. Baker said the Grand Rapids chamber will work with other chambers to make its DEI programming available under that chamber’s brand.
“We know that workforces that are more diverse are 1.5 times more productive than those that aren’t,” explained James. The programs offered by the Grand Rapids chamber are designed to “look beyond just checking the box,” he said. Instead, they are intended to ensure that DEI practices are “built into the fabric” of local businesses.
Greater Phoenix Chamber
Find Your PHX
In March 2019, the Greater Phoenix Chamber launched Find Your PHX, a service that helps introduce executive recruits to the area. The program is an outgrowth of the chamber’s business retention and expansion work, said Todd Sanders, president and CEO. “As I talked to people, I found they had trouble bringing new talent into Phoenix and retaining it. They could sell their company, but it was harder to sell Phoenix.”
Through Find Your PHX, the chamber provides a custom VIP tour of the area for C-suite recruits and their spouses, which may include visits to museums and/or attendance at sporting events, depending on the needs of the executive. Tours typically last several hours and include lunch, although they can span multiple days. Hard costs include the price of renting a roomy Suburban and lunch. So far, most participants had already decided to relocate, although, in one case, a client contracted the chamber to design tours for two people competing for the same position.
Before designing each tour, a chamber staff member initiates a phone call with the recruit and his/her spouse to learn more about their family and their interests, said Jennifer Mellor, chief innovation officer. “What worries you most about relocating?” is a standard question asked. Clients sometimes voice concerns about Phoenix’s climate or how the area’s charter schools work. Sometimes newcomers buy houses in areas that their real estate agents know well, but are not necessarily suited to their preferences,. As part of the program, chamber employees provide facts about different communities in the metro area that might best meet a family’s needs, such as proximity to nightlife or walking paths.
The experience also includes unlimited “integration assistance” for a designated period after an executive relocates. For example, one candidate couldn’t get internet service set up for a few weeks; chamber staff expedited installation, said Mellor. That follow-up means connections to chamber employees’ networks, too. She has invited executives to join her at the chamber’s ATHENA Awards or introduced them to people at a local charitable organization where she has a leadership role.
The premise of Find Your PHX is simple: if executives and their spouses feel connected to the community, they are more likely to stay. Creating that “stickiness”—both to the chamber and the community—is what the program is all about, said Mellor. She said Find Your PHX has helped the chamber “build way better relationships” with the businesses that have contracted for the service and has allowed the chamber to connect its members to newcomers. In one case, an executive recruit was interested in a writing career. Chamber staff arranged for her and her husband to have lunch with a member whose wife is a published author and professor at nearby Arizona State University.
Other benefits have accrued. A recruit fell in love with a museum she toured. When she discovered her would-be employer no longer supported the museum, she vowed to change that. The program can also solidify recruits’ relationships with their employers. In follow-up surveys, executives have raved about Find Your PHX and their employers’ efforts to “go above and beyond” to make them feel welcome, Mellor said. Sanders is “bullish” on revenue prospects, despite a slowdown caused by the pandemic. In March 2020, the chamber had to cancel two scheduled tours. Since then, it has begun to offer written self-guided tours based on executives’ interests.
Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce
Rochester, New York
The chamber of commerce in Rochester, N.Y., began offering staffing services through partner vendors in 1996. More than 20 years later, RBA Staffing, a division of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, is a full-service staffing and background check agency. Simply put, the division is a “huge asset to this organization,” said Robert Duffy, chamber president and CEO. Between 2016 and 2019, the division’s annual net profits averaged more than $618,000, which allows the chamber to offer other programs and services to members for free or at a low cost.
It also means that the chamber has, in essence, a member relations team outside the membership department. “We really pride ourselves on the customer experience,” said Ferah Roman, director of staffing services for RBA Staffing. “We are a part of the chamber, and we want to make sure our customer service is at the forefront.” When preparing a sales pitch, RBA Staffing employees thank members for their support and outline what benefits are available based on a firm’s membership level. They can also dispel misconceptions about membership. For non-member prospects, RBA Staffing employees articulate the advantages of joining the chamber; among them, discounts on staffing and background checks. Currently, about 70 percent of RBA Staffing’s placement work is conducted for chamber members, while the background check work is split about 50-50, Roman estimates.
RBA Staffing recruits for temporary, temp-to-hire and direct hire positions, from entry level to executive in a broad range of industries, with an emphasis on manufacturing, said Roman. Many direct placements are for mid-level management positions. RBA Staffing’s background check department complements the work of placement specialists by providing more than 25 different options for employers, from criminal background checks to verification of academic degrees, employment history and required licenses. In addition, it offers tenant screening packages. Duffy said the Greater Rochester Chamber will work with other chambers to provide services to their members in a profit-sharing arrangement.
Outsiders may wonder whether RBA Staffing is competing with chamber members, something some chamber executives and boards are reluctant to do. Duffy said many area staffing companies are branches of national firms. By contrast, RBA Staffing promotes itself as a local business supporting families in the region. In the past, the owner of one local staffing firm was upset about the chamber’s work in this area. After Duffy joined the organization, he met the business owner and explained that the chamber could not afford to exit the market. At the same time, he promised that RBA Staffing would never compete directly with the firm. It honored that agreement, and the firm ultimately became a chamber member.
Before the pandemic, RBA Staffing was on track to have its best year ever, said Roman. When clients stopped hiring, RBA Staffing laid off several employees, but has begun refilling some positions. Roman is pleased with the success of one of the division’s newer services: on-site management for clients. This offering is well-suited to manufacturing companies and is customized to client needs. An on-site RBA Staffing placement specialist can interview job candidates, give company tours, handle onboarding, including drug screening, and deal with problems, such as tardiness, immediately, freeing supervisors for other work. Recently, a client told Roman that contracting for an on-site representative was “the best thing they’d ever done.”
Tips for Success
Ask employees to brainstorm opportunities. “Sometimes we forget to have conversations with our staff,” said Kit Cramer, president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce in North Carolina. “Take advantage of their creative minds.” A few years ago, she asked employees to propose ways to generate revenue aligned with the chamber’s mission, which led to the launch of Riverbird Research. She backed up her request by incorporating it into performance reviews.
Study what has worked for others. If a chamber of a similar size with a similar market has tried something successfully, you have “proof of concept,” said Dean West, FASAE, founder and president of Association Laboratory Inc. in Chicago. Todd Sanders, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber, said custom tours of his area help dispel myths about Phoenix’s climate and topography. Cities that suffer from negative misconceptions about their weather might benefit from replicating these tours, he suggests.
Decide how to navigate the competitive landscape. Some chamber executives may be wary of providing a service that competes with a member. “Before you say ‘no,’ have a conversation with your board,” suggested Robert Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber in New York. If you are poised to compete with members, establish trust through clear communication, he said.
Explore partnerships. Your partners could be members of your chamber or even other chambers. “Partnerships are rising,” said West, “particularly in the pandemic.” A partnership allows you to offer a new service more quickly and with less risk because you are working with someone who is an expert at doing what you want to do.
Pay attention to branding. Will your service be offered under a unique name? Should that name incorporate the name of your city or region, or could that turn off potential customers? “Just because your mission is limited by geography does not mean buyers are,” said West, who notes partnerships could include licensing agreements with other chambers.
Parlay a member request into a future revenue stream. When a member of the Asheville chamber wanted to reward workers during the pandemic, it turned to the chamber. Given the national conversation around race, the business wanted to distribute gift cards to employees from local businesses run by people of color. It contracted the chamber to identify those businesses and acquire the gift cards. Excluding staff time, the project brought in about $10,000. Cramer’s staff is compiling a list of businesses that regularly dole out bonuses and plans to market this service to them.