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Chambers chase down members

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With the recent economic downturn being fresh in the minds of local business owners, it may seem odd that area chambers of commerce memberships don’t appear to be suffering.

The Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce is coming off its most successful membership drive to date, signing 420 new members Aug. 30–Sept. 1 and bringing its member base up to 2,171.

Brent McCoy, membership director for the Springfield chamber, said nearly 400 volunteers participated in the event, working roughly three-hour shifts and calling on vendors and colleagues to join.

McCoy said the chamber’s efforts to educate volunteers about the services it offers have paid off with the help of a hired hand – Frisco, Texas-based Your Chamber Connection.

“We spent the first 50 minutes to an hour of each shift really training volunteers as to who and what the chamber is,” McCoy said. “Some of that they knew and some of it they didn’t, but we really wanted to make sure they had that information readily available.”

He said people sometimes worry that a membership might be pointless if they can’t come to regular meetings or events, and chamber staff worked with volunteers to highlight legislative efforts and economic development initiatives to overcome that perception.

McCoy said the campaign was focused on getting volunteers to reach out to their contacts, even those outside the area, to talk about supporting and growing the Springfield economy.

Michelle West, vice president of communications at the Springfield chamber, said a record $200,000 was raised during the campaign.

McCoy declined to disclose the fee paid to Your Chamber Connection.

He said the membership total rivals chambers in St. Louis, Kansas City and Birmingham, Ala.

Dori Grinder, executive director of the Ozark Area Chamber of Commerce, said it may be the perfect time for those who run businesses to get more involved in such groups.

“I think it’s a really good time for chambers because the economy is still kind of slow,” Grinder said.

“A lot of businesses just sent in their checks every year and never thought any more about it because they wanted to be supportive. But now, they want to utilize it more. … They want it to work for them.”

Grinder said the key to increasing memberships is in adding value by providing as many opportunities for interaction with others as possible.

She said new networking events she’s implemented since taking the reins last summer have helped the Ozark Chamber secure 70 new members in that time, raising its membership to 317, up roughly 28 percent.

Grinder said the Ozark Chamber now has a women’s group, a men’s group, a First Friday Coffee event and a Business After Hours session for members – all things it didn’t have before.

“They’ve all been going over well, and they create a different outlet for different segments of people. Maybe you’re not able to get away from a small business for a luncheon, but you could do a before-hours coffee or an after-hours networking event,” Grinder said, adding that she believes those niche groups are driving up membership numbers. “We threw a bunch at them.”

Nancy Curless, executive director of the Barton County Chamber of Commerce in Lamar, said member recruitment and retention are always top of mind, and her chamber has initiated several efforts to keep and grow its base.

“We are always looking to give more value to our members at any time. But when you have small businesses that are struggling, we want to do anything we can do to take some of the burden off,” Curless said.

She said the Barton County chamber is looking to revamp its Web site, providing links to all its members with an online presence and considering other ways to facilitate shopping through the site and better connect businesses with other businesses and their customers.

Curless said during the last four years, the chamber has started sponsoring area events to improve the quality of life as a way to attract new members. For example, it’s bringing in entertainers for Fourth Thursday, which often includes fundraisers for local organizations in downtown Lamar. She said the chamber also started a spring and fall fashion show for area retailers as a way to connect to the community.

In addition, it features a business spotlight with a window display in its Lamar office, a popular component for its roughly 220 members.

She said membership levels have remained largely unchanged during the recent economic downturn, and she believes these and other retention and growth efforts are the reason.

“We’re just trying to spread the word about who we are and the businesses we support,” she said.[[In-content Ad]]

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