By Polly Keary, Editor
Editor’s Note: Last week, the Monroe Monitor ran the first of a two-part series on the state of Monroe’s Chamber of Commerce, following a change of leadership and direction that took place nearly a year ago when the business organization was at a low point in terms of financial resources and members. Today, membership is growing again, and the chamber is on more stable financial ground.
In the year since Annique Bennett became the director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, many of her efforts have been directed toward the creation of a sophisticated new website, www.choosemonroe.com, that makes it very easy for visitors to find all they might need or enjoy in the city of Monroe.
What many in Monroe don’t realize is that getting visitors to town won’t require Monroe to suddenly turn itself into Leavenworth, or develop some other theme.
Monroe already has tourism many cities would envy, she said. What Monroe hasn’t done well in the past was create connections between those events and local businesses.
So beyond the website, Bennett and the chamber are working to help local entrepreneurs profit from the large number of visitors to town each year.
“We have one of the top 20 county fairs in the whole nation; we have a top 10 NASCAR track; we have an amazing parks system with year-round events and we have a nationally-televised wakeboard competition and we are in wakeboarding magazines,” said Bennett.
Making events work for Monroe
Historically, there’s been a disconnect between the events and local business, Bennett said.
“The event producers say to us, ‘We’ve never heard from the chamber. We want to connect to businesses and have them have booths, but we didn’t know how to connect,’ and there’s never been a middle man,” she said. “That’s the role we fill as a DMO (Destination Management Organization).”
So Bennett is encouraging local businesses to have a presence at big events like Mexican rodeos, summer concerts and large fairgrounds events.
Event promoters are eager to have the participation of Monroe businesses; Candido Hernandez, promoter of Mexican rodeos that draw as many as 14,000 people to the fairgrounds on a single day, is working closely with the chamber to identify businesses that would do well to advertise there.
And the wakeboard event producers, as well as TriMonroe’s triathlon producers, have agreed to give back to the chamber 20 percent of everything the chamber drives their way in terms of marketing.
“That’s huge for us,” said Bennett.
But the chamber does more than that.
Recently, Monroe was in danger of losing one of its largest summer sports events.
Each Memorial Day weekend, Triple Crown Sports holds a five-day, county-wide youth softball tournament. Many of the games are held in Monroe because of the Monroe’s large number of fields.
But that relationship was in danger of ending, said Jeff Sax, economic development manager for the city of Monroe.
“They expressed concern about Monroe for two reasons,” he said.
The primary reason was that they hadn’t been able to establish good relationships with the local hotels, he said.
The other was that Monroe only has one all-season field; the others are natural grass and get muddy sometimes.
The city is working with the school district to bring in better fields.
But Sax and Mike Farrell, the head of the parks department, reached out to Bennett to see what the chamber could do to help.
“I just thought it was a perfect opportunity to showcase what the chamber is doing as DMO to connect the business community and hotels, and down the road the restaurant community, and anyone who wants to connect,” he said.
Bennett learned that the manager of Triple Crown had been unable to reach a deal with former hotel managers, but there were new managers in place who were eager to talk. Eventually, Triple Crown worked out a deal with Guesthouse Inns and Best Western to serve as the designated hotels for the annual event.
“Annique was a huge help in reaching out to the hotels,” said Wayne Parker, baseball event coordinator of the Colorado-based Triple Crown. “We now have two hotel partners to host our teams in Monroe. This allows Triple Crown to put certain age groups in the city of Monroe for the entire weekend of the event, which makes things much easier for all.”
“It really fixed the problem,” said Sax. “Once we were working together, it was easy.”
There’s more to marketing a town than reaching the people who will shop there, though. Having relationships with other entities in the tourism business is vital, said Bennett.
Establishing a network
Hotels in the town of Bothell are quite often more full during the week than the weekend, due to a high number of business travelers and a low number of events.
That means that when Monroe’s hotels are maxed, Monroe event coordinators can pass visitors on to Bothell. That gives Bothell’s Chamber of Commerce an incentive to market Monroe’s events.
Bennett is looking for more arrangements like that.
Monroe’s Chamber of Commerce is now sitting down once a month in meetings with other members of the Snohomish County Lodging Association and with other tourism entities such as Everett’s Museum of Flight.
“We sit in a room and figure out how to cross-pollinate,” said Bennett. “We didn’t know it, but we’re a darling in Snohomish County. We have sports fields, we have everything.”
There is a lot of new blood in Monroe right now, people who are excited about marketing and hip on the new ways marketing is done, said Bennett.
Doug and Traci Hobbs are managing the racetrack and promoting events at the fairgrounds. Hal Gausman is new as director of the Evergreen State Fair. There are new members and a new board of DREAM, the downtown revitalization organization. The city has a new economic development manager in the person of Jeff Sax. That role was created just over a year ago, and Bennett called the creation of the role “forward-thinking,” saying that it sets Monroe apart from many cities that haven’t similarly invested.
On the future, Bennett hopes to start coordinating businesses to achieve “cluster-based” marketing, which is promoting businesses as a group.
There are a large number of alternative healthcare providers practicing locally; they could be marketed as a group. There are many nurseries, and many outdoor recreation businesses that could benefit, as well.
Sales taxes could help city revitalize
All of it benefits the city, and could help the city in time become its own draw, with a revitalized downtown core that people would travel to visit, or perhaps destination amenities such as improved parks.
And the more the city can invest in the livability of the town, the more attractive the town becomes as a place for large businesses to locate, she added.
“We drive the revenue into the city pot so the city has the money to invest in the heart of the town,” she said.
It’s a significant departure from what the chamber has done in the past, and there have been detractors who questioned the closure of the visitor center, something Bennett said she hopes is only temporary.
But membership in the chamber has grown more than 37 percent in the last year, now numbering 220 members
And as membership grows, so does the confidence of those members, said chamber member Lance Eblin.
“As times change, strategies change, and I think what the chamber is doing is spot-on,” he said.