One year ago, Annique Bennett took on what she would later say was the single greatest challenge of her life.
She took on the job as director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce.
At the time she took the job, hired from a pool of applicants by the board of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, she didn’t realize that the chamber was almost out of money and on the brink of folding.
Now, a year later, the chamber is leaner, smaller and has jettisoned many of its earlier activities in favor of a new strategy focused largely on electronic media. It is also financially sustainable, and membership is once again on the rise.
Getting to that point was no easy task, Bennett said. Last week, she and Chamber of Commerce President Meghan Manning sat down and talked about what it took to stabilize the chamber, about the new website that represents the new face of the chamber, and about how Monroe can capitalize on the many events coming to town each year.
Turning the ship
In May of last year, when Bennett took over the helm of the Chamber of Commerce, the merchant’s organization was located in a building on Main Street that also served as the Visitor Information Center. The chamber organized several fundraisers each year, including an auction, a car show and the annual Fair Days parade. And it routinely got about $30,000 in hotel/motel tax to pay for it all.
Within months, the only thing still true was that the chamber organized the parade.
Just weeks after she took over, new city economic development manager Jeff Sax told the chamber that they couldn’t expect the $30,000 in grant money anymore without showing some return on the taxpayers’ investment.
And Manning and Bennett were looking at the books and realizing that the financial position of the chamber was dire.
Membership had dropped from a high of about 400 in 2008 to about 160 members. The lease for the Visitor Information Center was more than the chamber could afford. And creditors were threatening to seize some assets.
Bennett said that it really wasn’t anyone’s fault that the chamber got to that point.
“I think it’s important to understand how that happened,” she said. “This is a condition non-profits suffer from. These are volunteer boards putting time into an organization while running their own businesses. It’s not that people don’t care. Everyone just hopes things are okay and everyone figures someone else is more up on things.”
Bennett and the board agreed that the chamber couldn’t afford the visitor center anymore. They got the landlord to release them from the lease and found a smaller office, a sunny if cramped space in an upstairs room across the street.
“We were a membership-supported organization, and when you lose two-thirds of your members, you can’t afford the same expenses,” said Manning.
Then they took a close look at the fundraising events the chamber had been sponsoring and came to the conclusion that the labor-intensive auction and car show weren’t bringing in enough, or doing enough for members, to justify continuing them for now.
They also presented the city with a plan to prove that the tax money was being well-spent, and got the grant money for another year.
“Our city had determined that paying rent on a space from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday with brochures wasn’t getting the visitor development ROI, so Jeff (Sax) told the board, you need to figure something else out,” said Bennett. The chamber began building a strategy to market the community online and helping businesses and hotels maximize on local events, using Google analytics and promotional codes, among other things, to measure success.
Then it was time to go through years of financial records.
“In September we started a financial oversight committee and met two to three hours a week for four months and figured out where we stand, our true expenses, our debt load and our potential income,” said Manning. They found discrepancies going back years, and that had kept them from a clear understanding of their financial condition, she said.
“We have a very clear picture now, and we did not before,” she said. “Now we know what our long term forecast is as far as our expenses go.”
The outcome has been that the chamber cut expenses by two-thirds while keeping the payroll at 2010 levels.
Bennett said that member Lisa Caldwell, director of Merrill Gardens, really summed the year up in terms of what the job had been.
“She said that it was like taking a big ship and changing its course,” said Bennett.
Steering the ship
That meant, of course, charting a new course.
The chamber began steering away from traditional chamber roles like mailing brochures to other visitor information centers around the region, said Bennett.
Instead, Bennett reached out to the author of an article she’d read on making tourism websites more accessible to small towns.
That author, Mark Mattson, a former Temple University professor, had just retired and was working on a new project.
“I wanted to bring world class technology to the many organizations like Monroe’s Chamber of Commerce that have been disenfranchised because they don’t have the money or the resources,” said Mattson last week, while on a fishing trip in Yosemite. “L.A., Chicago, they have millions, but you have the same needs and you’re just as important and deserve the same responses.”
Mattson was designing a web tool that offered the same amenities as those sites used by large cities, but scaled for use by a smaller community.
“I said, ‘Annique, why don’t you let me do this on a beta arrangement,’” said Mattson. That meant he and the programmers at his company Cartonova would create a website for Monroe’s chamber, testing it as they went, for just the cost of the programmers’ time, which came to about $2,000, a huge savings from what other cities spend.
“We built one that would cost $10-20,000, but we built a smaller one that does all the work you need,” said Mattson.
The website, which is now complete, has many cutting-edge features. It can detect what kind of device is being used to access it and format itself to suit, making mobile app versions of the website unnecessary.
It quickly shows what businesses are in Monroe, locates them on a map, lists information about them including links to their websites and phone numbers, and allows users to add the businesses or public attractions to an itinerary; a sort of shopping cart of planned activities which can be shared directly to a vast variety of social media sites, or emailed to others.
All businesses are listed, but chamber members get an additional perk; they each get their own webpage on the site, complete with video clips, photos, information and more.
Nate Greenlund of Housing Hope, a large Snohomish County non-profit with a significant presence in Monroe, said Thursday that it’s the best website of its kind that he’s seen.
“Yesterday I took maybe 20 minutes to upload photos and video and link our Facebook to it and I thought it was an amazing website,” he said. “We have occasion to work with other chambers around the county and this website is head and shoulders above the rest. It’s gorgeous.”
More than that, chamber members can communicate with each other through the site, networking and trading services.
And the site allows for in-depth analysis of web traffic; tracking the way visitors click from page to page and much more.
There is also an emphasis on helping local people find services nearby.
“It allows a person to go in and look at businesses like mine that are not a retail establishment,” said Chris Cichanski of Sky Valley Allstate Insurance.
He said residents will also be able to tell more about the business than just its hours and contact information.
“I put our vision for our clients, and a little bit of our story and what makes us different, and all our contact information and what we offer,” he said. “And if someone is doing a community event, they can post on there, and people will see that and know we are not just a franchisee, we are involved with the community.”
The website is growing rapidly as more and more chamber members flesh out their web pages, and the Chamber of Commerce is now embarking on a strategy to drive traffic to the site, using reciprocal links and other modes of optimization.
But that is only part of the chamber’s new strategy for connecting visitors and businesses.
The Monitor will continue next week with the Chamber’s new strategies to maximize on local events, the ways they plan to work out marketing arrangements with other cities and large organizations, and what kind of strategies they believe could ultimately help the chamber help the city become a shopping and vacation destination as well as an attractive place for large businesses to locate.