• R.I. chambers of commerce under pressure to keep members informed, afloat

    Reposted from Providence Business News. The original article can be found: https://pbn.com/r-i-chambers-of-commerce-under-pressure-to-keep-members-informed-afloat/
    R.I. chambers of commerce under pressure to keep members informed, afloat



    Elizabeth Catucci’s daily routine has shifted dramatically in recent weeks.

    The president of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce starts her day early, filtering through as many emails as she can before turning her attention to her three young daughters’ virtual learning. At noon, her husband returns home from his job in the financial-services sector. The couple exchange a high five and Catucci hightails it to the now-empty Chamber office, where she spends the afternoon fielding a flood of phone calls from the Chamber’s 600-plus members.

    On top of that, she updates the website and social media pages with resource guides and promotions of members’ services, and she produces daily video segments responding to frequently asked questions. Then she brainstorms new ways to help.

    While their individual routines may differ, leaders of local chambers of commerce across Rhode Island are being tested like never before by a coronavirus pandemic that has swiftly crushed many of their members, and has left the chambers wounded, too.

    Their typical tasks of communication, advocacy and support have gone into hyperdrive as members struggle to find ways to keep businesses alive.

    Among the chief roles of local chambers now: distilling information on the bevy of local, state and federal resources available to businesses – a kind of CliffsNotes guide, as Kristin Urbach, who leads the 400-member North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, described it.

    The deluge of new eligibility information, and in some cases misinformation, makes it hard for business owners already overwhelmed with day-to-day operations to keep tabs on daily changes. For most small-business owners, the chamber is a familiar support system.

    “We’re the trusted voice,” said Erin Donovan-Boyle, executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not necessarily experts in all these fields, but we can direct them to who the experts are.”

    Indeed, the North Kingstown Chamber was the first call John Perrotti made when hunting for details on the U.S. Small Business Administration’s small-business loan programs.

    Perrotti, who owns Mobility Equipment LLC, has been a member of the Chamber since 2015, and a board member in recent years.

    Urbach’s ability to break down complex loan programs into “layman’s terms” was particularly helpful, as was the Chamber’s guidance on how Perrotti could keep customers and employees safe while remaining open – the recycled medical mobility equipment company is among those deemed essential.

    The company has halted in-person visits except by appointment and stopped accepting donated equipment, though it continues to offer sales, repairs and customization, aided by regular sanitation and protective equipment for employees.

    “This really turns not only my business but every business upside down,” Perrotti said. “Having access to this information immediately is crucial so business owners can make decisions quickly.”

    STREAMING IN

    One benefit of a shift to entirely virtual trainings and events has been the speed at which they can be up and running, according to Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Since moving the Chamber’s array of seminars and events to computer screens, White said, her team has found relief from the logistical burden that’s part of planning in-person gatherings.

    “We can come up with an idea at 9 in the morning and execute it at 4 in the afternoon,” White said.

    The Providence Chamber has pumped out a steady stream of webinars for the 1,100 companies in its membership, featuring everything from expert advice on insurance claims and cash flow to real-time question-and-answer sessions with the state’s congressional delegation.

    Kelley McShane, a managing partner for The Granny Squibb Co. LLC and Providence Chamber member, cited recent webinars with Rhode Island’s congressional representatives addressing the stimulus package and SBA loans as particularly helpful, allowing her company a chance to bypass potentially long waiting times to get in touch with the key officials.

    McShane, like Perrotti, found herself consulting her Chamber for questions, information and advice – in part because Chamber representatives reached out to her.

    “It was pretty incredible,” she said. “Immediately, as this crisis was coming on, the Chamber of Commerce was on it.”

    Having that information has helped McShane not just with the logistical aspects of keeping her beverage-making business afloat after shuttering its Weybosset Street headquarters but with her own peace of mind, she said.

    “It makes me feel safe knowing there’s a team of experts that are gathering and compiling all this information and relaying it to us,” she said.

    Individual chambers have been working their way through lists of hundreds of members, making individual phone calls. Even if a business doesn’t have immediate questions or demands, it can be a source of comfort – a way to show somebody cares, Catucci said.

    White said many of her individual conversations with members have taken a different tone in recent weeks as business owners grapple with not only the financial and physical ramifications of a crippled economy but the emotional ones.

    “This is the time to listen and to be empathetic,” White said. “It’s a different kind of conversation.”

    To that end, the Providence Chamber has also launched a weekly webinar series with member and holistic executive life coach Katie McDonald focused on self-care and well-being.

    “Unless you take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to take care of your business,” White said. “Part of our job is also being a source of comfort and inspiration for members to one another.”

    McDonald, who offers her services through her company, bnourished LLC, echoed White’s emphasis on self-care as a “strategy, not a nuisance.” The webinars have been a way to reach a broader audience with her message and services, marketing herself to future clients, as well as for speaking engagements.

    CONNECTED BY CRISIS

    Capitalizing on connections has always been a benefit of being part of a chamber, but it has taken on new importance for some businesses. The North Kingstown Chamber, for example, has put together a list of restaurant and cafe members now offering curbside pickup and promoted it through social media, Urbach said.

    For retail businesses that have been largely forced to shutter, the Chamber is also offering technical assistance with beefing up websites to sell merchandise online.

    “These kinds of things seem small, but they’re also big for those members,” she said.

    Urbach, a former executive at the George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., has had no shortage of experiences dealing with crises. But neither Urbach nor other chamber leaders had experienced anything quite like this.

    Donovan-Boyle drew some similarities to the natural-gas outage that left Aquidneck Island customers, including many Chamber members, without power for a week in January 2019.

    Kathleen Staab, owner and president of Jane Pickens Theater LLC in Newport, recalled how the outage devastated her business, forcing it to shut down at a crucial time leading up to the Academy Awards. At the time, the Newport Chamber guided Staab on how to get funding and also coordinated for Gov. Gina M. Raimondo to announce an emergency loan program from the theater stage.

    That crisis seems minor compared with what Staab is up against now – 12 events canceled, indefinite closure and her entire staff unemployed.

    The uncertainties of the situation abound, but one way the chambers are looking ahead is by collecting data from their members. The Newport Chamber recently completed a survey asking its 1,100 members for details on the economic effects of COVID-19.

    Early results from the 112 members who responded painted a picture of what Donovan-Boyle called a “dire situation,” with 40% of respondents closed and many worried about their ability to reopen or recover if the crisis lasts more than three months.

    Other chambers have followed suit with their own surveys, with the intent to share survey results with state and federal officials to help inform the kinds of programs and policies most needed by their members when in recovery mode.

    SHARED PAIN

    Donovan-Boyle was also in the process of revising the Newport Chamber’s own 2020 plan – initially focused on strategic advancement but “now it’s essentially turning into a recovery plan,” she said. That plan includes ensuring the Chamber can stay solvent without some of the large-scale events and training that bring in money.

    While details of the plan were not yet available, Donovan-Boyle anticipated that structural deficit would be significant. As of April 6, all six Chamber employees, herself included, were reduced to half-time hours while the amount of work has multiplied, she said.

    At the same time, the chambers haven’t been eligible for most of the federal relief approved by Congress, Donovan-Boyle said, although lawmakers are working on expanding eligibility.

    Rescheduling at least two major spring events until the fall means the North Kingstown Chamber’s first-quarter revenue will take a hit, but Urbach hoped it would be made up by year’s end. The organization also receives money through the town of North Kingstown’s annual budget, which as of early April appeared to be at the same amount projected before the pandemic.

    It was too early for White to say how badly the crisis would shrink the Providence Chamber’s bottom line, but she said her team was searching for other opportunities to provide valuable information people would pay for.

    “It will change us as a society,” White said. “Each of us is contemplating our own individual goals as people but also as businesses, what are we going to [do] differently.”

    She was confident the Chamber had enough reserve funds to sustain its activities and keep paying its eight full-time staffers.

    The Providence Chamber in April halted collection of dues for at least a month, while Northern Rhode Island and Newport were working with individual members unable to pay their dues. The North Kingstown Chamber, with its next quarterly payment not due until July, has not yet considered waiving or discounting dues.

    In at least one area, the Northern Rhode Island Chamber could see a slight bump in revenue.

    When its regular Eggs & Issues breakfast went virtual for the first time on April 9, the Chamber was able to forgo providing food but was still able to secure corporate sponsorships. The success of the offering and relative ease of planning had the Chamber thinking about continuing to make some events virtual even when in-person gatherings are possible once again, Catucci said.

    Revenue could be lost from members that shutter their businesses permanently – the case for a few of Northern Rhode Island Chamber’s ­members.

    At the same time, though, Catucci reported several new businesses joining to take advantage of the services being offered. Selling the Chamber’s services to prospective members is by no means her first priority right now, but an added benefit that underscores its importance, she said.

    “This is really an opportunity to showcase the Chamber’s value,” Catucci said.

    White also reported a drop in membership, as some employees within individual companies get laid off or furloughed, though she could not quantify the decrease. Some members have just vanished, and have not been reachable by phone, email or even LinkedIn messages from her staff.

    Asked if she worried about those she hadn’t heard from, White said yes, and that she thought about them often.

    The stories of members still in touch with their chambers were hard to forget, too.

    Catucci relayed the concerns of a restaurant owner whose workers worried about how they would feed their own families.

    “You hear these devastating stories on the news all the time,” she said. “But when you know the person, it hits you in a whole other way.”

    Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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