|Annique Bennett has been director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce for a year next month, and in that time has taken the chamber in a new direction, leaning toward online marketing and cross-marketing with other events and organizations. Photo by Dan Armstrong|
The Monroe Monitor & Valley News—Wednesday, April 24, 2013 Monroe, WA
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. and Chicago have millions to spend, but Monroe has the same needs and is just as deserving of the same technological responses.”
Mattson was designing a web tool