MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE: Magician Mat Francoed performs during a Feb. 27 Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce event. Chambers are using such social events to lure new members.
PBN PHOTO/DAVID LEVESQUE
By Victor Paul Alvarez
There are two major misconceptions about the nature of business in America.
The first is that business is mostly done during business hours. The business community in fact is now connected all day and night via social networks, video conferencing and all manner of chatter on mobile devices.
The second misconception is that business is never personal. That’s how Michael Corleone ran his fictional operation in the “The Godfather” film trilogy, and you know how that ended. The truth is all business is personal, say local business leaders. Personal relationships are the foundation of nearly any industry.
Your clients aren’t numbers and your colleagues are more than just people sharing the same office space. Progressive chambers of commerce know this, and say their commitment to getting members together after hours to network, grow and simply relate to one another is paying off in Rhode Island.
Chambers recruit new members and enrich the quality of that membership by simply bringing people together outside of the office.
“These events are a great asset in recruiting members. They help to put a face with the chamber name,” said Laura A. McNamara, executive director of the East Providence Area Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber has served East Providence, Barrington, Seekonk and Rehoboth for more than 115 years. Each of those four towns has unique business challenges and personalities.
McNamara encourages nonmembers to attend two Chamber events a year, to see if the organization is a good fit.
“Organizations and chambers of commerce have individual personalities. If a businessperson is going to invest their time and money in any of them, it is important to check out the culture and the people involved. When someone feels comfortable with the tone of a chamber event and the people in attendance, they will be more inclined to become a member. They know they will be able to develop relationships with these people, and ultimately their business will benefit from it,” she said.
That’s exactly what happened to Kathy Marabello, assistant vice president/branch manager at Navigant Credit Union, when she availed herself of the Chamber’s social opportunities. The Chamber provides at least two monthly events for networking for members.
Business After Hours is a two-hour, evening event hosted by one of the members. A lunchtime event called Business During Hours is held at one of their member restaurants. Marabello said she has gained business and referrals from people she’s met at these functions.
“Because my business is all about networking, I feel I benefit most from participating in the Business During Hours and participating – as well as hosting – the Business After Hours. Business During Hours, being a usually smaller group, gives you more time to get to know the other participants. Business After Hours is a great way to showcase your own business as well as network on a larger scale.”
The Chamber also hosts a golf outing, a Touch-A-Truck event for kids in the community, and a new summertime, food-related event for members and the public. They also partner with other Rhode Island chambers of commerce and co-host a Statewide Business After Hours, a legislative reception at the Statehouse and a block party on Block Island in the summer.
Chamber members are not required to attend these events, but those who show up routinely come away with new contacts, more business and an appreciation for their colleagues and community.
“This is an organization that always makes time for fun while getting the job done,” Marabello said.
That’s a nice motto, one that could easily apply to the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce. Steve Lombardi is the executive director there. Lombardi is a busy guy, but is eager to discuss the benefits of the Chamber’s social arm.
He’s missed only one such event for networking in the last three years.
“We move them around so our different Chamber members get an opportunity to host their fellow Chamber members and people in the business community that might not be Chamber members. We do it in part to recruit new members and give exposure to the host. That’s one of the perks of being the host. Our events are very vibrant, usually fun and great [for] networking.”
Popular enough that there is an 18-month waiting list for members who wish to host an event. The events typically draw about 75 people and often result in new members. The host shells out for the food and drink. Fancy appetizers and an open bar are the norm. A February event at Coastway Community Bank was catered by Pinelli’s Catering and featured crudités and gourmet pizzas.
“This was Coastway’s second time hosting an East Greenwich Chamber Business After Hours,” said Joseph Hindle, vice president of business lending. Coastway has been a member of the East Greenwich Chamber since 2008.
While it feels good to have a cocktail and chat with colleagues, the success of these events can be measured in more than simply good feelings. Lombardi said the events are a contributing factor to his Chamber’s addition of 75 new members in 2012. Chamber membership does not require members to attend events. However, the people who show up truly want to be there and they understand the value in attending on a regular basis.
“A few months ago at the Chamber’s annual meeting and dinner, one of our new members attended his first Chamber event. There were about 200 people in the room,” McNamara said.
“While seated at his company’s table, he saw at another table a childhood friend whom he had been trying to locate for many years. He went over and introduced himself and they reconnected. It turns out the friend had changed his last name; which is what made it difficult to track him down. The new member said that the money he spent at that event was well-worth the experience of finding his friend that night.”