By Fatima Hussein
Chambers of commerce groups in both Volusia and Flagler counties are reporting an increase in members, but it’s not just because the economy is getting better.
Officials say their groups, which were hard hit during the Great Recession, had to adapt to the changing times by learning to operate more efficiently to keep their costs down while at the same time introducing new programs and services to provide better value to their members.
Those changes, they say, are now paying off as the local economy continues to recover from the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“When spending for businesses got tight, we had to figure out how to be better at cultivating businesses and help people grow their companies,” said Nick Conte Jr., executive director of the DeLand Area Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber in recent years has launched several new initiatives, including its formation of a Females About Business group and the DeLand Orange City Alliance.
“I’m also making a point to visit non-members’ businesses to find out their concerns,” he said.
Conte said his chamber, which saw its membership ranks fall from roughly 1,000 a decade ago to about half that during the recession is now back up to 700.
What the DeLand Area Chamber experienced, and how it responded, is a story shared by chambers throughout the state, said Greg Blose, grassroots development and engagement manager with the Tallahassee-based Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Blose said during less severe recessions, chambers of commerce generally thrive as more businesses join to take advantage of the benefits that chambers offer
But this recession was different. It was very difficult time for many chambers, especially since so many people went out of business,” he said.
Today, even though the economy is on an upswing once again, chambers are facing more competition than they did prior to the 2007-2009 recession, Blose said. That increased competition includes an increase in business networking groups, which offer lower membership rates.
Nancy Keefer, president and chief executive officer of the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce, said her group has responded, in part, by offering events featuring bigger name speakers as well as programs that delve deeper into members’ business concerns.
“Business owners are extremely busy and we understand that they can’t attend every event,” Keefer said.
Keefer said the Daytona Regional Chamber — Volusia County’s largest chamber with more than 950 members — has also stepped up its efforts to serve as a voice for the local business community to state and local lawmakers, as well as participate in economic development efforts and on programs that can help area businesses grow.
Debbie Connors, executive director of the Port Orange South Daytona Chamber of Commerce, said her group’s ranks are now at a record high 700 members — exceeding even its pre-recession peak.
“The overall concern I hear from our members is how businesses can increase their sales and make more connections with other business owners,” she said.
Connors attributed the increase in members in part to the chamber’s efforts to respond to the needs of area businesses.
Rebecca DeLorenzo, president of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, said her group currently has 808 members, up by roughly 20 from a year ago.
The chamber has made some significant changes since 2012, when it developed a new strategic plan, in response to feedback received from members, she said. The chamber identified three priorities: 1. increase its involvement in government affairs; 2. increase its role in efforts to recruit and retain businesses in Flagler County; 3. provide more services and programs to enhance member businesses.
The chamber responded by creating a director of government affairs position now held by Gretchen Smith, as well as revamping its format by doing away with its system of having affiliate chambers in Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach and replacing them with area councils focused on those cities. The chamber also recently added a fourth area council for businesses in the county’s unincorporated Hammock area.
The Flagler County Chamber also has stepped up its programs to help member businesses grow by launching a five-week-long Business 101 Boot Camp program in April to educate business owners on various aspects of running a business, including managing cash flow, customer service, financial planning and marketing. The program will be offered again in October and a Business 201 Boot Camp is planned for next year, she said.
Blose, a former executive officer for the Volusia Building Industry Association, said he is optimistic about the future of the chambers of commerce throughout the state.
“There will be 30,000 more people in Volusia County by 2020,” Blose said. “If there is pro-active action on how the business community will handle the changes in the future, we’re going to see a lot more growth.”