It’s not uncommon for some members of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce to spend more time stalled in traffic going to and from a chamber event than they spent at the actual event.
To save travel time, the chamber has decided to divide its tri-county membership into four zones, allowing for more events in each zone closer to attendees.
“If you’re in north Mount Pleasant, and the chamber is holding a 7:30 a.m. breakfast at Charleston Southern University for a meet-the-expert event, you’re going to have to pack breakfast and lunch by the time you get all the way out there and all the way back to your place of business,” chamber President and CEO Bryan Derreberry said.
Beginning in the first quarter of next year, the chamber will launch Charleston Metro Chamber North, Charleston Metro Chamber East, Charleston Metro Chamber West and Charleston Metro Chamber Central, Derreberry said.
The chamber’s large, signature events — such as its annual meeting, economic outlook forecast, honors night and legislative reception — will carry on as usual for all members. Work done on behalf of the entire region related to the talent pipeline, career academies, apprenticeship programs, scholarships and advocacy also will continue.
But the chamber is tailoring events like Business in Your Backyard and Ask the Expert to each of the zones. The goal will be for events to be within a 15- to 30-minute drive of the attendees’ businesses, Derreberry said.
“This is getting programming for our small-business members very close to where their places of businesses are,” he said. “It’s expanding our model because of the success we’re having.”
Business in Your Backyard events will rotate among the zones on a quarterly basis, while Ask the Expert and business connections programs will be held once a month in each of the zones.
The chamber currently hosts between 70 and 80 programs annually and will increase that number by about 100 when the four zones are in place, Derreberry said.
He does not expect to add any new workers to the staff of 36 full-time employees because of the zones.
“We’re really going to be busy,” said Laura Bright, senior vice president of marketing and communications.
To help coordinate the events, each zone will have a volunteer steering council of 15 to 20 business leaders from that area.
“They’ll be feeding that platform with their knowledge of the specific location that they’re in,” Derreberry said. “So they’re going to be very involved from a volunteer-leadership standpoint on identifying local community issues and needs along with helping to deliver the programming.”
The chamber has about 1,600 members across Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.
Derreberry said Charleston Metro Chamber Central, encompassing the peninsula and the close surrounding area, will be the largest zone, while North, East and West will be smaller but fairly comparable in membership size to one another.
Employees at businesses that have multiple sites in different zones will be able show up to events in the area in which they’re located.
“Let’s say they have marketing people in each area. You have a sales staff that has districts or territories, so the person who has the North Charleston territory could show up to CMC North,” Derreberry said. “The person who has the territory on the peninsula could show up to CMC Central. They can go to each one of the locations.”
Following a trend
The geographical zone model is something that many of the Charleston chamber’s peer chambers across the country are already practicing or are looking into, he said.
“The most valuable thing to a small-business owner — to any of us, to be candid — is our time. So I’m not going to drive to a meeting that takes me 55 minutes to get to, be there for 90 minutes and then drive 55 minutes back,” Derreberry said. “I want to be proximate to the meeting itself, but also I want to be able to visit with people who are potential customers.”
In a recent study, the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives identified the model as one of the trends of the next decade, he said.
“We felt the study was extremely well done,” Derreberry said. “Our executive committee board has reviewed it, and we said we’re going to change the way in which we deliver our programming events and our relevance to our members.”
Over the next couple of months, the chamber will be updating its membership levels and benefits for new members who want to join a specific zone.
Then, over the first few years of implementation, the chamber will review how members respond to the program to determine whether brick-and-mortar chamber sites are needed in the zones.
Derreberry said that he doesn’t expect the chamber will need to add physical buildings. He predicted that it will still be beneficial to host chamber events at local restaurants, banks and hospitals, for example, as a way to show off members’ facilities.
“It is a way to tailor the chamber at each of these areas to the specific needs and interests of businesses,” Derreberry said. “Things that are on the cutting edge in Mount Pleasant and on Daniel Island could be very different than what people are looking for in West Ashley or North Charleston. So it gets us very close to our businesses in each of those locations and allows us to truly understand what they want and how we can provide it.”
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2016, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.