Membership numbers for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce fall well below industry standards for a healthy chamber.
Of the city’s roughly 41,000 businesses, the chamber claims 1,600 as members. That’s about 4 percent.
Chamber CEO Dave Csintyan knows that’s a low number.
“Usually, they say that if a chamber has under 10 percent, it’s running on fumes,” he said. “And to be healthy, you need somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.”
The chamber is preparing to merge with the local Economic Development Corp. and Csintyan said the merger would increase the chamber’s presence and effectiveness.
But he isn’t troubled by the low numbers.
“This is about relationship building,” he said. “It’s not about a membership drive. We want to add value to every single one of our members. We could go out and recruit 200 members, but they wouldn’t stay. So we focus on the core that do stay and what we offer them.”
Focusing on the core means that the chamber’s retention rate is rising. A few years ago, about 25 percent of business didn’t renew their membership. Today, that number is around 18 percent.
“And we’re on an upward trend,” Csintyan said. “About two years ago, we were at the bottom — only 1,300 members. We think we’re providing value businesses need.”
The chamber’s lack of reach is more reflective of the city’s growth, than anything else, he said.
“Smaller cities — like Woodland Park — have 80 percent, 85 percent of the businesses as members,” he said. “The larger the city, the fewer businesses join the chamber.”
That’s because larger cities have more than one chamber and that can fragment business membership.
“For instance, in L.A. County, there are 75 different chambers,” said Ian Scott, vice president of communications at the American Chamber of Commerce executives. “A large regional chamber can’t compete with those smaller ones. Small businesses tend to go to the smaller, most local chambers — ethnic chambers, gender chambers, that kind of thing. That holds true not only in Colorado Springs, but in Denver and Fort Collins.”
However, some chambers are doing better than others –even in tough economic times, he said.
“Overall, there isn’t a trend we can put our fingers on, and say ‘this is what you have to do to be successful,’” Scott said. “Some chambers are struggling right along with their business community, and some are doing notably better. That’s because those are offering programs of value.”
That means programs that include more than just networking, he said.
“You need programs that offer education, resources, how to do well in the current economy,” he said. “Your product has to be valued by the businesses in your area. If they don’t see value, they won’t be part of it.”
Some of the local value comes in the form of networking at the chamber’s after hours events, while the chamber also gives business advice at monthly luncheons.
And some of it comes from business savings. The chamber has partnered with Humana to provide members health insurance at a discounted rate. The program has been very popular, Csintyan said.
But, Csintyan admits the chamber isn’t for everyone. For startup businesses, companies run out of people’s houses and small, micro-businesses — those companies won’t gain much from a chamber membership.
It’s something that Mike Schmidt knows too well.
He owns Ensemble Ventures and is chairman of the Colorado Springs Entrepreneurial Group.
“I looked at the chamber, at what it costs, at what value it might bring to my business,” he said. “And nothing compelled me to join.”
Schmidt said the chamber and the Economic Development Corp. are focused on a tight group of “insiders,” that make it difficult for other voices — particularly those of the region’s small businesses — to be heard.
“They’re doing this merger, and there’s been no input from the wider business community, no involvement of small businesses,” he said. “So we’re not waiting — we’re focusing on a community grassroots effort.”
That effort includes the entrepreneurial group’s 350 members. When Schmidt started attending a few years ago, they only had 75 members.
“It’s more than networking,” he said. “This offers ways small businesses can grow and develop — and right now, you can’t get that sort of help from the chamber.”
Schmidt believes the chamber was too focused on events that make money, instead of growing local businesses.
“We need a grassroots effort,” he said. “There’s no reason to be invested in the local chamber — they just don’t offer anything for most small businesses.”
But he said that could change — with a chamber/EDC merger looming on the horizon, the local business community could rally around something completely different.
“We need a decentralized effort,” he said. “Instead of one group that offers generic programs and rubber chicken dinners, we could have six groups, focused on all six of the clusters identified in the Operation 6035 project.”
But, he said, that’s unlikely to happen.
“There are no leaders, right now, to take a stand,” he said. “There’s no vision; there’s no transparency. No way of putting ideas together. It can’t be from the top down, like it is now. So we’re taking a bold stand with this entrepreneur’s group. We’re not asking permission. We’re just going to do it.” n CSBJ