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How to Take Full Advantage of a Chamber of Commerce Membership

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Perhaps because there has never been a Schoolhouse Rock song about what it is chambers of commerce exactly do, it's tough to act like it's a sexy topic.

But as an entrepreneur, there are plenty of reasons why your ears should perk up when hearing about the topic. CoCs are invaluable resources that can you help your business reach their full potential -- but in areas like Central Lakeview, membership had been embarrassingly low. Or at least, that was the case before Gus Isaacson stepped in about a year and a half ago as the executive director of the Central Lakeview Merchants Association. In that relatively short time span, Isaacson has managed to triple membership. So, you could say he knows what he's talking about.

I gave Isaacson a call to talk about the challenges Lakeview faces, how business owners can stand out, and why chambers of commerce are secretly kinda sexy.

What advice would you give to potential chamber of commerce members?

Gus Isaacson: We're a member-based organization. And it was there for 12 years, and I've been there a year and a half. I noticed that their membership was only 59 businesses. There's about 400 businesses in the neighborhood, so that's a very small portion. The first thing we did was make it a priority to get people to join the chamber of commerce and merchant's association. I told the staff that it's our responsibility in the office to make ourselves relevant. We do so many great things, but if people don't know what we do then they don't want to join us.

Why was that number so low? Lack of interest? Lack of marketing on your part?

Gus Isaacson: I think there's a lack of connection with the whole neighborhood. There wasn't any cohesiveness with everyone. One of the first things we did was put up 400 street-pole banners in the neighborhood and branded ourselves a little bit more. When you become a member to our organization, $195 for the year, we will give you a complimentary street-pole banner with your company's logo on there. We started with that angle and tried to do events differently than they've been done in the past.

We try to make them more and more business-friendly, and get the business owner connected with it. One of the things we did was a QR directory, where you can scan it and actually see the business owner. It's a one-minute video clip. You can connect the business owner's face with their business.

Those numbers you mentioned, where there's 59 out of 400 or so, is that ratio unique to Lakeview or is that pretty much the case citywide in terms of membership?

Gus Isaacson: No, most chambers have 200-300 members. In Central Lakeview, I have Wrigley Field, which is one of the biggest assets in the neighborhood. Plus it's so heavily dense with businesses, bars, and nightlife, and everything else.

Once you've convinced them to become a member, what are some benefits they maybe forget to reap or don't know about?

Gus Isaacson: We've given plenty of seminars on customer service. There are so many of these networking groups, so I asked for a business consultant to give a talk on etiquette and networking, to teach people, because they go and don't know if they should offer their business card, if they should be eating or drinking, or where should my business card be on my body, where should I hold my food, if someone's boring how they should dismiss them and move on... so these seminars were very, very helpful. I got a lot out of it. The business owners got a lot out of it.

Plus we have a PR firm, which most merchant's associations don't have. The relevancy of them is quite high. I think we've had 31 of our business owners on TV. There's nothing more I can do to for a business than feature them on TV, or in print, or on radio. It's a good shot in the arm of confidence to hang in there and to keep doing what they're doing.

Where on your body should you keep your business card?

Gus Isaacson: For men, it's above the waist. Yeah, which makes sense after you hear that. It should never be in your pockets. You should always present so when you hand it to them they can read it, and if you have to take notes, never write it on their card -- it shows disrespect. You shouldn't exactly be quick to hand yours out. Sometimes they'll ask for yours but you have to see what the mood is. It should be more than an exchanging of business cards because the card is a connection to you and your time and your value. You want to be discriminatory of who exactly you give it out to.

And if you're a woman?

Gus Isaacson: Usually in the purse.

I thought you were kidding about that, but these are actual details with unwritten rules?

Gus Isaacson: I didn't know, either. You know, one drink, have only one alcoholic drink, and make sure it's in your left hand so you can shake with your right. Never try to shake a woman's hand. She is to extend her hand first.

In the bigger scheme of things, what are some other common mistakes you see business make?

Gus Isaacson: Well there are those A-frame sandwich board frames that businesses put on the sidewalk? Sometimes I get a business calling asking where they can get one and whether there's a permit for it. The city last week started to go out and enforce a $500 fine for them. I printed up a letter and my staff and myself went to 47 businesses giving them a head's up that first of all this is an illegal practice. There's no ordinance against them. Years ago it was a $200 fine, and now they're raising it, and the city is getting more aggressive about bringing more revenue in. For a small business, $500 is a huge fine for a first-time offender for this. Most of the businesses didn't even know they were an illegal practice. You see them on the sidewalk and you assume everyone can have them.

When there are issues like that and the businesses themselves can't resolve it, how can you guys help?

Gus Isaacson: We have a connection with the city in our department that often gives us head's up. That's how we reach out to our businesses ahead of time.

Do business owners generally have a good sense of what they can ask for help on?

Gus Isaacson: There isn't too many struggles we have in Central Lakeview. Most of our business owners are pretty savvy, adaptable to the environment, and the changing tastes of the consumers. The census came out recently and our alderman was pretty quick to point that we have the same amount of people living in Lakeview in the last 10 years whereas the city overall is losing people.

For you personally and for your organization, what are some big goals or initiatives you're hoping to accomplish?

Gus Isaacson: We're looking to relate to the businesses and be more observant of what they need from us and what the owners find value in, and not coming from our opinions from within our office. Rosie O'Donnell started her show on Monday so we sent a small message out saying maybe we'd put a gift basket together and if a business owner wants to donate something and they're around we'll take their item or business card. So we went from 10 businesses to 20 to 30 to 40 to 81 businesses that brought stuff into our office.

Did you get a Wieners Circle hot dog in there?

Gus Isaacson: Very nice! Very nice! But no. We outgrew the basket and got a wagon, and then we outgrew the wagon, so we bought a kayak and we stuffed the kayak with all 81 of these gifts. There were T-shirts, mugs, and gift certificates for $500, $200 from frozen yogurt. The value was over $5,000. But that's something where the business owners showed me that they think this is important. Rosie just moved into our neighborhood in Lakeview. She's starting a show with Harpo Productions and we'd like to say hello and reach out to her.

We rented a van, called Harpo, and they couldn't believe it. We put this 10-foot kayak in the van and it'll be interesting to see this week what transpired from all that. I thought maybe 10 or 15 businesses would put something together or say something, but it's those types of things that show what's important to them.

What are some challenges you guys are currently facing?

Gus Isaacson: We have certain industries that are difficult to highlight or support. There are so many dentists and salons, or banks, how do you get them impressed? We took out half-page ads in Time Out and put our business owners in them. We did it free of charge. This month we're doing dentists. It gives business owners some connection to the neighborhood and makes their faces known. It's a little bit of advertising and free press and a little more upscale than the typical picture of a tooth that they put their name under. A lot of them never knew each other and didn't even think of each other as competitors. After the photo shoot they all stayed and talked to each other and grabbed a beer. It was interesting the camaraderie we were able to give them.

You mentioned Time Out, and the QR thing you mentioned earlier is pretty cool, but it all makes me wonder: How does everything going online impact chambers of commerce? Are you guys able to adapt quicker than the media has?

Gus Isaacson: That's a very good question. I'm in the 44th ward, which is Alderman Tom Tunney. I make a point to show him exactly what we're doing in our office so he has some relevancy. There's a lot of disconnect sometimes between the alderman and the chamber of commerce or the merchant's association, which is the same thing. I identified that telling him what's going on in his neighborhood, so he understands it and supports it when a business moves in, he tells them to check out Central Lakeview. It's another advertising thing for me.

I showed him the QR directory and he's like, "What is this?" So I showed him Mike Lufrano from the Cubs, and he's talking about how they've been in the neighborhood for 135 years, and it was a great one-minute video. We have so many businesses that have been through so many decades of business that I didn't realize how long they've all been around.

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