Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read February 2023 — Given the last few years of economic volatility, the role of a chamber of commerce has continued to evolve, and with that change has come innovation and opportunity. In interviews with Invest:, Robin Miller, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber, and Tom Morrissette, president of the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce, discussed what being a chamber of the future means as well as how they see the region continuing to evolve.
How has the role of the chamber evolved and what does being a chamber of the future mean?
Robin Miller: “I am a strong believer that if you are a chamber of commerce in whatever city or geography that you are representing then you should be doing the work of the business community. This is why there is a segment of chambers that hasn’t evolved, which are called festival chambers. I am not saying that festivals are not important, but don’t just turn and burn on festivals rather than working on a program of work that directs businesses in the right direction for economic development. That is how chambers have evolved. Some are being left behind and some of us are marching with orders.
Additionally, to be a chamber of the future, it is vitally important to integrate technology. We will be left behind if we do not continue to evolve with technology because our businesses are evolving and becoming self-automated. The need for employees and person-to-person engagement is less, so chambers need to embrace technology and have it available. Inside our organizations, we cannot forget that we need a personal touch. For example, I have a member that is a t-shirt seller who is an entirely different member than Wyndham Grand. So, we need to engage with them differently given what type of resources they have available and can benefit from. My motto is that we want to put ourselves in the shoes of another and that is how we go every day at the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber.”
Tom Morrissette: “The basics are always going to stay the same. The rising tide lifts all boats is how we work. And Mom-and-pop shops may not have the ear of a county commissioner, but when they bring the issue to us, we can set up those connections. That’s always going to be an important role that the chamber plays. We’re moving forward nicely. We look at some of the issues that are confronting our economies and where we live, and the chamber plays a pivotal role in that. I’m not really looking anywhere and saying, here’s where we need to be in 10 years. It’s a natural progression.”
What are the ways in which the region will look, feel, and operate differently in the next few years?
Miller: “We are going to differ in every capacity because our beach communities are ripe for business development, so we have lots of hotel development, retail development, condo and apartment development, and so all of this is just going to bring more jobs and a diverse business climate because we will have a different scale of businesses. We will have up-scale, mid-tier, and achievable-tier for some income levels.
About the regional development, well we are excited about all the growth, we are the number one destination in the state for tourism and visitation but being a planner, we want a foundation under us. Thus, where do we balance the excitement of growth with the people that live here? That is the real question. So, while I am not a certified economic planner and developer, I am still a certified chamber person so I can say that you need to have healthy and responsible growth.
Lastly, I’m concerned about infrastructure, especially in St. Pete with all of the burden of buildings and businesses. We deal with it at the beaches a lot, and I don’t see them deal with this in other areas of the Tampa Bay region.”
Morrissette: “One of the challenges that Pinellas County faces is space limitations. We are pretty much built out. We’re seeing our remaining industrial sites turn into housing developments because it’s currently much more profitable. Are we going to become a bedroom county or are we going to be a thriving business region? That is a concern I have.
Establishing and working with our medical arts district and making sure that the projects and the goals we have for that district are successful is a priority. As is our work with transportation initiatives.We have partners in our economic development committee with PSTA and with other organizations. Transit has always been a hot-button issue here in Pinellas County. And we will continue to address the importance of the workforce needs.”
What factors set your chamber apart and lead you to success?
Miller: “Innovation was one of the key categories that made us strong and allowed us to get through COVID as well. Then we have sustainability where we have kept our business model strong and have slowly grown over the years as well. Lastly, our advocacy work is a central piece since we are a very strong chamber in terms of advocacy. Many of our advocacy items are geared towards the tourism industry. We have hired a lobbyist and an assistant to help with some of that work at the office as well. Moreover, advocacy shines bright for our organization as we are looked up to by our colleagues across the state in the work that we do.”
What do you do to attract new members to the chamber?
Morrissette: “When I got into the chamber industry in the 1980s, pretty much the first thing a business did after hanging its sign was to join the chamber. It’s a bit more difficult today. There’s a lot of competition with trade associations and for-profit networking companies. Word of mouth works well for us. About 80% of the people that come in our door are people that are referred by our other members. We do some programming that’s free in the community and that helps us recruit. We also have a big social media presence and get three or four inquiries a day wanting to learn more about us through that.”
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