Why I Don’t Want to Come to Your Chamber Event – and How You Can Change That

Networking Group
ITU/Rowan Farrell

My circle of friends includes a lot of small business owners. People who own bars, print shops, jewelry businesses, motorcycle shops, yoga studios, food trucks, cideries, dinner clubs, podcasts, and organic farms. And they all have one thing in common.

They do not want to come to your chamber event.

I actually go to a lot of chamber and industry events—and I have benefitted tremendously from attending networking happy hours, gaining mentors and connections. But I’m an economic developer, and I’m used to the small talk, the dress code, and the business card exchange. My friends who are creative, entrepreneurial types are not interested in putting themselves in environments where the main activity is “networking” and the food options range from crudité and ranch to cheese and crackers, (typically without a gluten free or vegan option, excluding celery.) Faced with the choice of running marketing campaigns from their phone while they watch season 4 of Parks and Rec, or interacting with people they don’t know, they’re going to pick yoga pants and the couch over awkward conversations.

They also haven’t heard about your event. Your networking lunch may be posted on your website and Facebook page, but if this target audience is not already interacting with you on social media, then it’s not reaching small business owners outside of your members.

Why is this a problem? Why does the kombucha brewer need to know about and attend Chamber events? Because she represents your next generation of businesses, and if she is not accessing the services offered by your chamber and other aligned organizations, then your economic development ecosystem is failing.

Chambers are vital partners in economic development efforts. They are the access point for businesses in the region, and through their networks, businesses gain access to resources offered by the supportive organizations that can guide them to success, such as financing and mentorship opportunities.

Unfortunately, if a small business owner is looking at your chamber website, seeing a board and staff lacking diversity, holding events at the country club, she will not see your organization as a space where she fits. And when her business encounters a setback, without a network of support, you risk losing her business and all that comes with it—the owner, the employees, and the young people who would potentially be attracted to your community by the enticing things to eat, do, and see. Today, talent is the most important factor in retaining and attracting business, and chambers cannot stand to ignore a subset of small businesses just because they are unconventional or much younger than other members.

Another reason that your “Business After Hours” may not be attracting young people is that networking as an activity has lost its spark. With their purchasing decisions, Millennials have shown that they value authenticity, connection, and community – witness the success of outdoor brand Patagonia, whose products and branding advocate for ecological sustainability – and whose recent Pittsburgh store opening featured designs by a local print shop. With creative engagement with the community, Patagonia attracts young people with common goals and ideals to come together in their space, for events beyond shopping. Trading business cards and small talk does not provide engagement with a community or authentic connections.

Business networking events don’t really make sense to people running small, creative businesses. Talking to a bunch of random people at a business networking event is not an effective solution for growing your business when technologies like LinkedIn and Google exist, making it easy to research specific contacts, understand their expertise, and reach out for a coffee date. Finally, for young business owners, their time outside of work is limited, and they want to spend it having quality experiences.

So, what can you do?

Engage

Small BusinessEconomic development is a profession built on relationships. Stopping by the new businesses that are cropping up in your community and introducing yourself and your organization goes a long way. You might have to do a little bit of hunting – small businesses operating from their houses won’t have a storefront yet, but could be selling significant amounts of merchandise on Etsy or another online platform.

One way to get in touch with these producers is to keep up with farmers markets and maker fairs in your community. Maker fairs like Handmade Arcade feature hundreds of craft-based artists, makers, and producers; consider reaching out to the fair organizers to get an roster of local vendors whose booths you can visit.

Programming

Millennials have been programmed their whole lives. From Little League to dance lessons to student life activities in college, Millennials are really good at engaging in organized fun. Having an activity or event gives participants something to talk about and engage in together, creating an authentic connection. The description of Newaukee, a young professionals group in Milwaukee explains why programming is so essential to creating meaningful networking events for young people:

“…there had to be a way to socialize and explore the city with their peers that did not entail hauling a stack of business cards to a stuffy networking event. And they also believed in building genuine, long-lasting relationships – people need to meet on a common ground, doing something that they truly love together.”

Newaukee hosts incredible events for their members, billed on their website as Signature Experiences, such as Tournavation, a crowd-sourced idea generation platform that focuses on solving important issues that face the city of Milwaukee, and The Launch, a curated networking program featuring an exhibition of hiring companies and potential recruits on a boat.

Social Media Ready

Photo Ready FoodI am not suggesting you join Snapchat, but I am suggesting your event be worthy of posting on social media. Food choices, drink selections and choice of venue contribute to the quality of the event and the attractiveness of images to be shared. It’s not just enough to have a hashtag – consider experiences that young people can engage with and share on social media, such as a custom backdrop, or providing a station to make signs about why they love their community.

Also – make sure your events are being shared with the young people you are trying to engage. Social media is great for this but working with local online communities, such as blogs or message boards, will put your event in front of new eyes. Don’t forget community bulletin boards at coffee shops or bars – if your event flier is posted alongside music and art shows, that’s a good sign.

Don’t Go It Alone

To get maximum turnout from young folks at your events, engage them in the planning process – and in your organization. Start with asking young people to get involved in planning your events – ask for help in where to have them, and how to promote them. As they become more involved, ask them to join your committees or boards, or help them to create their own, Chamber-supported organizations.

For example, the group Connecticut Young Professionals was started in 2013 by a young person who was new to the state and has grown to more than 1,400 people. They hold events such as a non-profit pitch nights. In an interview, founder Faris Virani explains how he tailors events and messaging to his membership:

Growing up in the digital age, millennials are used to getting information very efficiently, delivered quickly and with brevity. Our speakers realize that their job is almost to plant seeds, not necessarily convey all the information during your speech.

Create a Judgement Free Environment

Today’s young entrepreneurs are more likely to wear a hoodie, echoing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, than a French cuff shirt reminiscent of Gordon Gekko. If you expect young people to wear different clothing to your event than what they wear to work every day, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re changing the venue and the programming of events, you might also consider specifying a dress code on your marketing – with friendly wording such as “Come as you are,” or Dress Code: Casual.

Take these suggestions and look at where your Chamber organization or networking program has room for growth. A good first step is to visit that brand new local brewery, coffee shop, or café and introduce yourself the old-fashioned way. Those authentic connections will take you a long way in connecting with the new generation of business owners.

Workforce and Placemaking

The following is the fourth installment of a four-part series entitled, “Re-defining the Three-Legged Stool: Placemaking as a Component of Economic Development.” (Read Parts 1 , 2 and 3)Three Legged Stool

Workforce is the underpinning of the three-legged stool of economic development. Without a strong workforce, there is no way to succeed at business attraction or retentionand no way to cultivate entrepreneurs. In economic development circles, the discussion around placemaking often centers on talent attraction. The thinking goes that top talent is attracted to places with high quality of life; businesses thrive on this talent and will expand and relocate to those places where talent flocks. So, in essence, places with a high quality of life are better for business.

 

A Change in Economic Forces

It used to be that a community’s economic success was dependent on some fixed competitive advantage such as access to natural resources or proclivity to a transportation network for moving goods. A good example is our firm’s hometown, Pittsburgh, located in an area rich in ore and coal to make steel and with access to three major rivers. Manufacturing created the economies of Pittsburgh and many other cities, but today, talent is the number one most important economic force. Sources from across the economic development spectrum tell us this.  Nearly all the executives (95.1 percent) surveyed by Area Development in its 28th annual Corporate Survey rated availability of skilled labor as “very important” or “important” in their site selection factors. This factor is now considered more important than highway accessibility and labor costs, and certainly more important than incentives offered. We see this in Pittsburgh too, as companies such as Google and Facebook locating offices in town to be close to the graduates of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

But talent is in short supply. Unemployment rates are falling, which means there are fewer people available for jobs. This is felt particularly hard in tech companies, which report a lack of talented workers with the skills needed for the rapidly evolving industry. Another benefit of attracting and retaining talented workers is that they are engines of innovation, whether from the inside of companies where they spearhead new ideas and spin off new divisions, or through entrepreneurship, forming their own enterprises and creating jobs. Attracting new talent is essential, and the best way to bring in high quality people is to offer a high quality of place.

Beyond the Baseline of Quality Markers

Quality of place means many things. A more traditional definition includes low crime rates, good housing stock, great schools, and local culture and recreation. But the cities and regions that are really pulling ahead in the race for talent understand that the baseline is no longer good enough. Much has been made of the “return to the city” and how millennials and baby boomers prefer a dense, walkable environment where they can live, work and play (to the point where urban planning professionals roll their eyes at the catchphrase). But the proof is in the evidence. Cities that provide living space in multi-use areas connected by transit and surrounded by quality recreation outlets are seeing their attraction of talent skyrocket.

Take Denver for example. The city has bet large on placemaking, from the $1 billion revitalization of the historic downtown Union Station to a new light rail system. These investments, coupled with outdoor amenities and copious sunshine, have contributed to Denver being named by the Brookings Foundation as second in the nation for attracting millennials. But it’s not just large cities that benefit economically from increased quality of life via placemaking. Regions around the U.S. are shifting their focus from business attraction to talent attraction. In Northeast Indiana, the focus of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is to attract new people to the area through improvements in downtowns, greenways and blue ways, arts and cultural assets, and education and industry through the Road to One Million plan (which Fourth Economy had a role in creating.)

Resiliency Means Quality of Place for All

Attracting and retaining talent is an essential component of economic development, but, it’s important to understand that placemaking does not mean only making places comfortable for highly skilled, highly paid employees. A well-designed place delivers quality of life to those at every age and income spectrum. Planning for all members of a population is what makes a place resilient and vibrant.

Providing affordable housing, especially in trendy inner-city neighborhoods, is a tough challenge and one that affects the workforce, especially for essential employees whose wages don’t begin to compare with highly paid tech workers. In places like New York, workers who make under $35,000 are increasingly being pushed out of formerly affordable neighborhoods to outer suburbs. When this happens, the financial and time cost of their commutes rise, cutting into already low wages. While particularly dire for service employees such as retail workers, this also affects teachers and police personnel.

From the placemaking perspective, increasing density leads to more options for housing across the spectrum, ideally situated in in-town neighborhoods that are walkable and served by transit. As the supply of housing increases in these desirable neighborhoods, the price decreases. One tactic to encourage denser development is to allow for “Missing Middle” housing to be developed. Missing Middle housing, a term coined by Opticos Design, is composed of a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types that are compatible in scale to single-family homes. Some examples include duplexes, carriage houses, townhouses, and accessory dwelling units. Allowing this type of development densifies neighborhoods and provides access to housing at a lower price point, without a significant disruption of neighborhood character.

Missing Middle Housing Diagram

Barriers to Small Scale Affordable Housing

Building Missing Middle housing is typically not undertaken by large developers, and therefore is built by property owners, small real estate developers, and community development corporations and financed by local banks. The margins of profit for Missing Middle housing are smaller so in order for these projects to be financially feasible, there must be a regulatory environment that permits these types of buildings. Most existing zoning codes separate housing types so that multi-family is not intermixed with single family and residential above retail is not allowed. This stunts Missing Middle housing by forcing projects to go through zoning hearings that extend the project timeline and cost to a point where construction is not feasible.

Allowing for small residential infill projects to be built not only provides more options for affordable housing, it allows property owners to benefit from rising housing costs, and alleviates increased property taxes. Of course, to truly provide benefit, increased density needs to be coupled with transit to access jobs and services.

A Connected Workforce

Placemaking is a term that can be misconstrued to simply mean making communities more beautiful. While placemaking tactics such as downtown development, street scaping, and encouraging traditionally affordable housing types does improve a community’s aesthetics, if done properly, placemaking can unlock significant economic value. Connected, vibrant communities with a multitude of housing and transportation options return the best value to inhabitants, creating places that workers are attached to and invested in.

 

What Is Not Being Addressed that Will Kill Your Economic Development Strategy

BooksforBlogAt this point I think we are all familiar with the struggles facing Detroit Public Schools, at least on the surface: mushrooms growing in schools, teacher strikes, financial crisis. However, as detailed by this incredibly thorough and thoughtful report by LOVELAND Technologies, 200 years worth of poor decision-making led Detroit to where it is today. This speaks to the need for a new approach to public accountability in our education system. Recognizing the critical role of public education to economic development, in Nashville, it has been the Chamber that has been stepping up to provide that platform for accountability by conducting annual holistic assessments and concrete recommendations for improvement. Continue reading “What Is Not Being Addressed that Will Kill Your Economic Development Strategy”

Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana

IndianaBlogImageOn Tuesday, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) announced $126 million in state matching funds to support three regions in pursuing their visions for growth. The Regional Cities Initiative was developed based on a study of regions that have experienced transformational growth, performed last year by Fourth Economy, and is being funded by a tax amnesty program. Tuesday’s announcement was the culmination of months of planning on the part of Indiana’s regions, and Fourth Economy was fortunate enough to facilitate and advise on the strategy for two of the winning regions in those efforts – Northeast Indiana (home to Fort Wayne) and Michiana (home to South Bend). Here are a few lessons learned from our work helping multi-county, cross-sector partnerships identify and prioritize quality-of-life investments meant to attract and retain population.
Continue reading “Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana”

Three Ingredients to Support Market Opportunities – Moving Beyond Industry Clusters

ProvidenceBlogImageFourth Economy recently concluded a Cluster Development Strategy project for the City Council of Providence, RI. The analysis, conversations and excitement that was demonstrated during the process underscores the need to think beyond traditional Industry Clusters and be open to identifying emerging sectors that may still require definition.

The City of Providence is an example of many communities throughout the country, especially in the Midwest, Northeast and New England, where economies that once were led by industrial dominance are still searching for the right mix of legacy and emerging businesses and organizations to regain strength. While finding an easy strategy to replicate in these communities remains elusive if not impossible, I offer 3 ingredients that must exist in order to advance an approach that embraces Market Opportunities.
Continue reading “Three Ingredients to Support Market Opportunities – Moving Beyond Industry Clusters”

Inspire Yes, But Act As Well

Coffee-Shop-1099Tis the season for annual conferences – that chance each year for trade groups to tout their accomplishments and relevancy. The Fourth Economy team attended our fair share. What we find scary is that while the workshops and keynotes are conveying the seismic changes occurring in our economy, change on the street, in our communities and programs, appear to keep on keeping on as if it were, oh say, 1999. Many of the metrics for growth we heard remain focused on absolute land development, job creation (regardless of type and cost) and more office space.   Continue reading “Inspire Yes, But Act As Well”

Ready, Set, Survey…

Survey-Tailgate

As summer BBQs turn to fall tailgates, how often do you find that neighborly backyard burger flipping leads to discussions on how great your town is or how much better it could be.  Sure there is always room for improvement, but ever wonder how those opinions and impressions sync-up with the facts.  Sometimes we are too hard on our own community when it may really be doing quite well, while other times it is heading for a cliff that nobody seems to notice or care.  In either case, gaining a better understanding of how impressions align with the facts is a good starting point for long-term strategic planning. Continue reading “Ready, Set, Survey…”

Trends in Town-Gown Collaboration

Trending-Town-GownToday’s economy elevates the value of higher education institutions to the highest degree of public awareness ever demonstrated. Higher education institutions impact their community in a host of very obvious ways, such as:

  • Supporting the development of 21st century talent armed with skills to drive modern business;
  • Employing a range of professionals in a sector often recognized as the largest in many small communities;
  • and Initiating research and development initiatives supporting the advancement of technology and improved economic performance.

These examples speak to the common ways nearly every institution engages. Yet, what does it mean for a campus to be truly connected to its community? Continue reading “Trends in Town-Gown Collaboration”

National Fourth Economy Community Index Lists Top Ten Large-Sized Counties

141204-FECIndex

Fourth Economy Consulting announces the latest release of its national community index, listing top counties from across the nation. The Fourth Economy Index highlights those communities ideally positioned to attract modern investment and managed economic growth within the fourth economy.

PITTSBURGH, PA – The latest edition of the Fourth Economy Community Index was announced today, recognizing the top ten large-sized Fourth Economy Communities. These communities—with populations between 150,000 and 499,999—were selected because they represent regions that are poised to achieve sustainable economic growth while attracting people and investment.


Continue reading “National Fourth Economy Community Index Lists Top Ten Large-Sized Counties”

Working as a Freelancer

Freelance-Worker-DeskMore Americans are becoming freelancers, and enjoying the freedom of working independently and making their own decisions. Various studies predict that over 40 percent of the American workforce will be freelancing by 2020. Freelancing is what the “American Dream” is all about for many people. Basically, anything you might consider doing in your own business, you can do on a freelance basis under your own name.  Freelancers can be asked to do just about any kind of work you could imagine with no expectation of a permanent or long-term relationship with a single employer. Continue reading “Working as a Freelancer”