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Friday, Jun 9, 2023

Portrait of a Chamber and Its Leader: Adapting to Changes

Each of the dozens of chambers of commerce operating within the San Fernando Valley can offer dozens of members ready to sing the praises of their organization. It would be difficult to rate chambers in any substantive fashion, and it would be wrong to assume that the biggest are always the best. But there are some that consistently earn the praise from their members, and other chambers, for consistently improving their offerings and representing communities well. The Mid Valley Chamber of Commerce has one thing that every organization prides: a wealth of institutional knowledge. Executive Director Nancy Hoffman Vanyek has been with the chamber for 18 years, starting as its communications manager. The chamber serves primarily the Van Nuys, Panorama City and North Hills areas but claims membership from throughout the Valley. Vanyek has been able to see the area change, and see how local chambers have re-evaluated their role in business. Along with several others, the Mid Valley Chamber decided a few years ago that it was time for a hard look at what role chambers served, and what local business people thought of them. Vanyek and her staff found that chambers felt to most people like relics from an antiquated way of doing business. “We realized that people were still looking at most chambers as your father’s chamber,” Vanyek said. We didn’t want to be that way any more we wanted to be younger, sexier, and more attractive to the younger business people. That seemed to be a hard market to penetrate, years and years ago people belonged to chambers because that’s just what you did.” The committee re-evaluating the chamber was made up of outsiders, members were leaders of local business organizations, board representatives from other chambers and city government officials. Overall, the committee found that the chamber was doing good work, although in some cases it was too reluctant to self-publicize. But Vanyek decided the chamber’s events could be spiced up a little bit. “We wanted to create a buzz, we wanted people to be talking about the Mid Valley Chamber. That’s how we were going to gauge our success,” Vanyek said. “Our installation dinner we made into a whole James Bond event. We made it sexy and little bit outside the mainstream.” “It was so different from every other dinner, it really changed how we did our events. We weren’t afraid to be seen as little cutting-edge, a little bit outside what people see as (normal for) chambers anymore.” Themed events The chamber’s installation dinner earlier this month this time the theme was “An Evening at Moulin Rouge” saw over 260 people in attendance. Not bad, Vanyek said, for a chamber with 400 members. She’s also shortened the portion of the program spent on installations and speeches. “People want to be entertained, they want it to be something they’re able to bring their spouses to and have a good time. People stay and dance,” said Vanyek. “We get a lot of couples, when before it was maybe single people, business obligations buying tables. Now the tables are made up of friends going there and having a good time together.” The Mid Valley Chamber has also made a strong effort over the last couple of years to more technologically accessible, especially when it comes to government affairs. The chamber’s rapport with local representatives, Vanyek says, has always been good, and the chamber is linked into a weekly conference call with the California Chamber of Commerce in order to stay abreast of important state issues. It also maintains a committee that is empowered to take a political position without having to go to the chamber board first, making it much quicker to react to members’ concerns. When the chamber launched its new Web site last year, it included a function that allows members to easily send letters to their state representatives on political issues. Members enter their ZIP code and the letter is automatically drafted and addressed to the right senators or assemblymembers. Chamber members can make their own changes, download the letter as a Microsoft Word document in order to print it, or simply send the letter right from the chamber’s web site with a click of the mouse. Looking for a fit Tim Walsh, a financial advisor who lives in Sherman Oaks, said he took two months to explore different chambers before deciding which one to join. “I went to mixers, breakfasts and lunches and a board meeting for five different chambers,” Walsh. “It was a very thorough process and I found out the Mid Valley Chamber was really going to be meeting my needs. They were well developed, and had consistent leadership. Their people have been there a long time, they didn’t have a lot of turnover.” Walsh has also made use of the Chamber’s Web site to contact his elected representatives from time to time. He said the site’s function that locates representatives is helpful, considering that most people aren’t sure who their representative is. Walsh said the chambers biggest strength is its events, which are well-attended. He goes to the networking breakfast every month, which he said is regularly attended by up to 100 people. One of the biggest changes for the chamber after its strategic vision committee convened was the way in which it approached member advocacy. “A lot of people would join the chamber because they believed that we would support every business issue, whether it was a zoning issue or a liquor license,” Vanyek said. Most of the time, members that joined for those reasons were unlikely to renew after a year, and the chamber decided that assessing a business’ impact on its surroundings was as important as growing its membership. Vanyek said the chamber began to pay closer attention to whether or not businesses were bringing more crime, or working with the police. It looked at the prevalence of liquor licenses in an area rather than giving automatic support to every business that asked for it. “We decided that if it wasn’t good for the community as a whole, whether we had historically supported an issue, we weren’t necessarily going to support (every business),” she said.

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