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Membership Rolls Rebounding from Recession

After several years of reduced budgets and waning membership for many local chambers of commerce, area executives say things are finally looking up. When the recession hit several years ago, the organizations diversified their membership options and launched new programs to keep companies involved. Now, for some, the work is paying off. “We are definitely seeing more people. We are signing up new members ahead of budget and renewals are good,” said Jill Lederer, chief executive of the Greater Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce in Westlake Village. “I think businesses are looking to the chambers both for that business-to-business interaction and for the business-to-consumer exposure.” There are more than 3,000 Chambers of Commerce nationally, according to the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group. Of those, more than 35 serve the greater San Fernando Valley area. The organizations listed in the Business Journal’s annual directory of local chambers are still working hard to keep their members, with expanded networking opportunities, more community events and representation in local politics. The Greater Conejo chamber started an Emerging Leaders program that brings together business executives under 40, helping draw members from companies that had not previously participated in the chamber. “We’re finding that young professionals in our area really want to connect with their colleagues across industries. We’ve had a number of successful new programs,” she said. New fee structures have also kept members on the chamber rosters. With membership fees a concern for many companies, some chambers have begun offering reduced prices. Nancy Vanyek Hoffman is chief executive of the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce in Van Nuys. She said it’s still hard to convince some members to renew at the basic membership fee of $360. “New membership isn’t as difficult because those are people that want to network, but renewals are still a bit of a challenge,” she said. “We started offering tiered memberships based on number of employees, as well as by industry.” Chambers in the area are collaborating with nearby chambers more than in years past. Executives say that they have collaborated by making events open to members of other area groups. Offering workshops The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce has joined together with the Antelope Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for its business expo in July, something organizers say will bring more people to the event and expose businesses to more potential customers. And while chambers have traditionally relied on the networking opportunities available through lunches, breakfasts and monthly evening mixers as selling points, more have begun to offer workshops and small events to cater to industry segments. “We are starting to do seminar series,” said Ramon Ortega, chief executive of the Lancaster chamber. “We are doing workshops on social media marketing and looking at ways to help people promote their business down the line.” Ortega said the chamber’s focus is on giving its members practical experience and tools. The social media workshops will be interactive and hands-on, and he said he plans for more activities with that approach. “We’re going to expand into other areas. It’s about bringing people up to speed, about what they can do to market their business,” said Ortega, whose chamber includes large corporations such as Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co. as well as small businesses. Nearly all of the area chambers have retained some version of a government affairs committee, with members helping lobby for the business community’s interests. The Woodland Hills-Tarzana Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee is active in local politics. Chief Executive Diana Williams said the presence benefits the chamber members. “This gives our members a strong legislative voice and a front row seat to current local issues, propositions, measures, items of public safety and quality of life issues,” she said. The committee launched the Valley Regional Forum, which has hosted a town hall meeting of congressional candidates, panel discussions on statewide propositions and a local council candidate forum. But for all the work the chambers do for their members, Ortega likes to remind businesses that a chamber membership is only valuable if company executives participate in activities. “It’s like joining the gym,” he said. “You can put your money down, but if you don’t go, it isn’t going to do much for you.” Download the 2013 CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE list (pdf) This story has been corrected. An earlier version mistakenly noted the number of chambers that comprise the Greater San Fernando Valley Chambers of Commerce.

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