Business organizations struggle to reap fewer membership funds
By Susan Stabley
As business organizations countywide battle for membership dollars, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce has extended its recruitment drive deadline because of a serious lag in its campaign.
A memo from President Bill Cullom to the executive committee, board of governors and other participants stated the primary goal for the group was "making our goal of $950,000 in membership sales." The chamber, he wrote March 24, is only "slightly more than halfway there."
As a result, the deadline is extended to April 23, also the date for the chamber's membership drive awards reception at the Wyndham Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove.
"We feel that these extra weeks will allow us time to close on those prospects we have been working on," Mr. Cullom wrote.
When asked to elaborate on the letter this week, the chamber president referred questions to campaign chairman Nick Bustle.
This is Mr. Bustle's first time as sole leader of the campaign drive, which kicked off in late January. He said he co-chaired the efforts last year and has been involved in bringing in members for 15 years.
This year's drive has been one of the most difficult, he said.
"The economy is definitely posing a challenge," he said Tuesday.
But a worry that the chamber will miss the mark is "not a concern," he said.
"We have a very good chance of making the number," said Mr. Bustle, also a senior vice president with SunTrust Bank in Miami. "We wanted to give the people working on the campaign extra time to get the message out."
Chamber chairman-elect Peter Roulhac said belt-tightening in a depressed economy, the war in Iraq and all-around business uncertainty are to blame for the lagging campaign.
While Mr. Roulhac described the actual campaign drive as "upbeat in its focus," concerns about the current climate triggered the extension.
"We thought that it would perhaps be prudent to have three extra weeks," Mr. Roulhac, of Wachovia Bank, said Monday.
The chamber, founded in 1907, is the state's largest and the fourth largest in the US. Its website cites about 6,000 volunteers from roughly 2,500 member businesses. More than 700 are trustee members. Dues range from $450 to $2,950.
In addition to economics, the chamber may be facing competition from other business associations, such as the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County's economic development agency.
The Beacon Council once held campaign drives but now brings in members throughout the year, said Joe Martinez, senior vice president of member-investor services. Staff members and a membership taskforce work on securing memberships, he said.
"We're a very soft-sell organization," Mr. Martinez said.
"For the past three to four years, our membership has been a flat line. It hasn't has gone up and it hasn't gone down," said Janel Rozenblit, executive assistant for the Beacon's membership and investor services. Numbers have been stagnant since 9/11, she said
But, as Mr. Martinez emphasized: "It hasn't taken a dip."
This year's objective is to bring in $320,000, he said. The council's membership of about 400 comes from the Miami-Dade area, from Fortune 500 companies to mom-and-pop shops.
March 30 marked the council's mid-year point and membership is "about 50% of where our goal is for the year," Mr. Martinez said.
He said he's very pleased with successes this year, noting that despite current events, the Beacon Council is still hitting its targets for membership.
"We'll be happier once it upturns and the war's over and everything returns to normal," he said.
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau also solicits renewals and memberships year round and is now "on pace" in its efforts, said
David Whitaker, senior vice president of marketing and tourism.
The bureau's goal for the year is $1.2 million in memberships. As of March, the fiscal year's midpoint, $602,000 has been generated, he said, about $35,000 ahead of where the bureau was last year.
Dues run from $650 for a small business to $1,100 at the corporate level. Hotels pay $30 per room. About 1,100 businesses are members, he said.
Mr. Whitaker argues that ultimately, membership value is a matter of use.
"It's like being a member of a health club and you only go once a month. It's not going to help you. You have to be active with the organization you are member of," he said.
Those members work together as a business partnership to promote the visitor industry, he said, and - as is the mission of the bureau - to market the destination.
But during slow periods, businesses may face a decision of whether to trim promotion costs or instead be more aggressive in marketing.
Mr. Whitaker said that eliminating a marketing expense during poor economic times might be the wrong move for a local business.
"I guess it depends on your business model," he said. But, he argues, "It's in the challenge times when you need a Beacon Council or a chamber of commerce or the bureau the most."
A similar statement was made for the Greater Miami Chamber.
"We are working hard to get message out there," Mr. Bustle said. "Now is not necessarily the time to hold back but a time to reach out and that is the message."
But can these three organizations bring in local businesses without butting heads?
Mr. Roulhac describes any competition between the chamber and the Beacon Council as a "modest overlap" and shrugged off concerns of dueling drives with them or the convention bureau.
"It's nothing major," he said. "Each of the three has its own mission. Both the Beacon and the CVB came from out of the chamber," because each was spun out of the chamber in the 1980s.
"There's business enough in South Florida for three organizations," he said.
Mr. Martinez of the Beacon Council said the big three offer different approaches for the business community, but concedes that in selling memberships sometimes the council is confronted with a business that is maxed-out in membership spending, having already paid to belong to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce or a smaller organization.
"There are about 20 other chambers in the area. It's not only the Greater Miami Chamber competing for dollars," said Mr. Martinez. "We target the companies that we've helped in the past."
As Mr. Martinez remarked, the real challenge to the Greater Miami Chamber may come from smaller chambers that have adapted to compete in a struggling economy, as business owners decide that perhaps one membership is enough.
Merchants are examining every expense, said Karen del Valle, executive director of the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce.
"Everybody today is fighting hard for that dollar," said Ms. del Valle. "The competition is more today than it has been in the past."
The Coconut Grove chamber, founded in 1976, just kicked off an annual drive though membership has usually been rolling in the past, she said. Membership is at 200 and the chamber is looking to expand, she said, be it by single members, like a real estate agent, or larger stores. Dues range from $100 to $1,500.
Smaller chambers can offer a personal touch that may be lost. Ms. del Valle said she tries to help local shops by making connections among them, seeing where one store can aid another. Plus, she said, the chamber doubles as a visitors' center for the Grove.
"We want to provide an extra bang for the buck."
That's the attitude of Michael Milberg, chairman of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce.
"Right now we're holding our own," Mr. Milberg said of his chamber's membership. His chamber's membership drive will kick off in May and could run from four days to a month.
"Our philosophy in these economic times is that members get a dollar-for-dollar return of investment," he said.
Other methods of retaining and obtaining members include working out payment plans or running longer receivables, he said. "You have to be creative and the membership appreciates that."
Other perks include free museum passes for members, deals for long distance and cellular phone services and discount cards for restaurants. Plus, Mr. Milberg said his chamber plans to diversify its revenue as well as reach out to gaps in its membership, such as the entertainment industry and condominiums.
Memberships in the Miami Beach Chamber cost $300 to $1,500. Mr. Milberg estimated membership at 1,500 to 1,700. This year's drive will probably target $75,000 in new members and renewals. Last year, he said, the chamber met a goal of $70,000 during an intense four-day drive.
Mr. Milberg said competition does exist among business associations, estimating that a merchant could face as much as $12,000 in dues by belonging to multiple groups. One hotelier, he said, was considering firing a housekeeper to cover membership expenses.
"Again, you have to really show your worth," he said.
The bottom line?
"You have to prove that this membership is not the expense to cut," he said, "and that's what the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce has been able to do."