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South County chambers use technology to benefit many

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South Hillsborough’s chambers of commerce are harvesting new benefits for both their members and area consumers.

By MELODY JAMESON

By harnessing advances in technology and combining interactive software, South Hillsborough’s chambers of commerce are harvesting new benefits for both their members and area consumers.

All three of the region’s primary business oriented organizations – the Greater Riverview, SouthShore and Sun City Center chambers – now are using software programs that provide their members with greater visibility throughout their markets and consumers with more detailed information on which to base their buying decisions.

Two of them have purchased and installed identical software known as ChamberMaster. The third has installed and used a similar program called Chamber Nation, but now is considering a switch. All three, though, consider the software’s concepts assets for their members and beneficial for the public.

Basically, the programs work in conjunction with each chamber’s website. Access to the extensive amount of useful information is gained through each chamber’s homepage. The program, owned by its producer, essentially is rented to the chambers, which then pay for it on a monthly basis in differing amounts related to the number of its members.

Generally offered to chamber members as part of their dues package, the programs from the member perspective provide several layers of exposure within a directory as close to consumers as their computers. These layers include a directory homepage for the business entity, customized with details pertinent to its operation, and possibly including news of specials or even downloadable coupons. A member business also can be listed among all of the business entities in that chamber in the same category. In addition, for those members paying a nominal fee, a top-of-the-list ranking with eye-catching graphics like logos or photos also may be available.

For consumers, the programs generate not only the vital statistics of member business’ contact options, locations and hours of operation, but also descriptions of the enterprises’ functions, lines of goods, types of services. The buying public also can access the chambers’ programs to determine how many business members are engaged in the same area of commerce, whether there are a number of competitors or a very limited number.

The chamber programs have other components, too, that support the organization’s internal management. Communications modules give the staffs options for member newsletters and event calendars and special occasion promotions. The individual managements can use their program to produce reports for their board of directors, such as how many visits to the chamber website have been made in a given span of time. Yet another management tool is the financial records component where a chamber’s fiscal picture can be easily maintained. Members even can signal their intent to participate in a program or attend an event through the programs.

 The Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in the Boardwalk of Riverview office park on Gibsonton Drive, was the first of the three South County chambers to try out ChamberMaster, according to Tanya Doran, its executive director. And in the three-plus years her members have been using it, satisfaction has reigned, she said. One of its best features, Doran pointed out, is that once equipped with their passwords, “members are able to participate hands on” by logging into the chamber website, www.riverviewchamber.com.

Their customized place in the GRCC’s ChamberMaster directory is provided to each of the 547 members in the organization with their annual dues payment, beginning at $160 for a business employing one to five persons, Doran said. An upgraded role in the directory including logos or photos and more text options are available to members for another $100 annually or for $30 per quarter, she added.

The GRCC executive also noted she has been particularly pleased with the ChamberMaster customer service, willingness to listen to suggestions and quick, competent response to questions. She and her staff have taken advantage of both CM webinars and one-on-one problem walk-throughs on the telephone, she said.

All in all, Doran added, the program has helped her organization function more efficiently, centralizing information, saving time, fostering “a one-stop shop. If a computer program can be warm and fuzzy,” she added, “this one is a tool that helps people connect and connects with people.”

The SouthShore Chamber of Commerce, which now serves both the Apollo Beach and Ruskin business communities following a merger last year, has been introducing the ChamberMaster functions to its 370 members this month, according to Joel Meek, president. Meek and Ron Simpson, president –elect, have been conducting workshops for a few members at time, demonstrating various facets of the program, underscoring how members can use it to their advantages.

SouthShore, too, furnishes its members with access to all of the individual business pages, including the customizable directory home page, as part of the annual membership fee which begins at $200 on the fewest employees level. SouthShore members interested in the enhanced upgrade, giving them such additions as logo/photo capacity, extra keywords and priority placement atop the business category listing, may buy in for $150 per year or $15 per month after their first three months, Meek noted.

While SouthShore members have not yet weighed in with their perspectives, Meek said that in time he expects the program will prove a useful tool all around, enhancing exposure of member businesses, centralizing chamber information and functions for greater efficiency and giving the public more knowledge of their local professionals, tradesmen, retailers and service providers by accessing the organization’s website at www.southshorechamberofcommerce.org.

Meek also indicated the program poses particular usefulness to SouthShore because of its unique position: two business organizations merged into one as it continues to operate two offices, one in Ruskin, one in Apollo Beach. And, the president added, “at the end of the day it’s important to give members more visibility and greater value for their membership dollar.”

The Sun City Center chamber membership has been using Chamber Nation for about 18 months, said its executive director, Dana Dittmar, but not with a high degree of satisfaction. While their program functions and offers components much like ChamberMaster – directory home pages, links, business category listing, etc. - the program has not been as “user friendly” as members and staff would like, she added. However, members still receive access to its advantages as part of the membership dues package, starting at $200 per year.

But the SCC chamber board now is seriously considering on behalf of its 432 members a different approach to this type of automation serving the interests of members, consumers and chamber managements alike. It is evaluating the option of creating and owning a targeted program, one designed and written expressly for SCC chamber use, Dittmar said. That evaluation to date has included discussions with at least three designing webmasters, she added.

In her chamber offices, Dittmar and her staff are responsible for tasks much like those in the other chamber headquarters: accurate membership rolls and informative membership newsletters, dues records and financial balance sheets, event calendars along with events planning and coordination, meeting records and reports, correspondence, promotion and all the other aspects of a healthy, growing business organization. And if the tasks are to be managed in a computer-based system, it could be made intuitive and logically functional, including the features most needed, the executive director indicated.

Then, too, if the management program were written solely for and owned by her chamber, routine payments for use of another system would no longer be necessary. However, the costs of creating that unique program must be weighed against the costs of routine rental over a span of time, Dittmar noted.

She described the chamber management programs available as offering some “phenomenal tools” and suggested that “every chamber of commerce will go to these eventually.” Plus, a customized management system, easy to use and owned by the organization, has a lot of appeal, she added. Dittmar said she expects a decision either to switch to ChamberMaster or to proceed with a newly designed program by the end of June.

Meanwhile, SCC chamber members and area consumers can access information in the existing program through the chamber website, www.suncitycenterchamber.org.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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