2020 was — to put it mildly — an unprecedented year. As the virus emerged in Pennsylvania last spring, in what ways did you find your daily work suddenly change to meet the needs of local chamber leaders?
The PACP, like all our member chambers, and like all kinds of businesses, had to re-evaluate what we do and how we do it. As a professional development association, we provide direct, specialized assistance and quality education to our members. We do this by connecting chamber executives and teams with one another and with industry leaders to share best practices and new ideas. This helps to make our organizations the best they can be to serve our communities.
When it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would wreak havoc on business in Pennsylvania, we turned our attention to providing the most accurate, relevant and timely information to our members that we possibly could. Our hope was that chambers would successfully manage the circumstances impacting their own organizations, but also provide the most value to their members and their communities.
While the PACP has held webinars and conference calls in the past, our signature events were obviously in person: Chamber Day, in partnership with the PA Chamber; and our fall conference, which includes more than 100 Chamber professionals, speakers, sponsors, exhibitors and partners. Both events were moved to a virtual format, but our offerings were expanded significantly throughout the year with online trainings, roundtable discussions and a sharing of resources designed to address the challenges we were all facing.
We are extremely fortunate to benefit from the executive management services of Tiffany Fulmer Ott, who is a true rock star in the chamber world. Her connections to several state associations, as well as a nationally-renowned network of experts in our industry, offers a tremendous value-add for our organization and for our members. With her help, along with the tremendous partnership with the Pennsylvania Chamber, we were able to expose our member chamber teams to the highest level of talent in our industry. In this year of unprecedented challenges, those resources were more needed, and more appreciated than ever.
Can you speak to the ways that you’ve worked with the PA Chamber to help get businesses the information they need to get through this difficult time?
Words are not enough to express our appreciation for the PA Chamber. From the first moments of the pandemic’s impact, the PA Chamber team was providing resources for all kinds of businesses and organizations throughout the Commonwealth, including our community of local chambers of commerce. The online platform through the PA Chamber website was outstanding; the daily emails were a lifeline of important information; and the many virtual town halls, webinars and other programming was invaluable. And the PA Chamber generously offered all these resources at no cost, including to businesses and other entities that were not members of the PA Chamber. During this crisis, the PA Chamber mission was clearly elevated beyond its own well-being, focused on helping to assist, and in some cases, even save as any businesses and industries as possible.
Beyond the sharing of resources, the PA Chamber immediately took a leadership role in shepherding businesses through the many challenges of the pandemic: advocating for businesses seeking “essential” status, assisting with connecting businesses to PPE, working with leaders and stakeholders across all industries and from across the state to envision the needs of businesses and incorporate them into their Bringing PA Back initiative. While many businesses were still in the thick of dealing with their own pandemic crises, the PA Chamber was ahead of the game in looking for short-term and long-term solutions for the future of the Commonwealth as a whole.
The team at the PA Chamber, through all of the obstacles thrown their way, endeavored to bring people together. That vision, spirit of collaboration and steadfast commitment to the Commonwealth’s business community has been, and continues to be, vital to our recovery and our opportunities to thrive in the coming months and years.
What specific challenges do you feel that businesses in communities statewide need to be immediately addressed in 2021?
There are so many challenges for businesses to face in 2021, and many, especially small businesses are tired, and frustrated, and scared. There are concerns about potential lawsuits related to COVID-19 issues for employers and worksites, including health care facilities. There are challenges for companies in desperate need for workers, and a shortage of prospective employees who are able and willing to work. There are issues for businesses whose employees are trying to balance work responsibilities along with educating their remote-learning children. And for many, there are overwhelming pressures with worries over personal and team safety as well as business potential, or lack thereof, with so many uncertain factors still to navigate.
What has been one thing you’ve been especially proud of during this trying time?
I have been so proud of the way the chamber industry has risen to the challenge of this unbelievably difficult time. With the unfailing support from the PA Chamber, our network of local chambers has done all we possibly could to provide resources to our member businesses, and very often to not-yet members as well.
We’ve had to learn a lot on the fly, assisting businesses while also trying to keep our own organizations going. Some local chambers were forced to reduce staff (as many revenue streams such as in-person programs and events were cancelled). But through this crisis, we also found new ways to support our communities, and we’ve created new and stronger synergies among our stakeholders. In many instances, our industry has become more relevant and more vital than ever before.
Just after the shutdown, I had a member business reach out to me and say, “I don’t know what businesses are doing if they don’t belong to a chamber. How do they even know where to go for help?” I think we’ve shown our business community that the chamber industry is an essential partner for the success and growth of individual companies as well as for communities and regions.
The greatest force of good in a community, large or small, in my opinion, comes from businesses working together toward a common goal. As chambers of commerce, we have the unique honor and responsibility to foster those connections and lead those initiatives. That role has been amplified through the COVID-19 pandemic. Our chamber network, on behalf of our local towns, counties and regions as well as our Commonwealth, have served as a catalyst for business assistance, a convener of leaders and influencers and a champion of strong communities. I know that there are businesses in Pennsylvania whose doors would no longer be open had it not been for the work of their local and/or state chamber.
As the president of the PACP, what are your top priorities in the New Year?
The PACP will continue our mission to enhance the quality and relevance of chamber management in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by providing professional development resources to our members. We know those resources will, in turn, benefit the business climate of the Commonwealth. We will also continue to recognize the outstanding service and accomplishments of the best among us, as well as encourage all of those who pursue careers in our profession to never stop learning and growing.
We know the greatest strength of our organization is our members. The chamber industry is full of incredible servant leaders who want to use their time, talent and experiences for the betterment of the world around them. They are generous in sharing the secrets of their successes, as well as lessons learned from setbacks, with one another. That was most evident during the ups and downs of 2020.
PACP Vice-Chair Fred Gaffney said it best when presenting our most prestigious honor, the Keystone Award, to our friend and colleague Chad Amond from the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce last fall: “One of the silver linings through this crisis has been our increased interactions through PACP, the PA Chamber, and smaller group discussions,” said Gaffney. “The relationships we’ve built have been galvanized this year, as we’ve supported each other more than ever in our important roles as chamber of commerce leaders.”
Another important part of our mission is to grow our ranks. The PACP board of directors invites all chamber professionals to join us, as well as our friends from the PA Chamber, as we work collectively to make Pennsylvania the best place possible to live, work, play and prosper.