Face-to-face service the way forward for Chamber 

President listens to members' concerns and needs on the quest for relevance

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Last week, Fiona Famulak, the president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, took her show on the road.

It was the annual Chamber of Commerce Week, and Famulak and the chamber's relationship manager Karen Stefanson visited businesses in person for informal chats for an hour each day. They spoke to representatives of 50 Whistler businesses, some members, some not.

"We just moved throughout the village and connected with as many as possible. It was really informal, took two to five minutes of an owner's or senior manager's time just to ask questions about their needs," Famulak recounted.

This is the second year that Famulak has done this for Chamber of Commerce Week and the findings are added to their monthly Walkabout Wednesdays, which also gauges Whistler's company owners and managers.

There were plenty of positives coming out of the exercise, not least several possible new members joining up:

"One of our strategic areas for focus this year is our relevance and values, and we're really interested in asking our membership, 'Are we relevant?' and 'Does your membership get good value for money?' So those were the questions that were framing our conversations last week," she said.

Famulak said popular programs include the chamber's Mystery Shopper and Service Challenge programs, as well as sponsorship opportunities through the chamber at the end of 2012 that were still bearing fruit.

She found that retailers and recreation, food and beverage and accommodation sectors have had a good post-Christmas season in particular and have "turned a corner," though service sectors less attached to resort activities have found it challenging.

One key area requiring change, Famulak was told, was the Spirit Program, with its discounted Whistler Blackcomb pass for participating resort employees who purchase it after completing service and orientation tests. This will be looked at in 2013, she said.

Generally, she said she was very happy with what she was hearing.

All this comes almost a year after Famulak told Whistler Council that the chamber needed to cover a 2011 deficit of $153,793. Reasons for the debt included terminated contracts for boardroom and office space, reduced sponsorships, lower than anticipated numbers in its various programs and start-up costs for hosting the inaugural Outlook Economic Symposium.

It was a tough moment, which led to introspection. The Whistler Chamber raised member fees by 20 per cent in September 2012, halved the size of the board from 22 to 11, and reviewed the organization's bylaws for the first time since the chamber's creation in 1967. Famulak was able to report at the chamber's AGM in December that the deficit had been entirely absorbed through accumulated reserves.

Famulak believes they are in a more secure place following these changes.

"It sometimes takes a perfect storm like that to really hone in on what our priorities are... and I agree with our board's decision, our relevance and value to our membership is first and foremost," she said.

Sue Adams, chair of the board of the Whistler Chamber and a member of the provincial government's Small Business Roundtable, said she felt that the chamber was in a "very healthy" position for the year.

"I think the (chamber) really understands the membership and the demographics of the membership, which I don't think was always necessarily the case," Adams said. "I think the board totally buys into the goals moving forward and we just need to make sure we've got good oversight and governance in place to support chamber staff."

She said the major changes to the chamber and its governance in 2012 are now in play in 2013, including "having a better ear to the ground," as demonstrated by the face-to-face business visits.

"A lot of work was done by the board, looking at our governance structure and I think it has positioned us perfectly well for moving forward," Adams said.

Adams said another focus for the chamber was advocacy at a local level with the Resort Municipality and at the provincial and federal level, too.

"Tourism Whistler does the marketing for the resort, and particularly all the businesses in the village have to pay fees to Tourism Whistler to market the resort, but the chamber is the voice for all the other little business issues," she said.

Upcoming business events include the Kathy Barnett Leadership Luncheon on March 8 at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, with guest speakers Jane Francisco, the editor-in-chief of Chatelaine magazine, and Sophie Lui, morning news host of Global TV in Vancouver. Famulak said there were about 50 tickets left but she expected the event to sell out.

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