Making the Connection
Area chambers of commerce
join forces to expand markets
with Rgional Business Expo
Second annual event Sept. 25
at Gen. Butler Park to promote
networking across county lines
(September 2013) – As the business world continues to change and expand, chambers of commerce are having to change along with it to remain viable, retain membership and provide value to its clients for the money they spend on dues, staff and programs. Even in small counties, chambers of commerce face many challenges, such as keeping up with advances in technology and social media, in their efforts to strengthen and support local business through various educational programs, social activities and networking opportunities for their members.
But many chambers of commerce have realized the day has come and gone when simply focusing solely within county borders was enough. In today’s global business environment and Internet-savvy world, small county chambers are looking to their neighbors for opportunities to collaborate and expand their markets by connecting nearby communities. That’s exactly the goal of the second annual Regional Business Expo, set for Wednesday, Sept. 25, at Gen. Butler State Resort Conference Center in Carrollton, Ky., where businesses from four counties will hold a day-long networking and social event. The Madison Area Chamber of Commerce is again joining forces with the Greater Scott County (Ind.) Chamber of Commerce, Carroll County (Ky.) Chamber of Commerce and the Switzerland County Economic Development Corp. to stage the free event.
Photo courtesy of Kristin Clevenger
from Ivy Tech Community
College and Koehler Welding
staff their respective booths
at last year’s Regional Business
Expo, held at Belterra Casino
Resort in Florence, Ind.
“One of the messages we are trying to get out to local businesses is that you do have to reach outside of the local area to generate new business these days, and that’s the benefit of the Expo,” said Marta Belt, 48, board president of the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce and who works as director of academic advising at Ivy Tech Community College. “Spending time there, either as a booth holder or a visitor, gives you the ability to network with other businesses throughout the region.”
Excitement has been building among organizers to improve upon last year’s inaugural Regional Business Expo, which was held at Belterra Casino Resort in Switzerland County. That event featured only 11 business booth exhibitors and was mixed with a day-long agenda of speakers and presentations at a podium set up in the exhibitor room.
• Featuring: 42 businesses from Jefferson, Scott and Switzerland Counties in Indiana, and Carroll County, Ky.
• 1-7 p.m. Sept. 25 at Gen. Butler State Resort Conference Center, Carrollton, Ky.
• Cocktail Hour featuring live band and cash bar: 5:30-7 p.m.
• Admission: Free
• Information: (502) 732-7034 or (812) 265-3135
But this year’s Expo will be different, organizers say. There will be NO speakers or presentations, only a day filled with business-to-business networking, capped by a social hour at the end of the day, complete with a cash bar and live band. The hours of the event also have been shortened to 1-7 p.m.
“We have learned a lot from our first year of doing this,” said Trevor Crafton, 34, executive director of the Madison Area Chamber. “This will be purely a networking event for those businesses participating in the expo with booths and for others who want to come into the show and browse the booths and network and socialize.”
Photo by Don Ward
Madison Area Chamber
of Commerce Executive
Director Trevor Crafton has
worked hard to rebuild
membership since coming on
board in November 2012.
Belt said that during the planning of last year’s event, the Madison Area Chamber was undergoing staff turnover and other internal changes. “We did not do a good job of explaining the event to our members, and I think a lot of people expected it to be for the public to come in, so they were not interacting with each other as much. In past years, our Business Expo (at Clifty Inn) WAS for the public to come in, so there was some confusion about the purpose and format of this new regional event. But the committee has worked hard to make this second annual event about business-to-business networking, although the public is certainly welcome to attend.”
Photo courtesy of Scott County State Bank
Scott County State Bank is represented last year at the Regional Expo by (from left) Shelley Lakins, Vice President Retail Manager, and Jonathan Cooper, Assistant Vice President Business Services Officer.
A committee comprised of representatives from all four counties has been planning the Regional Expo. As a result of changes made to the format, the Expo was sold out as of late August, with 42 booths that will fill the large meeting room at the Conference Center.
“We have no space for any more booths; we are maxed out,” said Crafton, adding that more than half of the exhibitors were from the Madison Area Chamber.
That kind of immediate success bodes well for the future of the event, which the groups hope will continue to thrive going forward on a rotating host basis. Next year’s Expo will be held at Scott County’s Mid-America Science Park. The following year will be Madison’s turn to host.
• Size: 370 members
• Membership Dues:
$105 - $2,500
• Staff: Two full-time and
one part-time employee
• Size: 310 members
• Membership Dues:
$90 - $1,700
• Staff: Two part-time
• Size: 150 members
• Membership Dues:
$80 - $550
• Staff: One part-time
“We had four members participate in last year’s expo, and three are returning this year. I have heard nothing but positive things from those who participated,” said Keith Colbert, 73, executive director for 15 years of the Greater Scott County Chamber.
“We are already looking forward to next year when we will have the opportunity to show off our Mid-America Science Park.” With the help of one of the largest federal matching grants in the nation at the time, the 112,000-square-foot Science Park opened on 19-plus acres in fall 2011 in Scottsburg. It is dedicated to increase entrepreneurial and high-tech business development.
Cross-border networking between chambers of commerce seems to be growing in popularity among those who have taken part. Syd Whitlock, president and CEO of Scott County State Bank, sent a team of staff members to operate a booth at Belterra Casino last year, and the team is returning this year for the second expo.
“I thought last year was very well attended, and our folks left with a positive feeling about it,” said Whitlock, 35. “I’m a big believer in regional exposure around the area. It gives us a chance to expand our market to businesses outside of Scott County and let them know we want to do business with them.”
Whitlock’s bank has three locations in Scottsburg and fourth branch that recently opened in Austin, Ind. “Hopefully, this event will continue to grow and allow our area businesses to expand outside their own boundaries.”
Organizers of the Regional Business Expo modeled their event on a similar, very successful regional expo that takes place just an hour north of Madison. The Tri-County Business Expo, which incorporates chambers of commerce from Seymour, Columbus and Franklin, Ind., just held its eighth annual event on Aug. 28 at the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center in Columbus. The event is designed to pull together businesses along the I-65 corridor into one marketplace, said Bill Bailey, the 13-year executive director at the Seymour chamber.
“One of the messages we are trying to get out to local businesses is that you do have to reach outside of the local area to generate new business these days, and that’s the benefit of the Expo.”
– Marta Belt, Madison Chamber Board President
“In the early years, the event began with a public element, but it was later reformatted into a pure business-to-business program that has proved to be more successful,” said Bailey, 65. The event has continued to grow over the years to 80 booths this year and recently added a Tri-County Board Member luncheon featuring a keynote speaker.
Over the first five years, the Tri-County Expo rotated among then-participating chambers from Seymour, Columbus and North Vernon. When North Vernon dropped out, Franklin was added “so we could use I-65 corridor as the transportation ribbon to connect that region. It has been tremendously successful.”
Bailey cited a comment made by this year’s speaker that “chambers today have to operate within a regional marketplace, and those who used to be their competitors now have to be their collaborators because the world is now their competitor.”
Bailey is a believer that the Tri-County Regional Expo allows his members to expose their products and services to new markets just a short drive up the Interstate. “I have yet to go away from any of our expos when I didn’t have a member with a booth say they made a new business contact or sale that will easily pay for their booth space.”
Shelli Williams of Madison serves as president of the statewide Indiana Chamber Executives Association. Established in 1915, this group works to develop a strong network of professionals leading local chambers across Indiana. It provides management assistance and resources for its members.
For instance, Williams recently was called upon to coach Crafton as he took over his new role as executive director in Madison late last year. She has also facilitated board retreats for the Madison Area Chamber and is scheduled to do the same in Scott County in September. She served as the Madison Area Chamber’s executive director from 1992-99. She joined ICEA in 2001 and helps plan and facilitate two statewide conferences a year.
From her vantage point, Williams sees several trends playing out for chambers across the state. She says while many chambers in large metropolitan areas have merged to form larger entities, “my heart is with the smaller chambers who are having to survive in tough business climate and still remain a good value for their members. Unlike economic development agencies, chambers are not competing against each other, so it makes sense to join forces and collaborate where there are mutual benefits or markets.”
Williams, 44, promotes the notion that chambers today should focus on programs, services and networking opportunities that benefit members and, in doing so, membership retention will take care of itself. Crafton took that idea to heart when he came aboard, since membership at his chamber had dwindled to below 300 when he was hired. He “beat the streets” to talk up the chamber benefits and helped rebuild monthly networking programs for members.
As a result, the Madison Area Chamber now boasts 370 members and its monthly Work It Wednesday networking lunches are attracting 30-60 people, he said.
“People are getting smarter about how to connect with new potential customers, and this allows them to do it without any effort other than showing up to one of our networking lunches or breakfasts,” Crafton said. “We are creating and providing the venue for them.”
The Madison Chamber also revived its May golf scramble this year and continues to stage its very popular Soup, Stew, Chili & Brew event in October. The Annual Dinner in January remains its largest event, with nearly 300 members attending at the Hanover College Campus Center.
“As an organization, we have to make money to survive, but we have had to take a sincere look at ourselves in order to take care of our people and be willing to change and adapt to their changing needs,” Crafton said. “If we take care of people and work hard to connect our member businesses, then the money will happen. The Expo is a way to really connect people regionally, which is, in a bigger spectrum, keeping business local.”
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