Chamber of Commerce serves in support of Island business
The Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce is a busy place year-round, serving a dual role as the main support and promoter of Island businesses, and as the local visitor and convention bureau. In those roles, the chamber serves 1,105 members, answers 380,000 visitor requests for information, and helps accommodate 1.5 million visitors yearly.
"The two key components are both supporting the business community," Nancy Gardella, the chamber's executive director for the past year, said in a recent interview in the chamber's offices on Beach Road, Vineyard Haven. The chamber's primary mission is to support its members and help them grow and thrive in their businesses, she said, and the other is to help drive business to the members.
Nancy Gardella, executive director, at the Chamber office. Phot by Steve Myrick
As one of only six regional tourism councils sanctioned by the state Office of Travel and Tourism, Ms. Gardella said, "We feel a critical piece of our work is to bring tourism in an effort to help support the business community." Advertising is a big part of that component, but the tourism bureau's state grant funds pay for the chamber's entire marketing plan, Ms. Gardella said. The Vineyard's portion of the $8 million tourism grant this year was just increased to $361.074, a 9.5 percent increase over last year, she said. Almost all aspects of the state's tourism industry were up 12 percent last year, she said.
More than 31 million people visited Massachusetts in 2004 and spent approximately $12.4 billion, making tourism the third largest industry in the Commonwealth, according to the travel and tourism office.
For every dollar the state spends on tourism, it gets a return of $32 to $33, Ms. Gardella said, noting that the state recognizes the importance of tourism. Tourism revenue comes from hotel room and inn room occupancy taxes and other state taxes, she said. The state's tourism industry generated $808.1 million in state tax revenues and supported 125,300 jobs in 2003, according to the tourism office.
"It's a great investment for the state of Massachusetts," Ms. Gardella said, adding that the Cape and Islands are the state's primary tourist draws after Boston. Last year the Vineyard had 1.5 million visitors, and indications are it may increase this year. The ferry services and Cape Air are both reporting increased business, Ms. Gardella said.
In addition to the state grants, revenue for the Vineyard chamber's approximate $1 million budget comes from advertising in chamber publications and membership fees, Ms. Gardella said.
The chamber publishes two main visitors' guides each year. One is a book-sized version, with many pictures and lists of Island attractions, accommodations, restaurants, stores and art galleries, and transportation information, which is distributed to all chamber members and other venues. The chamber distributes 50,000 copies of the smaller version of the guide, which the chamber calls its "lure brochure," at the Steamship Authority every year, and gets more than 30,000 additional requests for them, which it mails free, Ms. Gardella said. Chamber members can advertise in both publications for a reduced cost.
"We think those [publications] help our members because they drive people to the Island," Ms. Gardella said.
The chamber's other major publication is the Island Book, which serves as a telephone directory and almanac, and is distributed free to every Island postal patron and business, plus hotels and other rental units.
The Island Book has yellow pages for business listings and a green-page section at the back, packed with information about the town, county and state governments, and services provided by Island nonprofit agencies. Chamber members get a free bold listing in the Island Book yellow pages and reduced advertising rates, and free listings on the chamber's web site and in the visitor's guide.
In addition to its own publications, the chamber office has a wall-length rack filled with brochures from Island accommodations, restaurants, recreational activities, and special events. The chamber's kiosk by the Steamship Authority also provides information for visitors daily during the summer and on weekends through the fall.
The chamber distributes thousands of free information kits to information centers throughout the state. The chamber's web site offers a variety of information about the Vineyard and provides links to specific member businesses.
Ms. Gardella said the chamber is always working to get advertising and publicity for the Vineyard through its editorial program. It sponsors advertisements in publications in the Island's key markets where the majority of tourists come from: New England, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The Washington Post had what Ms. Gardella called an "advertorial" about the Vineyard in May.
The chamber conducts more than 30 press tours each year like the one this summer for a New York Daily News reporter, who wrote a travel section story that focused on Oak Bluffs, Ms. Gardella said. This year, the chamber paid for 16 advertisements and won 32 editorial placements in international, national, and regional travel and tourism magazines, according to a report from Kae Williams, owner of Plush Public Relations, which the chamber hired in July to develop a strategic marketing and public relations plan for Vineyard tourism.
Ms. Gardella said she attends about 10 trade shows a year where she promotes the Vineyard, and makes contacts that may result in publicity. For example, at one show for tour guides and travel agents, she met an Irish agent who has a travel program on Irish television. She helped arrange a visit, which included accommodations, a dinner, tours and interviews with Vineyard business owners. The result was a program that aired on his show in April.
"It was a perfect time for Europeans planning fall trips," said Ms. Gardella, who also acknowledged that chamber members don't always see the effect of the staff's marketing efforts immediately. "It requires some long-range thinking. If more people know I go off to trade shows, they would be asking me to take their brochures."
Other new marketing efforts include one with the Steamship Authority this past summer, which put volunteer ambassadors on the boats to survey passengers about their Vineyard experience. Ms. Gardella said the chamber expects to expand that program.
"We're trying to refine our market research," she said. Another new venture next spring will be an event for lighthouse enthusiasts. It will be held in June, which often is a downtime between Memorial Day and the 4th of July, Ms. Gardella said. She expects it will be a good draw because people who love lighthouses tend to be older, love history and the natural environment, and will stay overnight and go to dinner.
Other marketing and public relations efforts Ms. Williams is working on include a wedding media tour Oct. 17-19 when 20 editors of top national wedding and bride magazines will be brought to several popular Island wedding and reception locations. A similar event is being planned for corporate meeting and event planners next spring to show them what the Vineyard has to offer for business/industry conferences, executive retreats and sales meetings. Bird watching tours and events also are being planned for next year.
"One of the chamber's goals is to identify large market segments that have the greatest potential of increasing tourism dollars on the Vineyard," Ms. Williams said. "By identifying and promoting the Island's attractions and activities that are of interest to these groups, the likelihood is that they will return year after year."
The chamber's eight paid staff and the directors are working on other ways to extend the tourist season from the traditional two months to nine months, in response to members' comments. "We want to add business in the fall and spring," Ms. Gardella said.
In addition to a desire to extend the tourist season, chamber members have asked for more structural programming and more press, she said. Internal member services include monthly business after-hours receptions at member host sites, an annual meeting in the fall, annual spring dinner, and educational seminars to give members a chance to talk about their concerns and needs.
"Our entire reason we're in existence is to support the business community," she said. "We want to improve our communications with our present members."
The chamber has sponsored breakfast seminars offered by Ameriprise Financial Services on financial planning for small businesses. It also is co-sponsoring two half-day workshops provided by the Southeastern Economic Development Corp. (SEED) next week at Lola's in Oak Bluffs on the fundamentals of business ownership, and understanding and preparing financial statements.
"We're looking to be relevant and timely with the workshops," Ms. Gardella said. For example, she said, every year when the new OSHA regulations are available, the chamber brings officials to talk to the Island restaurateurs.
The chamber's annual meeting and open house on Oct. 24 at the Grange Hall will provide information on the state's new health plan requirements for businesses that go into effect Dec. 31, as well as information on group health insurance plans that are available to members, Ms. Gardella said. It will also be an opportunity for potential members to learn about the chamber. "This year we're doing a huge launch of membership and marketing plans," she said. The chamber membership currently represents about one-third of the 3,300 Island businesses.
Chamber membership is limited to Vineyard businesses and transportation services connected to the Island, such as the Steamship Authority and the other ferries. No other off-Island businesses may join, although Ms. Gardella said she gets many requests from off-Island businesses that want to join because they want to benefit from the chamber's advertising or mailing list. "We feel strongly we need to adhere to our criteria for businesses," she said.
The base membership fee is $250 per business. Other direct services to members include a library of reference materials on topics such as starting a home-based business, writing a good resume, and Massachusetts labor laws. The chamber also supplies weekly lists of mailing address labels to members based on requests for information.
Based on her own experience finding housing on the Vineyard when she moved here, Ms. Gardella suggested a new Live/Work MV listing of affordable rentals for seasonal and other employees. She said the chamber recognizes that one of the big Island issues is housing for employees, including professional people.
The chamber supports affordable housing, but rarely takes a stand on legislative or political issues, Ms. Gardella said, although it made an exception in opposing the Cape Wind project as it stands today. The Vineyard chamber joined the Nantucket and Cape chambers in that stance. She indicated that position could change based on future changes in the project.
"Our policy is to remain outside of those political issues," Ms. Gardella said. She said the chamber tries to represent all Island businesses because some might feel betrayed if the chamber took a stance on an issue with which they disagreed. The chamber is represented in the Island Plan study committees. Board president Sandy Ray is on the livelihood and commerce committee, and director Ann Floyd is serving on the Island's strategy committee.
Ms. Gardella said she did take an individual stand, not as the chamber executive, on the wine and liquor license proposal in Vineyard Haven earlier this year. She urged the selectmen to put it on the ballot, but she said she would not tell people how to vote.
The chamber will take a stand on more broad-based issues that affect Island business as a whole, she said. For example, all the state's tourism councils this year worked against a proposed significant cut in the councils' marketing budget, and won that battle.
"The impact would be huge for local businesses," she said. The regional tourism council also has hired a lobbyist to look after its members.
"We want the legislators to work very hard for us," Ms. Gardella said. "We want everyone to understand our economic power."
The Vineyard chamber keeps in contact with state legislators, Rep. Eric Turkington and Sen. Rob O'Leary. "They recognize the value Martha's Vineyard business in driving the economic engine of Massachusetts," Ms. Gardella said.
Despite all the chamber's efforts on behalf of its members, the three main retail trade towns have their own business associations, and businesswomen have started the Martha's Vineyard Women's Network. The network was initiated partially to provide more educational programs for business people because members felt such opportunities were lacking on the Vineyard, network president Kae Williams said.
When asked about any competition with the chamber, she said, "It's a matter of us supporting each other." She said the chamber offers classes and does a lot to support its members, including hiring her public relations firm to do marketing.
Ms. Gardella admitted she was surprised when she first came here to see the other business associations, but she believes the diversity of the different towns is a factor.
Unlike Nantucket, which has one town, she said the Vineyard draws many different kinds of visitors who come here for various reasons.
"The beauty is we've got this amazing diversity in this tiny area," she said. "Each business association is trying to maximize the things they feel are strengths in their towns." Ms. Gardella said she believes that every group realizes that everyone benefits from the other towns' promotional events, such as Christmas in Edgartown, the Oak Bluffs Tivoli Festival and Vineyard Haven's film festival. The chamber also promotes all the special events, she said. It also recognizes that some business groups, such as the few who have shops at Gay Head and have no association, needs extra support. "We're trying to support all the Island," she said.
Jeff Kristal, owner of the Crocker House Inn in Tisbury, said, "As a lodging house, I benefit tremendously" from chamber membership through the chamber's call-in centers and referrals from chamber staff. "They're our first line of defense, and we hope they will refer people to us," he said. The chamber's annual meetings also are helpful, according to Mr. Kristal, because a member can sign up for the Island Book and other chamber services then. He said he believes the state tourism grants and Ms. Gardella's trade show visits, one of which he went on, are also beneficial to members.
Although this is her first paid job in a chamber of commerce, Ms. Gardella, 42, is very familiar with Massachusetts. "I'm a Massachusetts kid," she said, having lived in East Falmouth as a child, and in Cambridge and Worcester. She blanches a bit in revealing that her bachelor's degree was in English literature and philosophy from Worcester State College, and her master's degree was in religious issues.
Ms. Gardella got her introduction to chambers of commerce as a chamber volunteer while working in development and fund raising for the Framingham/Natick United Way, and as a community organizer and advocate for the YMCA and the YWCA. Her enthusiasm for the Vineyard chamber makes up for a lack of formal education or training. "I'm overjoyed to be here," she said. She acknowledged the support she gets from her board, staff and members. "It's a privilege to work with these people. They force me to be better."