For an organization built on personal relationships, the way to do business was always in person. From networking events and leadership programs to advocacy work, the Greenville Chamber helped construct a stronger business community, one handshake and one face-to-face conversation at a time.
“We were a high-contact organization,” says Carlos Phillips, the Chamber’s president and chief executive officer. “And by that I mean, there was a lot of interacting. We were, I would say, high-touch in terms of our networking events and opportunities for leadership development. Those were all in-person.”
That all changed in mid-March when the country first shut down then attempted to reopen in fits and starts. For small businesses, the months since have been stressful and uncertain. For the Greenville Chamber, it’s meant adapting the organization’s business model to deliver value to members through different avenues—like virtual meetings, informational campaigns, outdoor events, and even helping with access to capital.
“Just about every business owner I’ve talked to, their lives have changed,” Phillips says. “And we have had to find new ways to deliver value. The pandemic has really forced our hand in some ways, and we’re a better organization as a result of it.”
Connecting businesses and resources
One of the first new initiatives the Chamber introduced was a series of information-sharing sessions via Zoom called Community Matters. “We've executed about 30 of those, all designed to provide the business community with valuable information,” Phillips says. “At first, it was, 'OK, how can we help businesses navigate this pandemic? How can we connect them to the resources that are going to help them best succeed through this health crisis?'”
Over time, though, the subject matter grew more varied, with the sessions extending beyond the current health crisis and into areas like voting and race relations—the latter of which attracted over 200 participants. The Community Matters sessions have been so well-received, Phillips said, the Greenville Chamber is building them into their 2021 programming and plans to continue them even if the current health crisis has passed.
“We seem to have created a platform that’s desired by the end-users,” he says. “We have people who want to share their story, and the business community is being well-informed on things going on their community. So that’s a program that will continue.”
The Chamber’s annual leadership development program went virtual this year with graduation held outdoors on the baseball diamond at Fluor Field, so everyone could spread out. Its annual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit will also be virtual. Its annual golf tournament is sold out—reflective in the upswing in golf overall, as Americans take advantage of a safe outdoor individual sport.
The Greenville Chamber’s biggest event each year is its annual meeting, the largest business meeting in South Carolina, which typically draws around 1,300 people. In early 2020, it was held at the Greenville Convention Center. Now, the Chamber is working on two tracks—moving it to April of 2021 at an outdoor facility, and planning a virtual experience as a backup. “But we’re hoping to deliver that annual meeting as an in-person event,” Phillips said.
Cash, capital and masks
Although the Greenville Chamber is not a bank, it can still help its members access the cash and capital essential to keeping many small businesses open during this uncertain time. When Greenville County received $91 million from the federal government through the CARES Act, the Chamber successfully advocated for a large chunk of that money to help keep small businesses operating safely.
“Through our advocacy and the advocacy of others, Greenville County dedicated $75 million of that $91 million for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, nonprofits, and women-owned businesses,” Phillips says. “So it wasn't necessarily that we had the capital, but we had the access and the ability to influence those who had the capital.”
Along with the city, county and Greenville Area Development Corporation, the Chamber also formed a Business Recovery Task Force whose cornerstone is the Greater Greenville Pledge—a commitment to reopening responsibly by adhering to guidelines that helped instill confidence in consumers. Over 1,600 businesses have joined thus far.
“The businesses need some guidance—how should I be conducting business during the pandemic?” Phillips says. “Your employees need to be masked. They need to wash their hands. That needs to be clearly demonstrated to the customers, and that was also a plea for the customers to do the same thing. We're really proud of the businesses that have accepted the pledge and committed to modeling those safe and healthy behaviors. We also knew that the only way that consumers were going to revisit stores and restaurants is if they felt comfortable that business was being conducted safely.”
The Chamber’s commitment to safe reopenings also included its “Masks Up” initiative, in which the organization at first committed to distributing 10,000 masks to local businesses—a number that’s grown to 40,000 masks, and continues to increase. It’s another example of how the Chamber’s adaptability continues to benefit its members, even if in-person gatherings are on hold for now.
“The Chamber alone has not led to the recovery of our smaller businesses,” Phillips says, “but I do think we’ve played a key part. And during an unprecedented challenge, our business community has stepped up.”
Interested in learning more about what the Greenville Chamber can offer local businesses, and how it’s adapted to better serve members during this uncertain time? Contact the Chamber at (864) 242-1050, or visit its website at GreenvilleChamber.org.