Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance has two jobs

WILLIAMSBURG — While its tourism arm gets the most attention, the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance also has a business side meant to represent all the area's businesses and perform the role of a traditional chamber of commerce.

"The Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance is a nonprofit organization that serves as the voice of business in Greater Williamsburg. We create an environment of economic vitality through advocacy, education and networking to help businesses develop, grow and prosper," said president Karen Riordan. "As the DMO, we promote the Greater Williamsburg region as a premier year-round travel destination."

Chamber dues vary by type of business and by size.

For example, according to Riordan:

•A sightseeing company that has 6-10 employees would pay an annual membership fee of $385

•A campground would pay $410 + 2.05 per site over 100

•A hotel would pay $410 + 5.15 per room (1-42 rooms) OR $85 + 12.35 per room (43+ rooms)

•A restaurant would pay $300 +2.05 per seat ($875 max)

•A financial institution would pay $572 + $286 for each additional location

•A nonprofit pays $330

•A retiree or nonbusiness member may pay $200 to join.

That's not cheap, according to at least one former Chamber member.

Jim Kennedy, of Dudley's' Bistro said he used to be a member of the Chamber but isn't any longer.

"The price became prohibitive for what I was getting," he said Tuesday. "The dues are fairly high for a small restaurant and increase per table."

About 25 hotels and restaurants left the Chamber several years ago in a dispute over policy.

The Chamber has about 800 member businesses.

According to Commissioner of Revenue Richard Bradshaw, James City County has about 5,400 business, York County has about 4,000 according to its commissioner of revenue's office and the city has another several hundred. So the Chamber represents less than 10 percent of the area's businesses.

Riordan said participation rates aren't that important.

"We do not calculate a rate of participation. We focus on gaining membership within the three localities among businesses who share our values and mission," she said. "We have a very diverse set of businesses from micro businesses to large organizations and across many different sectors from financial services to health care to education, nonprofits, real estate and everything in between."

Colonial Williamsburg, one of the area's largest businesses is also one of the Chamber's most enthusiastic members, normally always holding a seat on the Chamber's Executive Committee and co-sponsoring many events with the Chamber.

"The collaboration between Colonial Williamsburg and the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance is obvious. Working together, we make the best use of our resources to encourage tourism and increase visitation to the entire area. It's good business for Colonial Williamsburg and for the entire region," said Mark Duncan, director of college, community and governmental relations for Colonial Williamsburg.

What do Chamber members get for their dues?

The first is advocacy. The Chamber advocates for a number of issues that are important to the economy and the business community, such as economic diversification, improved transportation, environmental sustainability, availability of quality health care and housing, education and workforce development and tourism promotion.

"We advocate on key issues of tourism and transportation throughout the year with members of the General Assembly," Riordan said. "We do work closely with the Hampton Roads Chamber, which has a EVP of Government Affairs and he advocates with the general assembly on our behalf as well."

Other benefits the Chamber offers are networking events and education.

The education component includes "Prepared, Care, Share" customer service training, business seminars and workshop programs.

The Chamber offers communications support with a newsletter and website listings for members, social media communications and sponsorship opportunities.

Business assistance programs include SCORE Business counseling, and Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

Riordan said the Chamber also offers health insurance options for members, via Chamber Solutions.

That's the kind of thing Kennedy said he didn't seen enough of when he was a member.

"I was looking for programs that might allow me to offer health insurance or life insurance to my employees that I had seen that other chambers offered," he said.

The Chamber also works with the Economic Development Authorities in each locality to help to attract businesses.

"Yes, we work well with all three economic development authorities in the destination. In fact, the three Directors all sit on our Economic Progress committee and are instrumental in sharing priorities so the Chamber can lend support in attracting new businesses to the area, as well as help business start-ups, and expansion," Riordan said. "We also work closely with them, as appropriate, on economic development opportunities for the tourism sector including Arts in Williamsburg, Sports Williamsburg and Christmas in Williamsburg."

Riordan said the most important activities are advocacy, education and business networking.

The Chamber's Tourism Alliance side, which works to help market the destination, also helps all area businesses by helping to bring more potential customers into the area.

Chamber efforts at trade shows, the I-64 Welcome Center and for Christmas In Williamsburg and in attracting sporting events are particularly important.

Riordan, who's only been on the job for a short time, says she thinks the community could better understand the Chamber's role.

"So far I've noticed that many residents don't have a deep understanding of all that the Chamber does, probably because we are one organization that also includes the Tourism Alliance. My focus is to help build the entire economic zone which means all businesses, small, medium and large, whether they are directly, indirectly, or not associated with our tourism economy," she said.

She said there could be changes in what the Chamber does.

"I am in the process of reviewing all programs and getting membership input to see where Chamber members want to focus energy. We have excellent all-volunteer standing committees, working on Economic Progress, Government Affairs, Membership, Ambassadors and Armed Forces," she said."In addition, we have tourism committees working on conference sales, group tours, and sports. Other special event committees include the annual dinner dance, the Christmas parade, Taste of Williamsburg, Oktoberfest, Job Fair and the Chamber Challenge Golf tournament."

Bottom line, the Chamber has a big job.

"It takes a lot of committed volunteers and an incredibly hard working team of staff to make all the activities happen yearround and it is impressive to see how much they accomplish," Riordan said.

Steve Vaughan can be reached at (757)345-2343.