By Jim Giammarinaro
President & CEO of the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce
FRAMINGHAM – I was unsure if it was appropriate to write an article about some of the good things that happened in 2020.
For many people this has been the most difficult year of their life. Loss of job, loss of business, loss of freedom and is some cases loss of loved ones has been the prevailing theme. Some people have lost all four. The truth is, that regardless of stimulus, there are a number in our community that will struggle for quite some time. Until every business segment can operate at 100% capacity, there will continue to be loss of jobs and loss of businesses. Until the vaccine is taken by enough citizens to create a herd immunity, there will continue to be loss of loved ones and restrictions on how we live our lives as Americans. Most importantly, until we as citizens feel safe to function as we did prior to COVID, many people will continue to struggle.
So why would I write an article about the “Good in 2020”? Because I believe certain that things happened this year which are new will continue to benefit us into the future when we are back to “normal.”
Our world at the Chamber revolves around our members. We have a team of myself, Deputy Director Stephanie Hirshon and part-time resources for marketing, accounting, and social media in Patty Danos, Phyllis Lord and Shannon Giordano. Our mission is to make sure that our work provides advocacy and other support for our 400 members which includes 40 non-profits. We began our efforts as a team in September of 2019.
In the fall of that year, we continued our chamber’s traditional work of having business after hour events. We also formed new collaborations with the Worcester & Marlborough chambers and created a new event at the American Heritage Museum to honor and support our region’s veterans. We had our traditional Annual Meeting at the Sheraton and our Legislative Reception at Sanofi to close out the year. All live and in person.
We began 2020 with a nice networking event at The Residence Inn in Natick (a beautiful new hotel). We then had a great joint networking event with the Ashland Business Association and Hopkinton Chamber. In addition, we were wrapping up plans for the 2020 Taste of MetroWest in March and were in the middle of planning a Hockey fundraiser for the Education Foundations of both the ABA and MetroWest Chamber. All live events. Then COVID hit in March.
Suddenly, like many organizations, we needed to pivot and figure out how to operate virtually. There were no more in person events or meetings. How could we learn to function, when so much of our work had been done in person with large groups? With the help of our new Board of Director member and IT support supplier, Jamie Stafslien and CTR we pivoted to a virtual operation. We utilized gomeet software to create secure and virtual BOD and committee meetings.
In some cases, our attendance improved at meetings as it was easier to turn on your computer to attend, as opposed to getting in your car to drive to a meeting. The downside was the intangible benefits of meeting face to face and the lost business for the hotels and restaurants which used to host our meetings and events. We became like many of our members who were able to operate virtually and still maintain their viability. This was not the case for our members who relied on foot traffic for their revenue like restaurants, retail operations and hotels.
Our Chamber consists of four major areas, advocacy, networking, training, and advertising. We could continue to provide services in these areas virtually. Our chamber’s Board of Directors voted to provide services at no cost in the areas mentioned, as many of our members were struggling. Those free services remain in place today. The area of advocacy became increasingly important to many organizations who needed influence, advice, connections, and training to sustain themselves. When focusing on advocacy many new features of our chamber came into place and we plan to continue these features after we recover from COVID.
Offering webinars related to the many challenges our members were facing became paramount. The Chamber’s law firms had been providing webinars on a variety of legal topics for a while but the chamber itself had never conducted a webinar. We began to conduct webinars in the summer with the
assistance of Jamie and the gomeet platform. We had webinars on applying for PPP funds, the proper use of funds to maximize loan forgiveness, working remotely, data security for working at home, social media, employment law issues and a variety of others. Senate President Spilka provided an update on what the state was doing to help. In six months, we were able to have over 15 webinars on topics to support our members. We would not have been able to have that many in-person trainings during that time.
We were able to connect members to legislators virtually. Susan Nichol from Senate President’s Spilka’s staff fielded many questions from our members. We were able to ask questions of Wade Blackman from Congresswoman’s Trahan’s staff. The responses to those questions were immediate and
greatly appreciated. Steph and I had nearly 100 virtual meetings with members to check in and see how we could help. We had never conducted a virtual meeting prior to June and many members we connected with would typically not be able to attend a networking event. We were able to learn much
more about our members and their needs by meeting virtually.
The pandemic also allowed us to connect with the city of Framingham’s leaders and other organizations we might not typically work with as often. We are working with Mayor Spicer, COO Thatcher Kezer, Economic Development Director Kevin Shea, and Public Health Director Sam Wong on many initiatives in support of our area’s businesses and non-profits. Framingham’s City Councilors have also stepped up to work with our chamber members and the city in support of business growth in Framingham. Our collaborations have expanded to include Courtney Thraen from Downtown Framingham Inc. as well as business and cultural groups within Natick and Ashland in support of those businesses most impacted from COVID. This is all being done virtually. In some cases, I have never met face to face with people who we are now working with regularly in support of our members.
As we move forward in 2021 and beyond, many of the new methods we have put in place to support our members will continue. They are efficient and allow us to connect with a greater number of people. Our type of organization and many others allow for viablity while working virtually. This is not the case for many of our members who rely on foot traffic and being able to operate at 100% capacity. We plan to continue our support for those organizations who will struggle until we are free from COVID and able to operate in a way that provides for the success of everyone.
Editor’s Note: SOURCE and the MetroWest Chamber have formed a partnership. The Chamber’s column will run on Tuesdays on the digital news media outlet.