David Duplisea took the reins at the Saint John Board of Trade just about ten years ago. Previous boards of Directors had discussed the possibility of partnering with the region’s Chambers and business associations to create a single organization. David’s first task as the CEO was to rebrand the legacy institution as a regional Chamber and merge four organizations into one from financial, by-laws, membership, and brand perspectives. The new organization, now known as The Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce, has successfully reinvented itself and serves the region and the province with an expanded membership and cohesive voice that speaks as one. They have added power to the business voices and not diluted them as was feared with the merger.
Cost controls, new technology, and innovation enhanced online processes, and a view to new revenue streams was critical as the new organization was reimagined. As social media became more and more popular as a means of networking and communication, many chambers and boards of trade found themselves becoming irrelevant from these perspectives.
he Saint John region Chamber was able to help insulate itself from these “disruptive technologies” by embracing and implementing them to attract and retain new members and business attention.
New revenue streams are critical to the survival of the Chamber. The Chamber was formed in 1819 and has successfully reimaged itself based on the changing needs of a dynamic business landscape. Seminars, events, and conferences provide an opportunity to help members learn and adapt to new practices and have been increasing in terms of scope and value.
For example, the Saint John Region Chamber was the first Chamber to embrace the new Cannabis laws and partnered with local members to present the first World Cannabis Conference in Saint John, NB. Over 400 attendees from 11 countries learned about the new medical, educational, legal, marketing, and social ramifications. The Chamber was also instrumental in introducing policy positions to the government to implement laws and practices for this new sector.
Navigating the Pandemic
David and The Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce were able to pivot and reinvent themselves to serve the business community throughout the pandemic. They had already implemented a hybrid model where the staff could work from home and their offices. Two days before the actual lockdown occurred, David instituted a complete work from the home model for all staff.
Realizing that businesses and the community would need access to trusted and accurate information on a 24/7 basis, and with David’s background in information systems and management, The Chamber developed an Online Information Resources Centre. The day after the lockdown went into effect, the Information Centre went online. The Chamber provided access to government policies, regulations, important Covid information, and necessary PPE to keep staff safe. Through this, they were able to assist 5000 people and businesses every week. They heard on numerous occasions that this helped tremendously and provided comfort and relief in a hectic and confusing time.
As businesses pivoted and developed their new business models, the Chamber also provided an Online Marketplace that highlighted all these businesses and how to contact them. This service grew to include businesses of all sizes and types and was emulated throughout the region.
The Chamber continued to lobby hard, in conjunction with the other Chamber in NB, to enhance and increase the recovery initiatives, including expanding the wage subsidy from 10% to up to 75%, providing rent relief, and funding for those impacted by the pandemic.
Although in a pandemic, the Chamber continued to provide the community with a sense of normalcy by hosting a series of Mayoral Candidate Forums for the whole region during our municipal elections, pivoting to include virtual and in-person components.
“Many of our local businesses and leaders had worked hard and were able to pivot and survive the tough times so the Chamber recognized the importance of continuing with our Outstanding Business Awards ceremony,” says David. “As the longest standing business awards ceremony, it was important that we continue this tradition despite the realities that the pandemic had caused. An inventive virtual event, complete with an international children’s choir recognized community champions for their efforts, none of this recognition would have been possible without my amazing teams.”
Working towards Clients Productivity
Working with one of their members who had an idea that the Chamber could leverage the trend to get out of larger cities and work from here, the Chamber and USTATION launched an innovation program called Workcation, this “work from anywhere, live here” campaign was found on a pilot project basis, and has been successful with over 450 applicants. The program applicants visit and work in their region for four weeks, and they curate a personal experience based on their tastes, including sports, recreation, culture, and hospitality. The costs of the visits are subsidized up to 60%. Financial support from the Province of NB allowed them to launch this program. Currently, the Chamber has had visitors that are relocating here and others that are exploring their options. “There is now a waiting list. This “try before you buy” model now has the technology infostructure, best practices and learnings and data analysis that could allow it scale up for larger catchment area,” adds David.
The Chamber has also worked with the federal government and the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce to support local buying campaigns. Rather than create a new program that could dilute existing efforts, they decided to augment their efforts to increase the uptake and provide additional “jet fuel” to their campaigns. They have created a #LiftUpLocal campaign where the Chamber gathered together their regional economic development agencies, the city of SJ, and regional municipalities and helped fund activities such as a regional jazz festival designed to safely bring people back to a public venue to enjoy music. They have supported the “digital dollars” campaign implemented by our local Business Improvement Association. A famous farmers market was also helped to operate safely and help people feel safe as they venture out. This LiftUpLocal brand was attached to the Chamber’s regional activities, helped create a pride of place, and provided an incentive to keep their purchasing dollars local.
The biggest accomplishment of the Chamber under David’s leadership was to successfully reinvent this organization so that it was a vibrant part of the community and contributing on a national stage. The Chamber was awarded a silver medal finish in a national competition for new and innovative models that enhanced membership value when David presented the successful rebrand to a more diverse regional organization. Membership has stabilized and increased, and the organization is now in a financially sustainable position heading into the future.
“This past year we had the opportunity to return to our roots. We opened our new office in “The Chamber Building” located literally in the same space where we were formed 202 years ago,” elucidates David. “The Chamber has returned home, as a symbol of the strength and resiliency of the regions’ business community. The new space plays homage to our extraordinary past as one of the first business associations in the entire country.”