Collaboration replacing competition
When a tough economy forced the Vail Chamber and Business Association to downsize earlier this month and its director of 13 months, Rob Chiles, departed, it created a new dynamic.
It’s not a unique situation. Businesses and business-advocacy organizations nation-wide are being forced to do more with less courtesy of the lingering national recession and other economic factors.
The problem, however, is also creating opportunity.
The two local organizations that perform chamber-like functions – the largely volunteer Vail Chamber and Business Association, a strictly Vail-centric group, and the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, which has a paid staff – haven’t always had the chummiest of relations, but the new economic reality is creating cooperation where once there was sometimes uncomfortable competition.
“We talked about providing some management and other services for a fee,” said Frank Johnson, president of the 825-member Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, “That way they can dedicate more of the funds they collect to programs. We’ve already got the (administrative) infrastructure in place.”
It will allow both organizations to leverage what they have. The idea of collaborating has even been floated to the smaller business organizations in Avon, MInturn and Edwards, although no actions have been taken in those communities.
Chiles’ departure and the downsizing of the Vail Chamber, which has 100 members who are predominantly retailers, is a snapshot of the difficult economic times the Vail business community and town government are grappling with.
The rate of growth of sales tax collections by the Town of Vail has been declining steadily since 1993. As a result, nearly everyone is trimming budgets and looking for more efficient ways to do things.
Leaders of the separate chamber organizations carefully avoid using the word “consolidation” in describing the joint venture because each organization has a different mission, and they take pains to ensure the cooperation won’t hinder that.
“We’re exploring doing some things together,” said Vail Chamber board member Steve Rosenthal. “Our basic thing is trying to maintain what is best for business.”
Johnson said the Chamber and Tourism Bureau, which has a heavy focus on hotels and lodging, doesn’t want to encroach on the smaller organization’s independence.
“We have no desire to take over or reduce their autonomy,”said Johnson. “We want to make sure what we’re doing isn’t a duplication of efforts.”
It’s all about money – or lack thereof. For the Vail Chamber it started with the planned reduction in funds donated by the town of Vail.
The Vail Town Council pared funding to the Vail Chamber to $225,000 this year, down from an allocation two years ago of $285,000, with an additional $75,000 for special events.
The Chamber and Tourism Bureau’s funding was also cut. When the then-Vail Valley Tourism and Convention Bureau merged with the Avon-based Vail Valley Chamber, the town provided the new organization with $206,00 for running the town’s information booths, $465,500 for special events and an additional $25,000 to facilitate the merger.
This year, town funding dipped to $199,500 for the information booths, $145,000 for special events and $25,000 for organization’s expenses. That funding, however, is a fraction of the organization’s $3 million annual budget.
That competition between the organizations for donations from Vail created some difficult political situations, and also its share of emotions during public meetings.
But the two organizations were thrown into the same leaky boat earlier this month when the Vail Town Council, looking to lop another $1 million from its ever-tightening budget, threatened to further reduce donations to both chamber organizations. Only an 11th hour show of support from community and business leaders saved the money.
To cope with costs, the Vail Chamber this year has for the first time begun charging dues to its 100 members, and hopes to raise $8,000 to $10,000, Rosenthal said.
While it’s still early in the collaboration, Johnson said the organizations could cooperate on hiring a retail specialist to help businesses in town spur flagging sales and could work jointly on other projects and ventures.
“We’ve had good agreement in principle,” Johnson said. “Details are where you can get bogged down.”
The cooperative venture between the chambers is one of several proposed county-wide that have been met with varying degrees of acceptance or resistance, as tightening budgets force managers to consider new ways of doing business.
The Eagle River Fire Protection District is currently exploring mergers with both the Eagle County Ambulance and the Vail Fire Department. And the valley’s various recreation districts also are having continuing merger discussions.
Cliff Thompson can be reached at 970-949-0555 x450 or email@example.com