Chamber of Commerce Economic Forum: Stale Program?

[This article is aimed at chamber of commerce executives across the country.]

Is your Economic Outlook Forum stale? Many are. Plenty of chambers across the country found in past years that an annual forecast program is their best-attended event of the year, but I’m also hearing many chamber leaders say that attendance is dropping. It may not be the weak economy so much as stale programming.

Mary has just returned to work from her chamber’s annual economic forecast program. She heard an economist reinforce her political views—or contradict her views—but what’s different because she attended the event? She has lost a few hours from the office, she has networked with some friends at the break, but she is not going to manage her business any differently.

Your chamber’s best solution is to connect the dots between the economy and business. For example, if the economist is optimistic, then members should be reminded that in a stronger economy they need to re-energize sales teams, ensure that suppliers can deliver, and be sure that they have adequate working capital to fund growth. However, if the forecast is pessimistic, members should be cautioned to watch trade credit, limit expenses and delay capital expenditures.
Conerly 2010 2

How do you deliver the business part of the content? There may be only one economist giving presentations that include business implications. (Can you guess who that is?) However, you can help develop such a program using your favorite economic guru and local expertise. Begin with a casual meeting (or conference call if the speaker is from out of town) to get the gist of your expert’s forecast. Then use a couple of your board members to smoke out the business implications.*

With a rough idea of the business implications of the economic forecast, call on some local talent to form a panel which will follow the economic forecaster. It might include an accountant, banker, management consultant—whatever expertise is required to address the issues. These experts will explain the strategies needed based on the economic forecast.  At the end of the session, your members will have not only a forecast but also an action plan for things to work on.

Connecting the dots between the economy and business is the most important step to energizing your economic outlook forum, but two others will help. One step is to acknowledge risk. Many of us economists try to be the ultimate guru, the guy with the perfect forecast. The truth is that we economists have not done a great job of forecasting the economy. We’re better at it than are engineers and accountants, but we’re not good enough that business owners should bet their companies on any economist’s forecast. Ask your prognosticator to specifically address risk factors.

Here’s an example of how discussing risk can help your chamber members. In 2006 I did not forecast the recession of 2008-09. Sorry. I did, however, highlight that a critical issue was the unwinding of the housing boom. Although I did not predict a huge downturn, I cautioned business leaders that there was a possibility that things would get really ugly. So my forecast was wrong but my risk description was spot on.  Anyone who walked away and asked himself, “How can I hedge against an ugly housing market?” would have been in much better shape than most business leaders were.

The final step to making economic outlook programs more useful to members is to get rid of the politics. Chamber members are not in a position to act on a speaker’s harangue about budget deficits or monetary policy. Members may take pleasure in hearing a speaker confirm their political views, or they may be irritated by a speaker with a different position. In no way, though, will the political comments result in useful business implications.

Member attendance and engagement requires chambers to provide insights that members can use to be more successful in their businesses. “Actionable implications” should be the key requirement for any chamber program. This is especially important in a world with a rapidly changing economy, interacting with rapidly evolving technology and dynamic social attitudes. The old ways of doing business need to reflect new realities. No organization is better positioned to help local businesses than local chambers, so long as they revitalize their programs.

* (My book, Businomics, has a discussion about managing in recessions and in expansions that can help you find the right implications to discuss. I have ten copies reserved for free distribution to chamber executives responding to this article; just email to see if you’re one of the first ten.)