Coming Out of COVID: Strategy, Hope & Support from Local Chambers

America’s first responders have valiantly and sacrificially served on the frontlines of the medical fight against Covid-19. But on the economic side of the equation, our local chambers have performed with equal determination and ingenuity in a struggle for survival that also has devastating consequences.

When the impact of staggering unemployment and record losses in revenue and taxes from the shutdown are tallied and factored into the community equation, chamber efforts cannot be underestimated. These vital organizations are crucial to the economic survival and recovery of our community, especially for the small and mid-sized businesses which have been among the hardest hit.

Space Coast Business Magazine reached out to Jennifer Sugarman of the Cocoa Beach Regional Chamber, Michael Ayers of the Melbourne Regional Chamber, Nancy Peltonen of the Greater Palm Bay Chamber, and Marcia Gaedcke of the Titusville Area Chamber for insight on how local businesses are holding up and on what the chambers have been doing to support and lead in these uncertain and unprecedented times.

Jennifer Sugarman
Michael Ayres
Nancy Peltonen
Marcia Gaedcke

Space Coast Business Magazine reached out to Jennifer Sugarman of the Cocoa Beach Regional Chamber, Michael Ayers of the Melbourne Regional Chamber, Nancy Peltonen of the Greater Palm Bay Chamber, and Marcia Gaedcke of the Titusville Area Chamber for insight on how local businesses are holding up and on what the chambers have been doing to support and lead in these uncertain and unprecedented times.

We have compiled their responses in the following pages and edited for repetitiveness or redundancies.

What have you learned from this pandemic, that without it you may never have understood? 

Jennifer/Cocoa Beach Regional Chamber: How many meetings can be emails or a quick call. I am being a bit tongue and cheek there but prior to this happening, I had never even been on a Zoom or Go-To meeting before! Now, through the power of technology, we’re able to keep the trains running on a virtual platform and it has been incredibly helpful!

Nancy/Greater Palm Bay Chamber: The importance of having a reserve fund became abundantly apparent almost immediately as businesses started to lay people off and evaluate expenses in order to preserve funds.

“Cash flow has always been top of mind for me, and this pandemic crystalized why it is so important. Going forward, this will be a training that the Greater Palm Bay Chamber will offer to ensure businesses are prepared for any disaster they may encounter.”

Mike/Melbourne Regional Chamber: Virtual meetings and remote work can be effective tools to utilize in everyday business.

Marcia/Titusville Area Chamber: I’ve been reminded how important it is to remove the negative external influencers. There are plenty of sources for negativity and doom and gloom, and I’ve consciously tried to limit my exposure to the negativity so I can maintain my own energy and focus on being a part of the solution and maintaining a positive outlook on the future. Truth is, we don’t really have the power to change someone else’s
perspective, but we can change how they impact our perspective.  This situation has reminded me of that more than once.

What is one leadership initiative you took that has paid dividends during this time?

Jennifer/CBRC: Collaboration! “From the moment this crisis began, Chamber Executives have been collaborating on best practices, ways to engage our partners and avoid duplicating efforts.”

We brought together the leading business organizations [here] to form the Brevard Business Community Covid-19 Response Team. We have weekly calls and jointly host webinars with pertinent information our businesses can use.

Nancy/GPBC: It was important for the business community to get factual information that was consistent and coming from one source, instead of each organization acting independently with competing programs. The initiative we took at the Greater Palm Bay Chamber was to discuss everything openly as a team, so we were all on the same page providing input for solutions and options.

Mike/MRC: Partnering with the City of Melbourne, Melbourne Main Street, Eau Gallie Arts District and the Orlando Melbourne International Airport on the Melbourne Back in Business/Spend Local campaign has been very positively received by the community.

Marcia/TAC: I think building a working collaborative relationship with the business organizations in Brevard during this time has the ability to be transformational for our county in the future.  Time will tell if we are able to find ways to be more effective, efficient and purposeful in our work in the future by working together….but I’m grateful for what we’ve been able to accomplish during this crisis.

What is the biggest change the pandemic has made in the chamber that you think will continue long after
this crisis is over? 

Jennifer/CBRC: The way we manage events. There is no denying that there is a new precedent being set for, say, 300 people being in close quarters shaking hands, hugging, sharing food and drinks. We are all being as creative as possible and making the best decisions we can with the information at hand, but I believe events will be our biggest struggle as we begin to re-open.

Nancy/GPBC: Re-evaluating everything we do. Sometimes we continue to do things because we have had the same event for years, or followed the same processes for years.  Analyzing our events to see if they are important to our members took priority. If we decided we wanted to keep a certain event, the pivot was discussed. Eventually people will congregate again, but we have found other ways to work that don’t include face-to-face encounters. More Board members have been able to attend our virtual meetings, Lead’s groups have had higher turnouts with virtual meetings… time can be saved working on [virtual platforms] rather than having to travel to so many functions. Increasing the use of technology to provide services will continue to evolve as chambers continue to meet the needs of their members.

Mike/MRC: Adjusting our strategies and programming to provide value to our members both in-person and virtually.

Marcia/TAC: I think our events are going to change significantly for a long time.  The days of “packed houses” is gone for a while.  I think we’ve had a negative perception of countries that have issued nationwide health advisories in the past, seeing those kinds of activities as restriction of our freedoms….but I think the reality is that we are going to have to incorporate different guidelines in our event protocols to insure that we don’t unwittingly create “hotspots” for infection of any kind.  I also think we are going to have to find ways to offer hybrid events for convenience.  I think that although we are weary of online meetings now, the convenience of not having to travel allows us to be more efficient and the demand for that is going to continue in the case of many of our offerings.

What do you see as the keys to survival and recovery for local businesses?  

Jennifer/CBRC: Adaptability and flexibility. I have seen the most creative ideas come out of this and, to be honest, I could not be prouder of Brevard’s business community for the incredible partnerships that have formed in the name of helping one another. As long as the business community remains flexible, patient and continues to adapt and pivot based on the rapidly changing information we’re bombarded with, we will come out on top.
Shopping local, supporting one another, there is no greater community to emerge stronger from this.

Nancy/GPBC: Mindset. Businesses that were overcome with fear and unable to make decisions have had difficulty pivoting to a new business model. Having a positive mindset that is realistic and doing everything from evaluating all the company functions, analyzing the financials, planning for cash flow and reaching out for assistance when needed is truly important.  The community can then assist by supporting local businesses. Ordering online from Amazon is easy, but they often don’t pay the local taxes which help our community and economy. Knowing that when you shop local you are directly helping our local citizens, our local recovery and ensuring Brevard County remains a strong community.

Mike/MRC: The key to survival is resiliency, innovation and a diversified economy, so the Space Coast is well positioned in this regard thanks to the work of our EDC.

Marcia/TAC: Flexibility and creativity – I’ve been so encouraged by the ways that business owners have made real-time adjustments in their business models to meet the changing environment head on.  I’ll take a little liberty with the quote, but it’s easier to adjust the course on a kayak than it is on a battleship.
“Small businesses have the ability to adapt in unique ways that large corporations do not….and that ability to be nimble will serve them well in the next chapter.”

For the companies that have not been able to pull through this, how are you advising those business owners? 

Jennifer/CBRC: Unfortunately, that has been a sad reality. Many of our smaller businesses have had to close their doors. They remain hopeful that down the line, as we begin to build back, they will jump back into the entrepreneurial ring and that’s what we are advising them to do. We have been a leader in connecting all of our business partners with the resources that are available to them, but for some, lack of timely assistance, lack of continuity/disaster planning and limited reserves ultimately made for a less than ideal outcome. We are very sensitive to what has been going on out there and we have adapted to assist in any possible way we can.

Nancy/GPBC: We are advising business owners to reach out to professionals to ensure they are considering all their options. If companies accepted EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) or PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funds, it is important to ensure they handle the funds correctly even if they are closing their doors. Chambers of Commerce are connectors and we ensure businesses work strategically to make decisions. Reaching out to a tax expert, CPA, lawyer, etc.  are important steps for any business owner to take before shuttering their doors.

Mike/MRC: There are many short-terms solutions to provide funding in the interim. We are encouraging businesses to take advantage of these opportunities and continue to adapt their operations.

Marcia/TAC: I want to make sure they exhaust all possibilities before they throw in the towel: can they adapt their model, or narrow their focus for a while to save overhead and increase profitability? Have they met with their financial advisor and looked at all their options?  But most importantly, make sure they don’t push themselves so far that they can’t recover personally, especially from a financial perspective.  Knowing when to say enough is important, and it takes a lot of courage to make those difficult decisions.

What business or businessperson has been most inspiring to you during this period? 

Jennifer/CBRC: Listen, I want to keep my paycheck so I am definitely going to say my boss and 2020 Board Chair Jim McKnight, City Manager of Cocoa Beach! All kidding aside, none of us could have predicted how this year would go and I watch Jim from afar manage an entire city, make tough choices, get scrutinized for those choices, work around the clock with no breaks to ensure the safety of his city and employees and then he is still finding the time to call me in the evenings to check on me. We have had a constant line of communication from the beginning of all of this and the Chamber is doing as well as it is due to his leadership. I would also like to give a major round of applause to our Immediate Past Chair, Linda Webster Dubea (FPL), without whom I would be completely lost in a sea of unending QuickBooks mistakes.

Nancy/GPBC: That is such a difficult question, since there have been so many inspiring stories that have come out of this pandemic: like Tom Rebman, who was concerned about the homeless population and set up homeless camps in Palm Bay to social distance and provide the provisions they needed; or Stuart Borton, owner of Yellow Dog Café, who cooked for Health First employees; or Puneet (PK) Kapur, who hosted a breakfast for First Responders; and Rep. Randy Fine who organized food drives, blood drives and hand sanitizer drives. Also, the Children’s Hunger Project continued to feed children no longer attending school with food to take home for the weekends; Carolyn Neale, who volunteered to shop for anyone that couldn’t leave their home; and local manufacturers that converted their shops to make PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). These are just a few examples…I could go on about the acts of kindness that people and businesses displayed through this pandemic.

Mike/MRC: The board members and Executive Committee of the Chamber include some of the brightest business minds in Brevard and I am fortunate to have their guidance as the Chamber has pivoted our operation to remain relevant and valuable to our members now and into the future.

Marcia/TAC: I’m a big fan of Mark Wilson, the President of the Florida Chamber. He and his team are incredibly responsive, and they are thinking way beyond themselves and their organization, and truly looking at each community in the state and working to figure out how they can be a conduit for recovery for all. I think the trust and environment for collaboration that the Florida Chamber has built during this time will serve this state well into the future. •

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