Category Archives: Business Growth

Back to the Future … with Cheese

By Andy Johnston, Vice President of Government & Corporate Affairs

“The future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.” – Emmet “Doc” Brown

In the 1989 time-travelling classic, Back to the Future II, Marty McFly travels to 2015. The future world imagined by the filmmakers got a number of things right (automation, biometrics) and other things wrong (internet, mobile phones).

Based on trends at the time, they did their best to predict 26 years into the future. While today’s society may not have hoverboards (real ones!) and flying cars, the filmmakers didn’t do too bad. And the inaccuracies? So, what! (They still might come true.)

As chamber leaders, we need to try our best to predict 26 years (or maybe just 6 at our current rate of change) into the future and develop a plan to position our organizations for success. To provide value for our members and the community, we must lead by anticipating what the future holds and doing our best to create and lead the change. In a world cluttered with noise and information, leaders must cut through, synthesize and actualize new information, or we’ll be left behind.

This brings to mind the lessons learned in the classic, “Who Moved My Cheese?” The world is changing and we need to keep our running shoes on.

It illustrates how we must be ready to change, to burn our current platforms early and mercilessly. We must paint the picture of the future for our members, know our stakeholders, reward innovative behavior on our teams and not get hung up on “who moved the cheese”.

A complimentary concept is to think about how to keep your organization on the “bleeding edge.” Defined as “the very forefront of technological development”, chambers can live in this space by demonstrating a willingness to take on a new development that is so new that it could be risky. Scary, right?

One of my Institute classmates had a great insight … She rejected the adage “fail fast.” Instead, she suggests we consider new initiatives “experiments.” I love this. It implies to the Board, staff and community that you are trying something new and sets that expectation that it may fail. And that’s OK.

Plus, I think it’s a concept that a scientist like Doc Brown would really like! He experimented and imagined what could be. When presented with new technology, like the ability to make the car fly, Doc embraced it and incorporated it into the DeLorean.

For Chambers, let’s continue to embrace new technology and trends. Our stakeholders are doing it and if we are leading the business community, we should be the first to do it.

With technology changing at faster pace, our organizations needs to be early adopters, so we can bring the lessons we learn to our members and communities. These efforts will maximize our value and provide a strong return on member investment.

To position your organization for success and get started planning for the future, ACCE’s report, Horizon Initiative: Chambers 2025 is a great reference for Chambers.

At the end of the first Back to the Future, Doc, Marty, and Jennifer are about to head 30 years into the future. Marty is concerned that Doc isn’t giving himself enough road to get up to 88 miles per hour and Doc responds, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” And the DeLorean flies off. Awesome.

Ultimately, we want to have the same insightful answers like Doc Brown. We need to keep our sights on the future and fly towards it.

About Andy Johnston

Andy Johnston serves as Vice President of Government & Corporate Affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and is responsible for managing the Chamber’s public policy efforts on behalf of over 2,400 members before local, state and federal stakeholders.

He serves as a member of the Chamber’s Leadership Team, responsible for strategic planning and execution, organizational development, day-to-day decision making, marketing and communications. Andy also manages the advocacy efforts of the West Michigan Chamber Coalition.

The Making of a Chamber Event: An Inside Look

By Michelle Glover, Events Project Manager

As members of the Chamber’s events team, we hear it time and time again … “You plan events for a living? That must be so much fun. Your life is like one big party!” Well, kind of. While it is our job to plan events, the day-to-day is less piñata party and more neurotic organization with a heavy side of sweating the small stuff. The event planning process is highly involved, with a large portion of the heavy lifting happening behind-the-scenes months in advance of the big show.

There are elements of glitz and glamour — selecting floral arrangements, touring venues (and their rooftop gardens) across the city, developing menus in private tastings – but they only make up a small percentage of the work we do. Event planning, much like unicorns or narwhales, is mysterious yet intriguing. We’re pulling back the curtain to share what it really takes to pull off a successful Chamber event.

Is an event merited?

As the host of more than 130 events each year, we’re not about having events for the sake of having events. Ain’t nobody got time for that! Before diving head-first into planning, we are critical about the purpose for the event, the resources it will take to pull it off and how we will define success. If an event doesn’t offer value to our Chamber members, we’re not adding it to our calendar.

We’re doing it. Why?

Why are we organizing this event? What are we trying to achieve? Not only do these questions help us determine if an event is needed, but they also help establish our goals and objectives to guide our planning.

Date, Time, Location

Sounds simple enough; however, there are limitations. The date should be a minimum of four to six months into the future. Holidays, school breaks and competing event dates must be avoided. Also, the location must align with the established goals and objectives. A venue that fits 50 guests comfortably probably isn’t the best space to host a seminar for 75.

Assemble the Squad

Our squad is so on point Taylor Swift is jealous. Sorry, Taylor. We have a team of stellar program managers, marketing gurus and sponsorship go-getters who each play key roles in our events. At this point in the planning process, we need to assemble the squad to:

1. Brief them on our goals and objectives
2. Determine how they can best assist in the planning process
3. Get their buy-in.

This is the first of many, many meetings. Practice patience but remain persistent.

Determine Programming Needs

This is where your squad comes in handy. As event managers, we rely on the expertise of the squad, specifically our program managers, to select relevant speakers and discussion topics that align with the established goals and objectives.

Determine Marketing Needs

Again, it’s all about the squad. Our lovely marketing gurus ensure our events are actually attended by spreading the word amongst our Chamber members. From The Chamber Newsletter and the eTCN to social posts, radio appearances and print materials, we couldn’t do our job without them. We give them creative freedom and watch them fly.

Establish Deadlines

We don’t have to tell you deadlines are an inevitable part of life. It’s even truer in the world of event planning. With mile-long lists of timely tasks that we need to hit to stay on track, our squad lives and dies by deadlines. We rely heavily on project management tools like Basecamp to ensure project milestones are achieved and the squad stays on the same page. Missed milestones result in fires, and fires require firefighters. Don’t make us get out the hose.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

You would not believe the number of touch-base meetings we have. While Basecamp is magical and on an otherworldly level, we can’t rely solely on it to keep our many projects moving. Therefore, we have periodic face-to-face meetings leading up to the event date to ensure everything is moving along as it should be. Use your words, people.

Day-of Coordination

Slip into something black and grab your best pair of sassy orthopedic sneakers. Event day is the holy grail of event planning. Even at this stage, however, there’s work to be done before we get to sit back and watch the event unfold. We need transport the supplies, set up the venue, complete a final A/V walk-through, brief our Chamber Ambassadors and manage speakers and sponsors. We do a lot of fire extinguishing and cat herding during this stage. Once the event concludes, we need to collect our supplies, break down our registration tables and signage, and check out of the venue.

Post-Event Evaluation

Ready for a glass of wine and a nap? It’ll have to wait. We have to send post-event evaluations! How else would we know you’re sick of Chamber chicken? We also have to update our events database, share event photos, settle final invoices and take care of sponsorship fulfillment.

As you can see, there’s a lot more involved in the event planning process than simply picking out a venue and getting attendees. There’s strategy, people pleasing, cat chasing, fire extinguishing and so much more. Back to planning … Ready, set, go!

Meet the Squad

Cindy Johnson, Director of Events
Cindy is a former bull riding champion and air band frontrunner with a heart for REO Speedwagon. She enjoys a good audio book and adding to her rapidly growing Starbucks tumbler collection.
Michelle Glover, Events Project Manager
Michelle is an aspiring food critic with dreams of traveling the world in search of the finest cuisines. She has a heart for animals and a thirst for adrenaline. You can find her on the back of a motorcycle, enjoying an occasional episode (or four) of Bob’s Burgers, and adding to her collection of unique coffee mugs.
Chantell LaForest, Events Project Manager
Chantell is an aspiring embroiderer with an unhealthy Starbucks addiction. She enjoys long naps on the couch with her pillow pets, reading aloud in accents, expanding her overalls collection, and maintaining her status as Celine Dion’s greatest fan.

Health Care Summit focus gets national attention

On June 16, we welcome Tony Buettner to share his expert knowledge about the Blue Zones Project at the Health Care Summit.

A Blue Zone is a region that produces a high number of people who live to be 100 years old. Blue Zones look at communities from a system-level, determining how to redesign and refocus a city around what matters to the health and happiness of the citizens that live there.

At the Summit, we’ll discuss what becoming a Blue Zones community could mean for our region, our life spans, and our health care costs.

Register for the Health Care Summit today!

See for yourself.

Blue Zones was featured on the Today show on May 30 and 31. Learn about what makes a Blue Zone in this short segment.

Dan Buettner, Tony’s brother and Blue Zone expert, brought Today reporters to a Blue Zone in Costa Rica to show them the Blue Zone lifestyle first hand.

Change your life and business. Join us on June 16 at the Health Care Summit.

Small Business Summit attendees empowered by ZingTrain

At the Small Business Summit on May 23, we brought Ann Arbor’s ZingTrain to Grand Rapids to lead a half-day workshop on customer service. ZingTrain offers award-winning training programs for businesses looking to change their culture and approach to customer service.

ZingTrain came to West Michigan to offer an opportunity for businesses and professionals to invest in themselves in the Art of Giving Great Service. Studies show that in the coming years, consumers and business partners will care more about customer service and relationships than they will about product specifics or cost.

“We are dedicated to ensuring our regions businesses are ready for the upcoming shift in the world of customer experience,” said Rick Baker, President & CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “The strategy and principles learned at the Small Business Summit will surely impact individual and business growth in our community.”

ZingTrain shared their 30-years of customer service secrets with attendees of the summit. The dynamic workshop left attendees feeling empowered and invigorated to change the culture around customer service within their organizations.

ZingTrain outlined the ingredients needed to Build a Culture of Great Service. These five ingredients work together to create, communicate, and complete a new customer service strategy that will change culture, employee confidence, and bottom line.

Here’s how to build your great service sandwich:

• Teach: Make sure those teaching and learning are speaking the same language. Set the stage for open and safe learning.

• Define: Understand what your organization means when it says “customer service.” Once you clearly define your customers’ needs and wants, set clear expectations and action plans within your organization.

• Live: Do it! Hold customer service standards in high regard. Lead by example within your business. Give appreciation to your co-workers.

• Measure: Welcome and document customer feedback. Instill a culture of valuing feedback. Listen and take action.

• Reward: Use recognition and appreciation to reward employees. This is not monetary or financial. Publically thank and recognize your employees.

Grand Rapids Parking Conversation

Is Parking Cash Out Right For Your Business?
Upcoming April 19 Downtown Commuter Benefits Workshop

To further the understanding of the urgent need to address challenges related to monthly parking permits for businesses downtown, we’ve partnered with the City of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. to offer a FREE informational workshop on Parking Cash Out.

Parking Cash Out programs offer funds to employees in place of monthly parking permits. The employee is free to use these funds as they deem fit for their needs. This workshop will help businesses determine if the Parking Cash Out concept is right for their organization and provide plans on how to structure the program.

We are committed to ensuring parking and mobility is not a barrier to business and job growth in Grand Rapids. Employer-driven programs like Parking Cash Out can help make more efficient use of our existing public parking assets and offer interested employers greater flexibility in managing their growth.

When: Wednesday, April 19, 2017 from 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Where: Start Garden, 40 Pearl Street NW, Suite 200, Downtown Grand Rapids
Who Should Attend: Employers and human resource professionals in Downtown Grand Rapids who lease parking spaces and provide free of subsidized parking for their employees.
Register Now: Seating is limited. Simply send an email to to reserve your spot.

Chamber Provides City of Grand Rapids Entities with Parking Recommendations
Update from March 27

This week, Josh Lunger, Director of Government Affairs with the Grand Rapids Chamber, sent parking recommendations to the Mayor, City Commission, and key City staff. The Chamber supports an “all of the above” approach to mobility to ensure that monthly parking accessibility to downtown is never a significant obstacle to business and job growth.

See our parking recommendations.

The Parking Conversation Continues
Update from March 9 GR Parking Commission Meeting

We hear you. Last month’s parking open forum garnered a standing room only crowd and encouraged lively discussion regarding the parking concerns in downtown Grand Rapids. On the morning of March 9, Josh Lunger, Director of Government Affairs with the Grand Rapids Chamber, went in front of the Grand Rapids Parking Commission to continue the conversation.

While event and visitor parking remains readily accessible, the continued growth has created new pressures on the availability of monthly parking permits downtown. This is a good problem to have. It signifies that more people are visiting, working, and living downtown. But we also know that parking and mobility should not be a barrier to business growth.

Lunger urged the Parking Commission to recognize the urgency on the parking problem. The commission noted the addition of a 293 space surface lot on Ionia Ave. between McConnell St. and Logan St. across from the Downtown Market and 500 other mixed use parking solutions that may become available in the coming months. These spaces may help to alleviate some of the current parking pain.

Lunger reminded the Parking Commission to keep the Chamber as a resource and include us in the conversation. The Chamber can drive education, engagement, and communication surrounding the parking conversation with our members and business owners in Grand Rapids. We will continue to explore the conversation with business owners and give them voice at future meetings.

Parking is one of the top issues our members face
Updates from February 8th Parking Open Forum

The continued growth and vibrancy of Grand Rapids is creating increased parking pressures in the urban core, particularly for employee parking. At a standing-room-only parking meeting, members were able to engage with city staff and the Chamber about downtown parking, including the impact it has on business growth opportunities.

“I’m glad that we’re having this conversation [about parking], because it means we have a vibrant and growing downtown and city,” said Josh Lunger, Director of Government Affairs with the Grand Rapids Chamber.

Read more: Parking in Grand Rapids at 95% capacity

The Chamber is your advocate, and we look forward to working with you and other stakeholders, including City of Grand Rapids and DGRI, to advance solutions.

Send us your feedback and taking the parking survey!

Josh Lunger also joined Michael Patrick Shiels on Michigan’s Big Show on Tuesday morning. In preparation for the parking meeting, he talked about parking in Grand Rapids and what it means for downtown businesses and Chamber members.

Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Member Benefit Pays Out Dividend

Participating chamber members receive checks for successful Accident Fund workers’ compensation group performance

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is proud to announce that several members have earned over $681,176 in dividends through the Accident Fund Insurance Company of America workers’ compensation group program. Congratulations to our chamber members who participate in the program!

Since the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is a designated group, our members receive 5 percent up-front savings on Accident Fund workers’ compensation insurance rates. Plus, when the group performs well, participating chamber members are eligible for dividends.

Did you know? If your workers’ compensation yearly premium is more than $10,000, your Chamber membership dues could pay for themselves in group program discounts. Learn more about the Accident Fund Workers’ Compensation Program and other membership perks here!

In January 2017, our chamber’s group program was reviewed and it was determined that we earned a 15 percent dividend for members that participated in the October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015 program. The $681,176 in dividends is being paid to nearly 200 participants. The group will be reviewed again this same time next year for another possible dividend distribution.  In 2016 Accident Fund Insurance Company of America paid over $4.5 million dollars to participating groups members.

“Encouraging safety in the workplace while offering a Chamber-only plan that can provide real money back is definitely a win-win situation,” said Mark Allen, Director of Member Relations for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

“The Accident Fund Workers’ Compensation Program is one of many innovative strategies we have put in place to help our members more effectively control their costs. I want to thank and congratulate all of the program participants. Their commitment to safety is what made this dividend possible.”

Darryl Mulder of Buiten & Associates says, “The partnership between the GR Chamber, Accident Fund and our agency has been instrumental in rewarding many Buiten clients with substantive dividend checks. We appreciate our client’s commitment to safety in the workplace which helps drive the success of the Accident Fund/Chamber’s dividend program. Delivering a dividend check is a rewarding experience for Buiten associates as well as for our clients, reflecting positively on their superior Workers Compensation loss experience.” Buiten Associates continues to be the Chamber’s leading Accident Fund agency and has been for several years.

Accident Fund Insurance Company of America.

Accident Fund Insurance Company of America is a member of AF Group. All policies are underwritten by a licensed insurer subsidiary of AF Group.

To join the Accident Fund groups program through the Chamber, contact the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce for an Accident Fund Insurance Company of America agent in your area, or find an agent at

Please note:  You must be a member in good standing to participate in this program.

Insurance Liability: Using a Personal Vehicle for Business Use

It may not seem like a big deal for you to use your personal car or truck on the job. But if you cause an accident, it can be financially devastating if you are not protected.

Depending on whether your personal auto insurance policy contains a “business-use” exclusion, your liability insurance may not cover the car accident and you may be personally liable for damages to anyone who was injured in the crash.

“Business-use” exclusions are included in most personal auto insurance policies in Michigan and allow the insurance company to deny liability coverage for accidents caused by the insured person while using her personal car or truck for business purposes.

Under Michigan law, an automobile insurance company can set its premium rates based on whether an insured person intends to use her vehicle for business purposes. If an insured person reveals that they plan to or may use their vehicle for “business purposes,” then the insurer may charge a higher premium on their personal auto insurance policy.

Your best protection is to contact your insurance agent and discuss how you use your vehicle and together you can both come up with a solution to ensure you are protected in the event of an auto accident.

Michigan Auto Law helps people seriously injured in Michigan auto accidents with five offices throughout the state, including one in Grand Rapids.  For more information on protecting yourself visit our Grand Rapids Local Resources page.

5 Easy Steps to Create Employee Brand Advocates for Your Business

There are many ways to create influence for your business. Whether it’s offering an amazing product or implementing a PR strategy, the opportunities are endless. However, there’s one tool your business might be overlooking: The power of employee brand advocates.

Your employees have an incredible opportunity to increase your brand’s reach. Whenever they speak positively about your business, offer recommendations or create engagement through different social channels, they’re supporting your brand. In fact, research shows brand messages are re-shared 24x more frequently when distributed by employees.

Employee brand advocates have the ability to boost your company’s reputation, which means more opportunities to attract clients, customers and irreplaceable talent. Ready to transform your employees into your best advocates? Here are some ways to get started:

1. Create a planned onboarding strategy. 

Transforming employees into brand advocates starts with grabbing their attention the moment they’re hired. According to a Forbes article by James Kelly, U.S. brand leader at PwC LLP, the strength of a company’s brand is greatly influenced by the values and behaviors of its employees. Kelly also explained that it’s crucial for employee evangelists to be an essential part of your overall branding strategy.

Design an onboarding strategy that teaches employees about your organization’s mission, goals and communicates their value as a member of your team. Incorporate tools such as ongoing training, classes, certifications or professional development workshops into your onboarding program.

2. Clearly communicate your company culture.

Before employees can promote your business, they need to understand the company as a whole. In addition to onboarding, provide new hires with one-on-one meetings with different leaders throughout the organization where they can receive an overview of company policies, goals and communication procedures.

3. Encourage employees to be active on social media.

A 2014 study by Weber Shandwick found 50% of employees post photos, messages or videos about their employers. Establish a social media policy encouraging employees to tell a story about your organization through their perspective. Provide them with social media messaging and ideas for photo opportunities.

4. Give employees opportunities to be advocates.

Social media is just one of the many tools employees can use to advocate for your organization. Encourage employees to volunteer in the community and attend events that can help boost exposure for your business. For example, send employees to networking events such as the Chamber’s Business Exchange Luncheon where they can connect with the local business community.

5. Reward employees for their hard work.

Don’t let your employees’ brand advocacy go unnoticed. When an employee lands a client because of their advocacy, reward them for their hard work. Whether it’s recognizing them in front of the entire company, through a congratulatory email or giving them a gift card, make sure you recognize employees in an impactful way.

Remember, your employees are your company’s brand. Whenever they post a photo on social media or tell a friend about work, they’re contributing to the overall reputation of your organization. By harnessing the power of employee brand advocates in your marketing strategy, you’ll expand your reach and establish trust with more customers.

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of the Chamber News, written by Olivia Adams, Communications and Social Media Specialist at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. For more thought leadership like this, visit  

Employee Activists Spark a New Social Movement in the Digital Age, According to Groundbreaking Global Study from Weber Shandwick

Infographic: Social Employee Advocacy

Employee Training: ‘Brandable’ Moments

How to Become a Transformational Leader

Transformational leadership is a type of leadership style that can inspire positive changes in those who follow. Transformational leaders generally are able to successfully inspire people, teach others how to solve problems and are committed to creating change. They also use their passion, charisma and vision to make a positive impact.

Teresa-Weatherall-NealOne transformational leader who’s making a difference in the community is Teresa Weatherall Neal, Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent. She’s inspiring decision makers, business owners, families and local residents to improve the Grand Rapids public schools system through its Transformation Plan.

Whether it’s in your business or community, here are some ways to become a transformational leader:

Create a vision and find your purpose.

Transformational leadership begins with a vision, which will eventually serve as a tool for inspiring others. Weatherall Neal explained “you can’t lead what you don’t believe in.”

Once you’ve identified your vision, determine why you want to spark change. For Weatherall Neal, she created a vision to turn around GRPS and transform it into a top performing school district.

“I’m leading because education is a social good. I’m here because it’s the right thing to do for Grand Rapids,” said Weatherall Neal. “If you don’t see your business as a social good, you won’t be able to successfully lead. People will only follow you if you believe in your business.”

Collaborate with others.

Relationships play a powerful role in successful transformational leadership. “Leading with the heart in mind starts with relationships,” said Weatherall Neal. “Bring your vision to others and help people understand the urgency of [your] need.”

When the Transformation Plan initially launched, Weatherall Neal had to build relationships with students, teachers, administration, parents, business leaders and community members. By creating these relationships, she was able to gain valuable feedback on her vision for GRPS and motivate others to see value in the Transformation Plan.

Invest in talent.

Another key element of transformational leadership is investing in talent. Especially if you’re trying to improve your business or community, you need to have the best team.

In an effort to create a stronger school system, Weatherall Neal made it a priority to hire better teachers, principals and administrative staff. To accomplish this, GRPS hired a talent acquisition manager to locate top talent and created a budget for recruitment.

Today, Grand Rapids Public Schools is one of the only urban districts in Michigan to have successfully turned around. Over the last 41 months, GRPS has experienced increased attendance and enrollment. In fact, City High School is ranked as the top high school in Michigan and 83 in the United States. These accomplishments were only possible because of Weatherall Neal’s commitment to her vision, the relationships she created and her ability to inspire others.

This information is taken from Teresa Weatherall Neal’s presentation, “Transformational Leadership,” at the May 2015 Business Matters Series and was first published in the June 2015 issue of The Chamber News, written by Olivia Adams, Communications and Social Media Specialist at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. Visit to find more thought leadership like this.