The past year was a busy one for the Washington Area Chamber of Commerce which launched several new programs and expanded others.
“We had a really good, productive 2019 and plan to do more in the new year,” said Jennifer Giesike, president/CEO.
With over 500 members and an annual operating budget of nearly $2 million, the Washington Commerce is the second largest in the St. Louis region.
In addition to promoting business and industry, Giesike said the Chamber serves as an information hub for all things Washington.
Founded in 1923, the Chamber has three main operating components — the Chamber office, the Washington Town & Country Fair and the Washington Division of Tourism.
Giesike said the Washington Fair is the third-largest fair in the state, bringing five days of fun and entertainment to Washington every August.
In 1999, a lodging tax was created, with proceeds going specifically toward marketing Washington as a tourist destination. The director of tourism has been employed by the Chamber since the position was created.
Giesike said the Chamber’s mission is to provide services that strengthen the capacity of its members to prosper and grow, and to enhance the region’s economic climate and the quality of life of area residents.
As it begins planning for 2020 events, the Chamber has created a brochure to highlight sponsorship opportunities available to members. It also offers a variety of networking opportunities for its members, as well as public events that bring the community together.
Giesike said the Chamber partnered with city, Washington School District, St. Francis Borgia Regional High School and Four Rivers Area YMCA to host a two-day Leadership Academy for students at Washington and Borgia high schools this past summer. A total of 20 sophomores, nominated by their teachers, participated.
“The academy was very well-received and kids had so many positive things to say about it so we plan to do it again this summer,” Giesike said. “We had speakers come, including Mayor Sandy Lucy, and we toured several industries and the city.”
The Chamber’s Young Professionals group, geared to workers 40 and younger, was active this past year with various professional development activities, including an industry tour and a community connection event where they could learn about volunteer opportunities in the community. The group, which was formed in 2012, also hosted a pub crawl.
“We really want to continue to grow this group,” Giesike said. “We have about 100 young professionals involved and we’re always looking for more to join.”
The Chamber, in partnership with The Missourian, also inducted its Class of 2019 Outstanding Young Professionals this past October at the Chamber Member Luncheon. Fifteen young professionals were recognized for both their professional and civic achievements.
Giesike said a total of 90 young professionals have been recognized to date. The committee continues to receive many excellent nominations, making the selection tough each year, she said.
Another program geared to this age group is the Young Ambassadors group, which is a joint effort between the city and Chamber. The group’s mission is promote Washington as a place start and build your career.
“It’s about marketing Washington as a place to live and work, not just visit,” said Giesike, adding the group shares some members from the Young Professionals group.
The group has contracted with Show Media to create a video series on why Washington is a “good city to live, work and play.”
The first video in a five-part series features testimonials from people about how much they enjoy Washington. It was unveiled at the Chamber’s recent breakfast business meeting. The videos are being leased, weekly, online.
Another new project, this one in partnership with the CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies) students at the Four Rivers Career Center is a magazine, Washington Insight, which will come out in February. Planning began in the fall of 2019.
The publication will include interviews with local business leaders, and an overview of the business, healthcare and education opportunities in the Washington area. The magazine will be distributed to businesses in the St. Louis region, as well as to all Chamber members.
Giesike said a renewed focus on membership retention and recruitment began in 2019 and will continue into the new year.
“Our members are obviously very important to us and we want them to know that and make sure they know everything we have to offer,” she said.
Chamber staff members each have a list of members they are regularly touching base with and a list of prospective members they are contacting to let them know the benefits of joining.
The Chamber also is recognizing milestone anniversaries of members at its different events.
“We have a lot of longtime members and we want to recognize and thank them,” Giesike said.
Some new ideas being tossed around for 2020 include relaunching a speaker series hitting on a variety of topics for both small and large businesses.
Giesike said the Chamber hosts a number of community events each year, including Music at the Market, held the second Thursday of the month in May, June, July, September and October, under the Farmers’ Market.
“We will continue this event in 2020 and we’re hoping for better weather this year,” she said. “We had to deal with a lot of rain last year, but people still came out and had fun.”
Also returning will be the Cajun Festival, a ladies golf day, the Olde Fashioned Christmas and Pumpkin Palooza, which was canceled this past year due to rain.
For its members, the Chamber hosts a business breakfast meeting, member luncheon, dinner banquet, summer and winter mixers, government forum and new this year, a job fair with the city of Washington.
Giesike said the Washington Fair had another successful run in 2019 and planning is well underway for this year’s five-day event.
“We are always trying to think out of the box and looking for new ways to keep the Fair fresh,” she said. “We are scheduling the big-name entertainment now and we’re excited about the new lineup.”
The final Fair report was given at the Chamber breakfast meeting held earlier this month.
The Fair has long been involved in the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) and Giesike and other Fair/Chamber members attend the annual conference each year. Giesike, who also attends the IAFE manager conference each year, said she’s excited to announce that Washington will serve as host for the 2020 conference in April.
About 130 to 170 Fair managers from around the world will attend. Although they will be staying at a downtown St. Louis hotel due to the number of participants, they will visit Washington and tour the fairgrounds, along with the Farmers’ Market and downtown.
“It will be another great opportunity to show off Washington,” Giesike said. “We have been working on a video featuring footage of past Fairs so they can see it in action. The real gem will be taking them to the permanent Main Stage which a lot of Fairs, even those larger than us, don’t have.”
Tourists continue to flock to the Washington area for day trips and overnight weekend stays, according to Emily Underdown, tourism director.
“Tourism was up in 2019 and we expect that to continue,” she said. “The bed tax continues to be strong and despite the flooding we experienced, people were still coming to visit.”
In 2020, Underdown will create a new video to attract tourists which she will push on the Chamber’s website and across all social media. She also plans to do more marketing outside the St. Louis area, targeting Kansas City and Chicago.
Amtrak continues to be a popular travel venue for visitors, who can then hop on to the Chamber’s tourism shuttle once they arrive. The 14-passenger shuttle, which started in 2016, is in demand spring, summer and fall, Underdown said.
“I would say about 75 percent of our tourists who ride Amtrak out here are coming to visit the Iron Spike Train Museum, as well as the downtown area,” she said.
Late spring and summer is always peak tourism time, Underdown said, with one to two bus tours coming into town each week.
The terms of two new Chamber board of directors — Josh Brinker with Bank of Franklin County and Luke Meyer with Citizens Bank — began Jan. 1. They were chosen through a membership-wide ballot that included five nominees, selected by a committee of past board chairs.
Brinker and Meyer will join 14 others on the board of directors. The executive board includes Dan Cassette, Cassette Electric, chairman; Paul Brune, MFA Co-Op No. 2, first vice chair; Dave Politte, Zick, Voss, Politte, & Richardson, ex-officio; Jay Nowak, Bank of Washington; and Andy Robinson, Washington School District.
The other board of directors are Becky Cox, Four Rivers Area YMCA; Scott Hillermann, Hillermann Nursery & Florist; Joe Maniaci, Performance Food Group/Fox River Foods; Tanya McCormack, Mercy; Craig Mueller, Imo’s Pizza/Sugarfire Smokehouse; Steve Strubberg, Horn Architects; Karen Timpe, Legacy Embroidery & Screenprinting; Casey Zastrow, American Family Insurance; and Jason Unnerstall, past Fair chairman.