Leading the Cd'A Chamber: An interview with Linda Coppess
Linda Coppess came on board as president and CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Regional Chamber in late 2021. She recently sat down with the North Idaho Business Journal to talk about how things are going and what’s ahead.
How would you summarize your first year leading the Coeur d’Alene Regional Chamber?
I think when I first started what was most important to me, because this is a membership organization, is doing some listening and learning and digging into every single aspect of this business. I have no experience being in human resources or in accounting. And so I literally was looking into every single aspect, almost as if you were a truck and you lifted up the hood. And I've just been diving deep into the engine and the inner workings of this thing called the chamber to figure out how it works, what's working well, what's not working well.
What did you do to get started?
I set up meetings with over 70 individuals. Some were members, some were non-members, some are board members, some are staff members of the chamber. I've been talking with Christina (Petit) over at Post Falls Chamber of Commerce. So, just getting the widest breadth of different perspectives.
My whole year has really been spent digging, listening and learning so that we could put together a plan for moving forward.
With my Microsoft training and background, I'm a data girl, so I like to use the data to help drive decisions. We did a lot of deep dives into our events, the profitability for different events and just all the different programs that we ran. It's amazing what the data can tell you.
The last piece that I wanted to say was, I've looked at research for membership organizations. There's a really cool white paper that's out there called the Future of Associations. There's a big risk right now. A lot of those organizations are seeing a decline and they have been for many years and our chamber is not unlike what people are seeing. The biggest threat that we see is relevance in the world today. So now that I've kind of gone through that first year, I'm excited about this next year to really think about how to use that data and all the information that we've collected to drive deeper relevance for our members.
It seems like the chamber is growing, meetings are packed, the meetings are upbeat and energized. Have you done anything to add enthusiasm to these meetings?
It is so exciting and wonderful to me that you've noticed that. I've noticed it for the two years that I've been here. My first year was in the member relations role, but the second year was as the CEO. I haven't been able to put my finger on it, but it feels different to me. It feels exciting. There's this energy, there's this buzz, there's something special in the air. I've been trying to reflect and figure out, what do I think is causing that. I think there's really three things that we've done that could be contributing to it.
First and foremost, when you come to our events now you see this amazing group of people we call our membership outreach committee. They're greeters. Their whole job is to make you feel comfortable and help you feel welcome.
It's almost like when you go to church and there's greeters. They say, ‘Good morning. It's so wonderful to see you.’ And who doesn't love somebody saying something wonderful and making you feel special at the beginning of your day?
But they take it to the next step. So it's not just about greeting you, but it's about, ‘How can we help you today? What kind of businesses are you looking to connect with?’ They're connectors. And so I would say having this group of 10, 15 individuals who are volunteering their time at every single event that we do to help make it feel special is our No. 1 strategy.
Two other things for our Upbeat Breakfasts and actually other events as well, you may have noticed that there are performing artists. We've been working really closely with the Arts and Culture Alliance. What we're trying to do is to create kind of an ambiance during the networking portion of our events. Tuesday, you saw Aspire Community Theater. We've had the Coeur d’Alene Symphony Orchestra, the Music Conservatory of Coeur d’Alene, so organizations like that all the way down to high schools. We've had the Charter Academy, Jazz Ensemble. What an amazing opportunity to bless our members with these incredible musicians in the area. How awesome is it that our high school kids are getting the opportunity to have the opportunity to connect with the business community?
The last contributor that I'm really excited about is relevance. We have an opportunity to increase our relevance. This is a member organization and at the heart of every single thing that we do should be our members. So I'm turning things upside down in terms of content for future events. We are allowing our members to select the content and the topics that are most important to them. In November and December, I sent out a survey to our members through our newsletter and I asked them, ‘Here's 26 really important topics that our community is faced with right now. Rank them in order of priority from first to last of what's most important.’ And then I gave them a fill in the blank to say, ‘What are we missing?’ So we want to know from our members what is most important to them and we are going to program our events based on the topics and the content and the information that our members care about the most.
So I think those are three tangible things that we've done, but there's something else about engagement and there's a buzz. I think people are really excited, and I'm excited to unpack that a little bit more and try and discover more about what's behind that. It's definitely palpable though, and exciting.
Can you tell me what your membership is now and what it was when you started?
I'm really excited to say that this year for the first time we're growing again. This past year we've grown 5%, so we're making up for those losses that happened during the COVID years. It makes a lot of sense. During COVID, as you can remember, a lot of the businesses were shut down and everyone was trying to figure out how are they were going to pay their expenses. A lot of businesses looked at their different expenses and looked at chamber memberships, associations like that. We weren't meeting anyway during that time, so that was seen as more of a discretionary expense and something that maybe they would put on hold until they were able to get back to business and back open. So it wasn't surprising that there was a decline in the last couple years. But it wasn't just limited to those COVID years. If you look at our chamber membership and a lot of membership associations, even the last decade, there are declines.
We have a real opportunity. I keep going back to that word about driving relevance for the business community. We're starting to do that, which is why you're seeing a direct impact on our membership and the fact that it's growing again. I'm proud to say we're over 800 members again, which is really exciting. We've got members from all over the region, from Boise, from Seattle, Missoula, all across Kootenai County and businesses in Spokane. We're excited about taking what we do to the next level next year.
How do you see your role as the Chamber's president? What are some of your goals?
The number one role that I serve is to serve my community. We are the voice of the businesses. I can't be the voice of the businesses unless I'm building deep, authentic relationships with the business community, having a deep understanding of what it is that they need from an organization like a chamber, and then creating programs and creating events to help drive those business outcomes.
My role is really about service. I turned 50 a couple years ago. I always joke around and say that I'm in my second act in my lifetime. And for me, one of my personal goals is to really make that second act count and how I want to do that is through service to my community.
I feel so blessed every single day. This is my hometown and I get to come to work and to use, No. 1, the gifts that God has been given me. But on top of that, the 25 years of experience that I have serving in business through the high-tech sector at Microsoft here in my hometown. The high-tech industry is something that I would say is maybe more of a leader in terms of driving the future of how businesses operate because of technology. And so I have some really great opportunities to use those learnings, bring it back here to my small town and help businesses that I serve. My faith is very important to me. I think of myself as a servant leader.
In order for me to be a great servant leader, I have to understand what those issues are and that I have to figure out how to build programs and initiatives that help further those objectives of our members.
Right now, our community's growing like crazy and we're seeing a lot of pain points and there's a lot of divisiveness in our community. As a leader in the business community, we have an opportunity to help work through some of those growing pains and change. The biggest theme in all of that is just to grow responsibly. A lot of people have differing opinions on how we should do this and that's OK. Diversity is good for our community to take those differing opinions.
One of our opportunities is to remind people that we have to take the best ideas from different parts of those communities and figure out how we create solutions. That implies that there's compromise and that we are not 100% of the time going to get our wishes. I think that's part of our opportunity as the business community is to remind people that we have to work together to solve these problems. Butting heads or having this divisiveness that is happening right now, it's not helpful. We have to figure out how we build bridges and how we can work better together.
What kind of influence can the chamber be in the community?
We can be an incredibly significant influence. I feel like we have an opportunity to partner closely together with other chambers to better serve our broader region. I think you're going to start to see more collaborative efforts. The place where we're really collaborating well right now is through a joint public policy committee. We meet once a month and we talk collectively about the joint needs and priorities of the business community across Kootenai County.
The chamber is determining new uses for its building. How is that coming along?
It's fantastic. Architects West is leading the planning for that. We have a committee. A lot of our board members and some other folks joined that committee to determine how we want to revitalize this space. We've also done an initial walk through with the team to point out things like, ‘Here are some things that are not necessarily broken, but have been neglected for a while that need to be fixed. And then here are some wishlists.’
Now we're just super excited to see what they come back with.
I have to express my gratitude to Tony Berns and ignitecda. Without their grant we wouldn't be sitting here talking about that. So I think that's going to be a huge help in us re-imagining the space that really serves more of the community at large, rather than just visitors. People use smartphones now to plan their trips, to find restaurants, to find hotels, to book hotels. So it's not just our visitors center, but visitor centers across the world are seeing less traffic. It's the best real estate in town, and we've got to repurpose it so that more of our community is using it.
What do you see for 2023?
The word for me for 2023 is relevance. We're doing strategic planning with our board and community members so that we can determine five years from now, where do we want to be? So that everybody, from the people who are on our team here at the chamber through all the volunteers that serve on our committees or on our board of directors and our members at large, we're all kind of marching toward the same goal in five years.
We want to be a louder voice for the business community. I've talked about legislative agendas and priorities. I've talked about growth and how to do that responsibly and how can we help with education. How can we help further things with all of those initiatives that are so important to this business community? Workforce development, education, affordable housing, all of these things that the business community is really suffering from as a result of this growth in population in our area. How can we move the needle in a more unified way?
I hope part of that will be in partnership with the other chambers in our area. And I'm confident that you'll see more of that moving forward. We are going to be better servants to our businesses and our members if we're partnering closely together on a lot of these things.
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