Thursday, March 10, 2011

Looking Back At the Best And a Belated Tribute

I worked directly with a dozen or so Chamber of Commerce execs during my now concluded nearly 40 year career managing community/destination marketing organizations in three communities.

If you know me, it goes without saying that I consider Harvey Schmitt down in Raleigh as not only a close friend, even in my retirement, but as one of the very best Chamber execs on the planet.csteinbacher

But in the three cities I represented, no one has impressed me more than Casey Steinbacher at the Durham, North Carolina Chamber, home of the legendary Bob Booth.

Before retiring back in 2009, I frequently enjoyed early-morning coffee with Casey, worked side by side on some projects, consulted by telephone on issues and even served her as an ex officio advisor to her board.

Chambers and Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) are two very different and distinct organizations and models with very different missions but in savvy communities they still strategically partner and team where a project is mutual.

A quick Google search revealed that I’m more than a little out of touch these days. Casey is honoring Durham as Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE) and bringing the group home for its spring meeting as her term winds down.

This group isn’t to be confused with the big business guys who throw their weight around during national elections, ACCE is a professional association for more than 1,000 heads of local, community Chambers, advocates for their local business climates.

During my just-concluded 12,000 miles traveling cross-country on two road trips in five months, thanks to the exceptional news and blog aggregator by the Durham News Service, I saw an announcement that the Chamber is teaming up with DCVB on production of Durham’s official publications for visitors and newcomers.

Here are just a handful of reasons I can see that move making perfect sense as part of Casey’s vision:

  • It leverages a strategic partner’s expertise in graphic production, comprehensive content, distribution and community branding, much as DDI did to produce the Downtown Durham Guide.


  • It strengthens the “Make It Durham” effort with options to interweave even more with Durham’s overarching brand signature, e.g. “Make it Durham – Where Great Things Happen.”


  • It applies nationwide research and analysis revealing that 80%of newcomers and 75% of relocating business executives try a community out first as leisure visitor.


  • It frees the Chamber publication from fundraising and reinvests every dime of revenue goes into vastly expanding content and greatly broadening distribution.


  • It moves beyond the model of restricting content to members to comprehensive listings that best serve the target audience while giving members special recognition.

Thinking back also reminds me again that I have neglected to pay tribute to the first Chamber exec with whom I worked.  Born ten years after my Father, the late George Reitemeier graduated from high school the year I was born.  He was 39 when he was appointed to head the Spokane Chamber in 1970, a post from which he retired in 1993 before passing away in 1999.

I went to work for George in my mid-twenties while going to law school at at Gonzaga at night.  But I also answered to the separate governing board for the Spokane Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, for which the Chamber was serving as a temporary incubator as was a practice back in the 1960s.5247212867_87c3a35a53

In 1975, as the just-concluded and environmentally-themed Expo ‘74 began its conversion to a spectacular 100-acre Riverfront Park surrounded by hotels, restaurants and shops, the SACVB board decided it was time for the organization, as Spokane’s community/destination marketing organization to become fully independent, as the great majority are.

Needless to say this put me in between the proverbial “rock and hard place.”  George had his reasons for opposing the CVB’s transition to independence maybe because his own board was dragging its feet.

As you might expect, in my 20s and my first real job out of college, I took it all a bit personally.  Everything seems personal in your 20s and it did get personal and very public.  I’m sure George could have easily steamrolled me but he didn’t.  He also didn’t make it easy.

George though was not like “frenemies” I’ve run into more often than I’d like to think, a word used to describe individuals who act like a friend to your face or in a personal context but do their best to discredit and undermine you behind your back, often putting you in a corner ethically.

Some tell-tail indicators, for those who haven’t run into “frenemies,” are that they will believe they are always right, that they are dead certain they are smarter than you are and that they think they know how to do your job better than you do.  “Bless their hearts” as we say in the South.

George was different.  He was ethical and he told you right to your face what he thought.  He also respected your decisions if you could back them up with logic and information.

He may have had trouble listening, at least to a kid in his 20s.  Part of it was the times.  It was the mid-70s.  I wore my hair longer and for the times was able to mix some pretty progressive politics with a passion for small independent business owners and visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

I was also determined to do my job, no matter how long it took, no matter the price to me personally.  He may have disagreed but he respected those traits.

SACVB did become fully independent in 1976 and stabilized for a couple of years before I caught the attention of the infant destination marketing organization in Anchorage in 1978 and was recruited there as chief executive based I later learned on  recommendations from the CEOs in Seattle and San Francisco.

George  would be very proud of Chamber peers like Casey and Harvey, and I think he would have been proud of what I was able to accomplish in my now concluded career in DMO management, much of which was due in no small part, both to what I learned from him and the toughness I developed going through that transition in Spokane.

Regretfully, while I thought about it often, I failed to ever call and tell him thank you in person.

A belated thank you George, R.I.P.

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