When Kevin Cooper and his wife-to-be, Missy, were driving to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in early 2008, after their second vacation on Siesta Key, Cooper turned to Missy and said, “What are we doing? We need to live here.”
Missy laughed and replied, “Everyone says that when they are on vacation.”
But Cooper was serious, and finally, Missy promised to discuss it two weeks later, after they had settled back into their routines in Ohio.
When they tackled the topic again, Cooper hadn’t relented. One month later, with their cars packed with everything they could hold, the two hit the interstate.
After six years in the U.S. Army — including a tour of duty in Iraq — and extensive work with non-profit organizations, Cooper was hoping to find another job that let him focus on community service. By January 2010, he had become membership services manager for the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. Less than a year later, the SKCC board promoted him to executive director.
“It was a quick year,” he says. “It’s been great.”
And he just turned 30 in the summer.
Although Cooper says he loves his position, it comes with its share of challenges.
“(The biggest challenge) is getting out there and making more people understand the focus and goal of the chamber,” he says. “Everyone looks at a chamber a little bit differently in (terms of) what they expect.”
A big part of the mission is “communicating how much we care and how much we love this community,” he says.
“When you’re in an affinity-based … membership-owned and operated (organization), you need volunteers and staff that wear our enthusiasm and excitement for the community and businesses on our sleeve,” Cooper says. “People can spot someone who is disingenuous a mile away.”
The chamber has about 440 members, a significant drop as a result of the economic downturn, he says. In 2006, for example, Cooper says, the chamber had many Realtors, banks and car dealers on its rolls. The economy forced many of them to cut back on expenses, which led to their leaving the chamber and other organizations.
The good news for the chamber, though, is that all signs indicate it will retain 80% of its current membership going into 2012.
However, Cooper maintains his focal point is not membership growth but rather providing service to the members.
“I’d really rather perfect our core offering,” he says. “We provide so many different benefits. We don’t want to outgrow ourselves.”
Expanding on the topic of member services, Cooper notes his staff answers about 20,000 phone calls a year from people interested in coming to Siesta or learning more about the area before making it their vacation spot.
The No. 1 question, he says, regards accommodations. The chamber maintains an extensive online database of accommodations. For the members who own resorts and inns, one of the biggest values in chamber membership is being on that database.
A member with a heating and air-conditioning business, however, is going to look for different benefits, he says. That person may find the networking opportunities the most important aspect of being a chamber member.
Cooper also attributes the chamber’s success to his staff and team of volunteers. He has two full-time assistants — Tess Herschman, visitors services manager; and Jacqueline Abrey, membership services manager — and about 32 regular volunteers.
During the busiest times of year, Cooper tries to keep two volunteers at the front desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“It gets pretty hectic out there in season,” he says.
Among Cooper’s other big challenges as executive director is raising the money each year for the Siesta Key fireworks show on July 4. It costs about $34,000 to put on the 30-minute display over Siesta Public Beach.
Chamber members annually volunteer their time and services to make the event successful, he says, but many other people in the community contribute as well.
Asked where he’d like to see himself in five years, Cooper says, “Hopefully, here.”