The word of the year for the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce seems to be “reimagine.”
It’s what president Gail Loefgren has been focusing on ever since she began working at home more than nine weeks ago, when the coronavirus pandemic wiped clean the calendar of networking, social and business events. Since then, the dates for at least eight Chamber events have come and gone.
The Chamber’s outward face consists largely of those in-person events, where people shake hands, swap business cards and pose close together for photos. Of course, the Chamber is much more underneath — a network of information and support to help its 100-plus member businesses. But, a reimagining of the Chamber’s face is in order, as behind-the-scenes work is all the Chamber does. Loefgren fields calls from members morning and night, weekday and weekend.
“Rather than doing my normal Chamber stuff, it's been dispensing information,” Loefgren said. “I never know from day to day what's going to happen, although by 9:30 in the morning, usually I know if my day is gonna fall apart.”
Loefgren worked as many hours as she could to dispense information to her members, from information on who could and should apply for PPP and bridge loans and grants from Sarasota County to who could operate and how. Vacation rentals, condos and resorts had a lot of questions. She’s been synthesizing information from Zooms and webinars with the Florida Chamber, which works closely with Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sarasota and Manatee counties and nation authorities. The connection with the Florida Chamber proved especially useful.
“I was able to advise them (members) like this last time, when we met with them, I knew that they were getting close to opening Phase II … I emailed all the restaurants and I said, ‘I think next week, it's coming, guys, I think you're gonna get to 50%. Just be prepared,’” Loefgren said.
The zeal for information is paying off, as member Michael Garey, who owns the Lazy Lobster, said he got information on loans, grants and operating from the Chamber before pretty much any other source during the pandemic, including his bank and the National Restaurant Association.
“That information was probably only 24 to 48 hour head start, but when you've got a situation as crucial with business lifelines and employees on the line, I considered the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce as my go-to source for information, even ahead of our national restaurant association,” Garey said. “As you can tell from the aftermath, being able to act quickly ended up being very very important.”
Now that the dust is beginning to settle and member businesses like vacation rentals and restaurants can open up, Loefgren is turning to the future, determined to keep everyone afloat and do whatever she can to make sure the island loses no businesses, and has even forgotten to bill people for their memberships in the crush of other duties. She’s decided to extend memberships by four months to offer extra help to those she knows are struggling.
“Really all the questions at the beginning were, ‘How in the heck am I going to survive this?’” Loefgren said. “Now it's, ‘Oh my God, please, let's get this thing open.’ It’s heartbreaking. I wanted to solve everybody's problems … and there were just times when I had no answer and I couldn't offer any help because the criteria for these things were just all over the place.”
The Chamber will stay behind-the-scenes for some time, as it has canceled events through June. Networking events are difficult to duplicate online, as side conversations can’t happen through Zoom.
“We're setting Zoom meetings, all of our committee meetings are by Zoom, as are the board meetings,” Loefgren said. “Now it's just a month by month. Because nobody knows what we don't know. It's really hard to make plans, to figure out, trying to reimagine events.”
Big events like Small Business Week and the Freedom Fest are on the rocks. Loefgren is, again, reimagining how things will look and anticipates a lot of changes in business models — both for the Chamber and for its members — from in-person to virtual. Small Business Week can be virtual. The Freedom Fest, of course, cannot. Luckily, Loefgren likes inventing things, and is urging her members to, as well.
“I think it's time for our businesses who have yet to go into Phase III, for them to get creative and think, ‘Okay, so now, when I get to Phase III, I am going to be ready,’" Loefgren said. "Just be creative. It's a good restart.”
Member Andrew Vac is confident that the Chamber’s sociable, networking luncheons and cocktail hours will resume at some point, in some fashion, but likely without everyone comfortable being back at once. Until then, he’s keeping up the same way everyone else has to — via Zoom, phone and email.
“I think the Chamber is still going to do what the Chamber does, which is promote and market their membership and be a venue for members to refer business to other members,” Vac said. “As far as the networking events, I think that that's going to prove out itself. The way we're going to know is by the response (of members).”