When the economic recession in the United States was in full swing, the officials at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce made a tough decision. In 2009, they contacted their 3,000 members, alerting them that they need not pay their dues.
“We focus primarily on small businesses,” said Jan Riepen, CFO. “While Texans didn’t get hit as hard as many, we didn’t want our dues to be a hardship.”
While the chamber was pleasantly surprised when no one took advantage of their generous offer, they saw it as a wake-up call that having another form of revenue other than membership dues would be beneficial.
Enter the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s travel program; by all accounts, it is a successful venture.
More Than a Loyalty Program
After Riepen learned about chamber travel from a neighboring chamber, she took the opportunity to go on an American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE) familiarization trip to China in 2010.
“Well, I was blown away,” she said. “I planned our first trip to China, and we had 200 people sign up. It was fantastic. We went back to China the next year, and there are still reunion parties from those travels. One woman even wrote a hilarious book: ‘Traveling Through China With a Busload of Texans.’”
Riepen stated that although her chamber’s travel program promotes loyalty and camaraderie, it is first and foremost a revenue builder. Nonmembers are invited to travel, and Riepen’s friends from around the country and other nonmembers who “feel safe under their chamber umbrella” are often in the majority.
“For years, my friends and I agreed that when our kids were grown, we’d travel. And when [the chamber] went to Tuscany, my parents and all their friends went,” she said. “This program that has become very personal to me has given us all a great opportunity. We have had folks from as far away as Kansas City who want to join us. So many people call me — there must be a need.
“While I know some group travel is all about loyalty, for us, we know the person renewing their chamber dues is not looking at us as a travel program. However, our travel program has certainly been of great assistance in raising awareness in the community to what we do. We have folks fighting in Washington, D.C., for our members’ needs and doing the things that our small businesses don’t have the money to do on their own.
“We have had members return from a trip and become more involved in committees, and equally as important, our travel program has brought a global awareness to so many.”
Riepen is passionate about the benefits of having that global awareness. She remembers that her son, now grown, was in the eighth grade when the family hosted a foreign exchange student from Germany.
“That’s the age when you think you know it all. Our son soon realized that not everyone wears or wants the same shoes,” Riepen said with a laugh. “But this young man taught all of us. Where he came from, Sundays were sacred for being a family day, and so Sunday would come, and he’d look at us and ask, ‘What are we going to do today?’ We’d all be thinking, ‘My gosh, we better do something.’ That experience was one of the best things we ever did.”
Today, just a few years after starting the travel program, Riepen has offered some of the best benefits of travel to hundreds of enthusiastic travelers. The chamber offers at least two international trips a year to destinations such as Russia and South Africa.
“We’ve had so many people sign up we often have to go to a destination twice,” she said. “I always go on the first trip and experience the hiccups.”
The biggest hiccup Riepen has experienced was when her planned tour operator declared bankruptcy before their trip to Tuscany.