Boosting Business for 100 Years Tourism, information, manufacturing, lobbying: the issues have remained largely unchanged.

By: Catherine Glass of North Country Business

One hundred years has given the Huntsville/Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce a chance to refine its craft, and the time has not been misspent. Since the early days when George Hutcheson called a meeting in the court house to discuss the formation of a Board of Trade, promoting the businesses of the town was paramount. In that first meeting, Captain Marsh, more familiar than most with local tourism trends, reported on “the very extensive preparations that the Grand Trunk Railway was making to carry tourists.”

Throughout Canada and the United States, the railway was distributing 30,000 pamphlets to entice people to the region. The Captain stressed the importance of having a group to organize the anticipated response, set up lodging, dining and activities that would please visitors on their first trip, and make them want to return year after year. J.R. Reece felt that visitors should have an identifiable, impartial body to oversee the tourist trade and advise visitors. W.H. Matthews of the Sovereign Bank added that a Board of Trade should actively solicit manufacturers to the area.

And so it began.

Over the years, methods changed, but the mandate remained the same – more tourists, more businesses, more services, and a cohesive organization to spearhead the campaigns. Huntsville and Lake of Bays blossomed, partially from word of mouth, largely due to the Board of Trade’s tireless work, and occasionally just from a lucky break. Each decade marked increased success and attention.

In the early 1930s, humorist and writer Greg Clark was invited to speak at a Chamber of Commerce meeting. Clark, fresh from a vacation in Lake Placid, encouraged the Chamber to begin promoting winter activities.

True to form, the area responded, and shortly hotels were winterized, ski hills and jumps were built, and ice fishing was boosted as fun activity. A ski train from Toronto made regular runs, offering a return trip, lodging, meals and skiing for a mere $11. An aggressive advertising campaign backed up the changes, and the rest is history.

The Chamber, along with the Muskoka Snowmobile Region and Muskoka Tourism, now market winter with as much success as the other seasons. During the war years, the Chamber sent out hand written post cards letting the country know that Huntsville’s sympathies were with the war effort, and the town was open for business if folks could find a chance to relax during this time of hardship.

On April 21, 1949, the guest speaker at the 50th anniversary meeting was George Martin, president of the Canadian Association of Travel and Tourist Bureaus. Martin stressed “courtesy and better service to visiting tourists.” The 70 members present were also addressed by retiring president Harman Pickard. By the mid 1950s, the Chamber arranged for highway signs promoting Huntsville as a four-season resort community, and it had information booths at the Sportsman Shows in Toronto and Cleveland and at Lake of Two Rivers in Algonquin Park during the Cavalcade of Colour. Stores were organizing to open standard hours, including Friday nights to 9:00 and Saturdays to 6:00.

In 1959, the Chamber wrote to the provincial government expressing the need for a second overpass into the town, and wrote to the town protesting police treatment of parking offenders. The town still had its own police force until the 1970s.

In 1967 -1968, the Chamber finally had its own home, and stayed until moving into the present location, which it owns, in 1989. 1985 saw the name of the organization change to the Huntsville/Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce, recognizing the contribution made by this inseparable and strategic partner. The name had previously been changed from the Huntsville Board of Trade to the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce, years prior.

Still providing tourist information, and actively promoting the area at shows, including the annual Cottage Life show in Toronto, the Chamber continues to expand its
agenda. The mission statement oversimplifies the complex and sometimes delicate undertaking. The Huntsville/Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce is a membership driven business organization whose mission is to support the economic growth of our members through networking, public awareness and community promotion.

It is much more than that. The Chamber office houses brochures from member companies and recommends its members to those looking for particular goods and services. It responds to queries regarding relocation to the area, working closely with the Economic Development Committee.

It provides a means for small companies to participate in a group benefit plan at rates that are usually offered only to large businesses.

For members, The Chamber provides a free listing in the annual guide and directory. 30,000 copies of the directory are printed with details of the members, a profile of the community. and a comprehensive list of events in the area. It is distributed to members, restaurants, hotels, travel centers and retail outlets.

The Chamber’s web page lists members and their links, and is linked to various other entities such as Muskoka Tourism.

A weekly radio program and a monthly newsletter and column in North Country Business keep members and the public apprised of important issues, events, business tips and related news. Perhaps most importantly, the Chamber provides an opportunity for networking with compatriots – people and businesses fighting the same battles, suffering the same frustrations, and sharing the same successes of businesses in North Muskoka. Part cheerleading, part group therapy, the awareness of other members helps Chamber members support one another while presenting a united front in its many endeavors.

Monthly Business After Hours receptions serve as a venue to welcome new members and allow existing members to more fully explain their business. The annual Business Showcase, held in April, gathers everyone together to celebrate the Chamber’s birthday and see what, and who, is new. Well received, it is attended by at least 300 members.

What does the future hold for the Chamber? What needs will it have to meet?

Obviously, the most prevalent change will be in marketing. Personal though the postcards of the war years were, and helpful though the flyers distributed by Grand Trunk proved to be, a larger, global audience is now the target.

The mobile billboards on the sides of Muskoka Transport’s trailers travel throughout Canada and North America, attracting hundreds of phone calls a week to Muskoka Tourism, which in turn directs the enquiries to the appropriate partners, like the Chambers.

The routes traveled bring potential exposure to literally hundreds of millions of people over the seven year life expectancy of the project, and the phenomenal success it has already experienced is just the beginning.

There is, however, a large audience out there, and each and every day, more of it becomes accessible. The playing field is level now, and small chambers can compete for tourist and industrial dollars with the big boys. The Internet, and all of its glorious uses, is the future. Muskoka is in a unique position to fully capitalize on the Internet’s capabilities. There is even a catch phrase named for it – The Muskoka Phenomenon or The Electronic Cottage.

The area claims some of North America’s wealthiest business people as cottagers, many of whom are able to extend their vacation time by keeping tabs on the office electronically. Our phone lines support high speed data transmission, and Internet Service Providers and web page hosts and designers help to put businesses on the Internet map.

As the population ages, the drift toward Muskoka continues, and aging baby boomers will be migrating northward. Their loyalty will not come cheaply. They will be looking for world class services, shopping and entertainment, as well as a nexus to larger centers.

The task of coordinating the answers to these demands is going to fall on the shoulders of the Chamber. Members will have to be educated in demographic trends, and new businesses enticed to fill in the gaps. The Chamber will have to strengthen its lobbying efforts, working closely with the municipal governments, encouraging council to continue to improve health care, public transportation and development. In short, the Chamber will have to become instant experts in fields of study that aren’t known yet. The learning curve will be short, demand for information steady and strong. The speed at which technology, commerce and tourism is evolving in increasing.

Yesterday’s fast lane is tomorrow’s walking path. Not only must the Chamber keep up, it must enable its membership to advance at the same speed. One hundred years ago, a handful of town fathers set the wheels in motion. The Chamber has met the challenge over the years and excelled. The building blocks are in place for a very bright future indeed.

Chamber of Commerce members can expect the best!

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