In this episode, Linda invites Amy Wiggins, President and CEO of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce to discuss the chamber’s vital role in local business development and community attraction towards larger business entities. She also highlighted the importance of arts and culture, tourism, and the collaborative nature of chambers across the nation.
Below is an excerpt from the interview. Listen above for the full podcast.
What do Chambers of Commerce do? Chambers of Commerce have been around since the 16th century. They started in France of all places and they are a lot like what they sound like. It was an organization of businesses that realized that they could have a larger voice if they all worked together instead of the baker, the butcher, and the soapmaker all complaining individually to the governing forces. By banding together, they realized that they could have a much greater impact. That model has lasted and expanded over the globe.
Our chamber in Lakeland dates back to 1921. We just celebrated our 100th anniversary. We were founded to organize the businesses in Lakeland, to create opportunities for commerce, projects like electric street lights downtown, and then bringing the [Detroit] Tigers here and recognizing how important that would be for our community. Identifying the location of the airport was also a chamber initiative for a long time.
We're continuing our work in the chamber to be this space where business can come together and find solutions for the challenges that exist in our community. It is a really exciting place to work and a really exciting time I think to be a part of it.
Why Lakeland? What's phenomenal about Lakeland, in particular, is we are right in the middle of the I4 corridor. That's what we're known for as Tampa and Orlando are getting more and more difficult to get to. We're very grateful that our governor has advanced funding for some of the interchanges on I4, which is critically important. We've been advocating for that for a very long time.
In Lakeland, we have a professional symphony, a children's museum, a Broadway series, a professional dance theater, and a high-quality community theater. All of these things don't really exist in any other place within 100 miles of us. It's really phenomenal because that arts and culture aspect of our community really helps us not only better ourselves but also our students. Students who are participating in arts graduate at 100% here in Polk County. That's a phenomenal graduation rate.
How is the chamber involved in business? Just about anywhere that commerce is taking place, you can find us. We really focus on the entrepreneurial, small business, and midsized business space. We are really involved in making sure our small businesses have access to all the resources that they need to be as competitive and successful as possible. Everything from marketing to the Department of Labor Statistics and staying on the right side of that institution.
It really is an ecosystem in my opinion. We're all on the same road, we may just be in different lanes, but at least we're headed to the same destination.
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Is there a network of chambers that you work with? Our chamber community is small and also large at the same time. I could pick up the phone and blindly call any Chamber of Commerce in any city, in this country or abroad, and I know that they would gladly share their information with me because we recognize that in the grand scheme of things, what we do is not about us. What we do is about the success of our communities and very specifically, the businesses and our communities.
There are no secrets in the chamber world at all. We gladly share and help our fellow chamber peers make their communities better. Not everything works for everybody. What Lakeland needs is going to be very different from what Lake Wales needs. Because we are representative of our local communities, we can take ideas from other places, modify them so that they fit our community, and then share those on into perpetuity.
What is a Visitors & Convention Bureau? The Visitors & Convention Bureau is our manifestation of promoting Lakeland as a great place to live and visit. In Polk County, we have a tremendous Visitors & Convention Bureau through Visit Central Florida and Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing. They focus on helping the wrestling and basketball tournaments that come into the RP Funding Center through the Florida State Athletic Association.
If you had a nephew, grandchild, son, or daughter who was coming to play in a state championship, wouldn't you want to be there to cheer? Those are all hotel nights for our community as the teams, their parents, and their entourages all come in. Those are the little things that happen in that tourism and hospitality space that we don't necessarily always recognize.
Our speaker at our annual meeting this year was the President of McKibbon Hospitality. They own Marriott, Hilton, and IHG brands. He mentioned something like 22% of our tourism revenue is just from hotel nights. Those people are the front door for Lakeland. So many folks who come to Lakeland and stay the night are experiencing our community through the eyes of the folks at the front desk and the folks who help them find their rooms. We are huge proponents of hospitality and that includes everything from restaurants all the way up to our hoteliers.
What is Citrus Connection? Citrus Connection is our transportation. They really do a great thing as another space that is important for tourism. It's important for workforce development and public transit.
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