Mixing Traditions and New Ideas in Geneva

Geneva’s beloved festivals may seem a little different this year, but it’s all part of a plan to respect tradition while also embracing new ideas. It also happens to be a critical leadership approach for the city’s new Chamber of Commerce president.

Change is isn’t always easy, and yet it’s the one constant in life. So, how does a city that’s celebrated for its traditions reconcile business-as-usual with new perspectives? If you’re Geneva, you embrace both the old and the new.

Since taking the reins of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce last July, Paula Schmidt has ushered in a new era for an organization whose former president, Jean Gaines, had provided constant leadership for nearly four decades. The passing of the torch has brought inevitable adjustments while at the same time ushering in modernized procedures and fresh new ideas. So far, Schmidt is hearing plenty of positive feedback.

“Paula’s done a great job at making those changes in a nonthreatening way, and keeping traditions but bringing in slight changes, as well,” says Laura Rush, the Chamber’s communications manager. “Hopefully, these will become their own traditions.”

Before joining up with the Chamber, Schmidt spent 10 years leading the Kane and McHenry County Medical Societies, an organization that, like the Chamber, managed membership, held events and meetings, and supported continuing education. Before that, she and her husband, Mark, owned two small businesses in the area.

Unique among our region, Geneva Chamber isn’t only an advocate for local businesses. It’s also a driver of area tourism, in particular through its busy festival season, kicking off with this year’s 70th Swedish Days in June. As Schmidt prepares for her first full festival season, we sat down to learn about her vision for the future, and to get a beat on the latest happenings around this vibrant community of 21,500 residents.

What’s been your impression of Geneva so far?

I’ve loved it. The Chamber is a very well-oiled machine. The staff is fantastic. Geneva is fantastic. Everyone’s been so kind to me.

What have you found to be Geneva’s greatest assets?

It has great traditions. You can really build on them. Geneva has this lovely downtown with quaint shops, but we also have the Geneva Commons, where you have your big-box stores. So, living in Geneva, you can get anything within a matter of 15 minutes. We are also very fortunate to have the train station right downtown. The Kane County Government Center is here, because Geneva is the county seat. So, that’s a very big draw for people to come and see the city. All of our festivals are fantastic, and they’re bringing a lot of people from out of town.

We work well with the City. A lot of people don’t understand that the Chamber is not a part of the city. Many assume we are, but we’re not.

To clarify, you are a nonprofit organization that advocates for local business, yet you also serve as the city’s de facto visitors bureau.

That’s right. It makes us unique because we wear two hats, and not a lot of chambers do that in this area. On one side is our membership organization, which takes care of businesses, and then on the other side is sponsorship/tourism, which takes care of our festivals and bringing people into town. We have a fine line we have to walk to bring people into town but also take care of our service businesses, industrial businesses and our retail stores.

And your membership is diverse: Small, locally owned businesses as well as large businesses with a national scope. What are some trends the Chamber is monitoring right now, and what do those indicate about the state of Geneva?

A lot of retail sales are now online. A lot of our smaller businesses downtown, and even those in the Geneva Commons, are feeling the effects. That’s why we are working on strategic plans that address the question of ‘how can we keep our retailers when everyone is shopping online?’

A lot of our ideas center around making Geneva an experience. We want you to touch, to feel, to smell. And we want you to have something that will remind you to come back. I think about Scentcerely Yours. You come in and build your own candle. You make it, and then you come back and pick it up. It’s something you did. ‘Oh, remember when we were in Geneva and we made those candles? How cool was that?’

We’re also trying smaller events like little wine tastings, or our Coffee Crawl, which bring people downtown and make sure that they’re walking into stores. It’s reminding them that buying a shirt online is just not as much fun as going downtown or to the Commons.

We have some storefronts that are empty, but in the past six months we’ve started to see them turn over and become alive again. The interesting thing is that most of these vacancies only occurred because the owners retired. And that comes with being an older community. You have these businesses that have been here for many years. Eventually, people retire.

And anymore, there aren’t as many families that want to take over. The kids want to do their own thing. They want to live here, but they don’t want to run the store like mom and dad did. There’s a generational thing that’s going on, and we’ve seen that quite a bit lately.

I think you’re also looking at older infrastructure, because Geneva is an older town. We were all wearing jackets in our office during the polar vortex when our boiler crashed. In older buildings, you have to find a tenant who’s willing to say, ‘I can make some changes here.’ It’s not as easy to fill vacant storefronts as you might think. But, I think the City is really working with people to make sure we can fill those spaces. We also have to worry about the upcoming resurfacing of East State Street/Illinois Route 38. That’s going to be interesting for our members in that corridor. We have to work on an advertising/marketing campaign and get ahead of the game, to let people know these businesses will be open.

We’re really lucky to have the train here. I think that’s a huge positive for us. The future sees Geneva getting a third rail at the railroad station, which will close Illinois Route 31 for a little while. That will mean more people driving through downtown – which is good – but it’s a very pedestrian-friendly downtown. So, it could be a little more dangerous, too. We’re really lucky to have the train here. I think that’s a huge positive for us.

What sorts of issues – at the local, state or national level – are your members most concerned about?

I think because our downtown area is so heavily retail, you’re first of all talking about the minimum wage. We recently held a seminar with our retail members, because they’re trying to figure out how a $15 minimum wage is going to affect them. It could be a good and a bad thing for retail. It’s already expensive to run these mom-and-pop shops, and every little bit matters to them. But at the same time, if you offer a better wage, you hopefully get a better quality of employee.

Our members have great holiday seasons. Then January comes, and many of them are slow for weeks. They may close early or close altogether for a bit. But that hurts the visitors who do come, because it feels like nothing is open. ‘We’re closed because nobody’s coming.’ But people are coming, and you’re closed. We did a Coffee Crawl in early March so we could generate some traffic in a typically slow time. We do Restaurant Week in January to generate traffic.

We go back to the question of: what do we do to bring people in? Do you have an experience they’ll remember? Are there things other than shopping that might encourage them to come back? We have the big Halloween event in October. Every storefront gives candy to kids. Thousands of kids come by. The stores don’t get anything out of it. It’s so crowded mom and dad can’t really shop, but all of the merchants say it’s one of the most fantastic days of the year, because people say, ‘I’m going to come back.’ And our festivals do the same thing. That’s why we do the festivals, to bring consumers to Geneva for shopping and eating.

That’s right – festivals are a big part of the Chamber’s business model. What do they contribute to the downtown and your membership?

Let’s just look at Swedish Days, for instance. We get 200,000 people, on average, over five or six days. That’s bringing a lot of people into town, a lot of money being spent. The hotels sell out, so it brings a lot of tax money in and a lot of business for our stores. Our local nonprofits operate concession booths. This is a big fundraiser for them. Swedish Days is all about community, and this is a way we can give back.

And then we have the Geneva Arts Fair, which was just ranked No. 6 in the country on ArtFairCalendar.com. That brings a nice group of people into restaurants. It’s more of an artsy crowd, so it’s different from the family vibe you get at Swedish Days. They’re still going into the stores, they’re spending money, they’re eating at the restaurants and coming out to purchase quality art.

Festival of the Vine seems like the date-night kind of festival for couples. We feature our restaurants at the Flavor Fare, and patrons can sample some nicer wines. It brings out about 75,000 people for three days. Even though the event is on the other side of State Street, it’s like there’s a great big party on Third Street, too. It’s where the experience comes in again.

We have our Christmas Walk, and it’s just crazy. We see thousands of people – families and friends – coming to Geneva for this one night. It’s wall-to-wall people in the street for a 20-minute tree lighting and appearance by Santa. The stores do very well.

At that same time, we do a Christmas House Tour where five generous families open up their homes that are decorated by local decorators. People buy a ticket to visit the homes, and all of the money goes to decorating the city for the holidays.

And then we offer little mini-festivals off and on. We’re trying to do an autumn festival and another Coffee Crawl – just little occasions that bring maybe 2,000 or 3,000 new people who wouldn’t normally be here.

The City is good to us. They are fantastic to work with, and they see the benefit of having thousands of people come in and spend money here in Geneva. I think the festivals are a big draw.

Swedish Days runs June 18-23 and kicks off this year’s festival season. What can we expect this year?

Some of the traditions we have with these festivals are fantastic, but some need a new eye put on them. For example, it’s very rare that you see six-day festivals anymore, so we’re trying to change it up a little bit without ruining the traditions.

This year, we’re trying a Moonlight Madness event on Tuesday, the first day of the festival. A few festival activities will be open, but it’s going to be a night to enjoy some sales, go out for dinner and find discounts. It’s going to be a soft opening, instead of a big, grand opening where the parade is coming in and everything is coming alive. The businesses down here love this new idea, because we’re featuring them. They often feel like they get blocked out by the festival and might often struggle with how to tie in with Swedish Days.

Changing tradition is difficult, so we’re going to take it slow. This’ll be my first Swedish Days, and our changes have been very minimal, but meaningful.

Your predecessor had been here for 40 years, so this balance between tradition and modernization has really been a common theme through your first year at the Chamber. What’s it been like to maintain traditions while striking your own path?

I had a little history with this because I came into the Kane and McHenry County Medical Societies after the executive director had been there for 25 years. I learned that if you make big changes right away, it tends not to be taken so well. It’s a slow process, and you have to take your time. You have to talk to people about the good and bad. I’ve been out there asking: ‘What do you like about the Chamber? What don’t you like about the Chamber?’ What could we do for you?’

The office has been modernized quite a bit. We were still doing things like handwritten checks. It took time to get things organized.

We’re trying to be a little more visible in the community, too. We do Chamber Cheer-Ons, where we go to a member business with a $5 gift certificate and find a random customer to present it to. I think the merchants really appreciate it. We put it on social media, so we show we’re out there. We also started Pop-Up for Popcorn on one Friday a month. Members come up and say, ‘I’ve got a problem. Can I just talk to you quickly?’

A lot of people had never been in our offices. Some members don’t even know where we are. They never had a reason to visit. So, now they’re coming in and we’re trying to tell others to come and meet us. And the reaction has been positive.

The downtown merchant meetings have been started again. Someone said, ‘Can we do this? Can the Chamber just help us start it?’ They had 30 people at the last merchant meeting. The merchants are working together and creating things. It’s become a real cohesive group again.

We have changed some of our priorities. When I started, we had a sponsorship and membership director who did both roles. Sponsorship is your tourism hat; Membership is your business and retail hat. We split that into two positions. So, we have someone who just does sponsorships now and someone who just does membership and recruitment now. It’s like our new membership director has been here for years. She’s doing social media, seminars for our members, and serving members in many industries. We’re finally getting back into the membership side of things. We were known for many years as a ‘festivals chamber.’

Our staff has working lunches, and we’ll say, ‘Why have we been doing this?’ I’ll ask, ‘Why have you been doing that?’ and everyone looks at me and says, ‘I don’t know.’ Just doing these lunches is huge. When you have six minds that are very creative, I think it’s a joy. Everybody is up for change. ‘Yeah, it’s a good idea, let’s work on that. Let’s expand on it.’ Nobody gets offended by bad ideas, because even bad ideas can become grand new ideas in the right hands.

I think what I brought was listening to what people have to say and not cutting it off right off the bat. And people talk a lot. I’m listening a lot. They open up, and once you let them go, it’s amazing. Sometimes all they want is to be heard. There’s one thing I get from that, and that’s learning about how we can change.

We never used our conference room, but now Robyn Chione, our membership director, does social media boot camp, benefit boot camps, all these things where we’re getting people in and having speakers to teach them in a smaller setting at no charge to our members. We’re trying to be relevant, more open to suggestions and more amicable. Friendlier, more engaging, out there and part of the community, not stuck in our office.

What’s been most exciting to you about working with the Chamber?

It’s a really good working relationship we have on our team. It’s a very cohesive, very close staff. It made me feel good to come in and not feel like an outsider right off the bat. I was very comfortable with that, and just working in the Chamber is so much fun. It’s fun to talk to people and find out where they’re coming from. The conversations have been interesting and quite enjoyable.”

From what members are telling you, where do you see opportunities for innovation?

We want to become that connective tissue so that, if anybody has a question, they come to us. We know about businesses, we know about services, we know about the city. We want to be that entity everybody wants to join because we are where everybody goes for knowledge.

I’d also love to have an interactive kiosk outside our office, and some general technology changes in town. Let’s make it easy for someone who’s standing in front of our window saying ‘Where do I want to eat?’ Press ‘restaurants’ on the kiosk and you’ll see them listed.

I want technology. It’s still very manual: ‘Let’s get our visitors guide and go walk around with our map.’ But that younger generation is coming down, and they’re saying, ‘I just want to eat; don’t give me that map. I want to press a button and find out which direction to go.’

Where are your members seeing economic opportunities? Downtown merchants want to stay open later now, because they’re seeing a resurgence of people later in the day. So, as much as the internet thing is going on, there’s still that experience of Geneva and that aura of Geneva that we try to enhance through our tourism, through our advertising, through our marketing.

The service side is just a different ball of wax. So, it’s trying to get them involved together. Having them meet for more networking, stronger leads groups, getting together and talking about their businesses. I think they don’t get a chance to do that. So, we’re starting what we call The Breakfast Club. It will be like networking, but more sitting at breakfast and talking as if it’s your family. ‘What’s going on in your field? What issues are you having? Do you have any insights? It’s going to be more casual, instead of just going around distributing your business card. Everybody does that, but who sits at the breakfast table? Isn’t that where you get your best conversation – over food? Really, we want everyone in the Chamber to feel like family. It’s one of those things where, we don’t know how it’ll work but we’ll throw it on the wall and see if it sticks.

We’re also trying to get more involved with other chambers. All we want to do is help make all of our businesses better. And if you have a good seminar, then let’s all go there. I think there’s a better working relationship with the other chambers.

I want this city to be a place where you come down with your girlfriends for the weekend, to shop and grab a bite to eat, or you can enjoy taking your kids to go have ice cream at Graham’s Fine Chocolates. I want it to be something they remember and always want to come back to. I think we have that feel in this city, and we’re lucky to have that feel. We have to take advantage of it.