Chamber eyes merger with Mammoth Lakes Tourism


First-ever partnership would begin July 1

The Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce would be absorbed by Mammoth Lakes Tourism under a plan that both entities approved this past week.

The merger, unprecedented in Mammoth, would result in the creation of a $75,000-a-year chamber executive who would report directly to MLT’s director, John Urdi.

Funds for the new position, Urdi said, would come from business license tax money.

“I talked to [Town Manager] Marianna Marysheva-Martinez and suggested we would move forward and absorb the commitment from the town, which is only about $18,000 at this time.

“The plan right now is not to use Measure A money or even the [projected] Tourism Business Incentive District money, but to use the business license tax money, which is about $260,000 a year. 

“We’d use that money to fund the position and create a working budget.”

Urdi, along with the board of the Chamber of Commerce and the Mammoth Lakes Tourism Board, hammered out the tentative details at a meeting on Wednesday, May 8.

“This is really about protecting the guest experience,” Urdi said.

“I want to make sure that if we’re spending $3.5 million to bring people here, that we’re basically protecting our investment to make sure we have a strong chamber.

“We want to make sure that the businesses are as happy as they can be, and as trained as they can be so that those people have a great experience.

“I see this as vertical integration. We have the destination wing, which gets people here, and this would become the local wing, which really is the piece that makes or breaks the experience.”

Currently, the chamber is run by a board of directors, headed by executive director Jack Copeland, a former executive at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. It employs one person and has no storefront-type headquarters.

That would all change with a merger, said Urdi, who has worked with various chambers of commerce previous to his arrival in Mammoth nearly three years ago.

“I’ve been a part of some very strong chambers in the country, from the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber in New Hampshire to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce in Wyoming.  I’ve also been part of some weak chambers, like the Teton Valley Chamber in Idaho. 

“It’s interesting,” Urdi said, “because you look at the people who are running these different organizations, and there are some really smart people out there who know what member-to-member benefits make sense.

“For example, one of the things that I’ve always seen at some of the other chambers is having joint bulk benefits of health care. That’s about being able to go to Blue Cross and say, ‘Listen, I have a group of a hundred companies that we can point in your direction, but we need a 20 percent discount.’ 

“A 20 percent discount for me, here, would be phenomenal. If I could save $600 a month on health insurance for my employees, that’s a huge benefit.

“So being able to seek out those kinds of benefits and what they need and what would help them really brings a lot to the table.

“That takes resources, and it takes a little bit of background of how to go through those processes.”

But the real benefactor of such a merger, Urdi said, would be the individual guest.

“There is a tremendous amount of research we’ll be doing as to really figuring out why people come to visit, and why they love this place, and why they might not come back to the place.

“Are we missing the amenities? Are we missing the service? Are we not offering the true value that people feel they should be getting for their dollars?

“The first step is the research, and the second step is the training. The biggest thing we want to do is not just do the same-old-same-old training, where we invite people to a big conference room and put out some donuts and coffee and then we have somebody stand up in front of them and say ‘Be nice to your guests.’ 

“That just isn’t working.”

Rather, Urdi said he and the current chamber board envision a much grander scheme.

“What I’m looking at is the possibility of having a consultant who we can have basically available as needed.

“We really need someone to help people figure out their systems.  That’s a chamber function, not necessarily an MLT function. Jack Copeland of the Chamber of Commerce and I have had that conversation. Brent Truax, the past president of the chamber, have had that conversation.

“Combining our resources, obviously, we’ve got a staff that can assist; we have funding available to really give the chamber the funding it needs to move things forward. 

“Right now the chamber struggles with being unable to move forward because it does not have those resources, whether it’s in the funding or even the staffing.

Urdi said he, Truax (the general manager of the Westin Monache Resort) and Copeland would form a search team for an executive director with chamber experience.

This person would know what a successful chamber looks like, what sorts of seminars the chamber puts together, what sorts of events a chamber should be involved in, what member benefits should look like, and so on.

“MLT’s mission is to bring people to town, and the chamber’s mission is really to make sure that the businesses are equipped and partnering together to make sure those people have the best experience possible,” Urdi said.