It’s another typical chamber of commerce day in Southwest Florida: cloudless blue skies, brilliant sunshine and an altogether delightful 80 degrees. Except that on Sanibel and Captiva Islands, there’s a chamber of commerce that’s far from typical.
It goes by the official moniker of Sanibel Island & Captiva Island Chamber of Commerce and — going on 11 years in 2017 — the organization’s been led by president Ric Base, a gentleman who’s combined his background in training, sales and Florida East Coast chambers into one of the most potent marketing partners any resort, restaurant or retailer on the island could have.
“Most chambers of commerce are somewhat static operations that help their members with networking and other business basics,” he says. “Our chamber is a proactive promoter of our members to the public, while providing services in marketing that bring great results in referrals and sales, which ultimately generate returns on investment of high value.”
Put another way (and here’s your not-so-secret secret) — this ain’t your ordinary chamber, but is much more akin to a larger destination marketing organization, similar in mission to county visitor and convention bureaus.
Doug Babcock is Chief Operating Officer of Sanibel Captiva Beach Resorts and is a member of the chamber’s board of directors. “We actively participate in a number of marketing programs the chamber offers,” he explains. “Across our four resorts, we generally see the chamber among the top referring resources to our property websites. They’re sending literally thousands of people to our reservations pages, where many of these folks wind up booking vacations. It’s a great asset that all of us on the islands benefit from, and very few chambers across the country perform this way or this well.”
The facts would support Babcock. Open daily throughout the year, the colorful Visitor Center on Causeway Boulevard welcomes nearly 170,000 eager guests annually — in season, some days upwards of more than a thousand families, couples, snowbirds and day trippers. Sanibel Captiva Visitor Guides go right back out the door each year in approximately 125,000 of those hands. And online, a remarkable 1.3 million annual visitors click onto Sanibel-Captiva.org — where close to one million are then referred on to members who are all too happy to provide lodging, food, entertainment, recreation, shopping and other options for purchase.
Ric Base is rightly proud of that performance. “Clearly, in terms of foot traffic, we’re the most popular visitor center in the state outside of VISIT FLORIDA’s welcome centers,” he notes. “We’re obviously positioned nicely in location, but these are special islands and people are excited to learn about them when they walk through our doors. That’s where our staff really shines, providing guests a warm welcome, a plethora of information and a great passion for our island lifestyle.”
Again, the facts prove Base right. Somewhat amazingly, the Sanibel Captiva Visitor Center ranks among the top three attractions on TripAdvisor, having received more than 700 reviews. “That says a lot about our volunteers and our staff in making visitors feel welcome.”
Just as amazingly, the organization provides all of these services with but four full time employees, a handful of part time employees and approximately 35 volunteers. “I learned early on in my career that one thing you couldn’t teach others is attitude,” Base says. “Our staff loves the islands and are passionate about this place, and share that love with every guest.”
Scot Congress, president of Congress Jewelers and past president of the board of the chamber of commerce, is impressed. “It’s a ‘grass roots up’ volunteer organization in many respects,” he says. “The love and passion for the islands are what drives the chamber’s success. From the volunteers at the front desk, to its all volunteer board and incredible executive team, that passion is the gift that keeps on giving.”
But the marketing of a destination is becoming more sophisticated every day, and Ric Base — who’ll retire at the end of 2017 — is smart enough to not sit on his laurels, or his hands. Rather, this chamber of commerce will again take on the role of destination marketer more aggressively than ever this year, with $125,000 (its largest amount ever) budgeted for website and social media promotion.
In the end, however, even the biggest budget in the world would be wasted if nobody was buying what you were selling — and as Base has seen the past 11 years, Sanibel Island and Captiva Island sell themselves quite well. “We’re a bit of a throwback to old Florida, a kinder and gentler way of life without the glitz. If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle, enjoy gorgeous beaches, wonderful nature and all kinds of recreation, or just mellow out, this is the place to have that relaxing getaway. It’s a different speed of life and, like our slogan says: naturally, you’ll love it here.”
“Clearly, in terms of foot traffic, we’re the most popular visitor center in the state outside of VISIT FLORIDA’s welcome centers.
— Ric Base
“It’s a great asset that all of us on the islands benefit from, and very few chambers across the country perform this way or this well.
— Doug Babcock
By John Sprecher | Photography by Milissa Sprecher