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Alliance schedule packed with events

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Photo courtesy of the Charleston Area Alliance. The Charleston Area Alliance hosts events at multiple locations, including the Culture Center. Photo courtesy of the Charleston Area Alliance. The Charleston Area Alliance hosts events at multiple locations, including the Culture Center.
Doug Evans talks with Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, at the Alliance’s 2012 Speed Networking with the Stars. Doug Evans talks with Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, at the Alliance’s 2012 Speed Networking with the Stars.

A look at the Charleston Area Alliance's events calendar reveals just how hard-working the business and community development organization really is.

But hosting all of those events — from simple lunch meetings to large conferences — doesn't come without plenty of planning.

"At the beginning of the year, we map out our major events for the 12 months ahead to help us coordinate our work and make sure there's not overlapping," said JoEllen Zacks, senior vice president of the Alliance. 

Although staff members spend time preparing for the wide array of events, crises, business news or community needs sometimes necessitate an unscheduled event. Case in point: last year's derecho.

"We had an event … that was well-attended," said Matthew Thompson, communication manager for the Alliance. "We filmed it and put it on YouTube as well. Business owners had a lot of questions: ‘Our power has been out for a number of days. Can I still pay employees?' Some people didn't know some things about it. We had the power company there to talk about what they had to do to get the power back on. That was put together very quickly, but it was very important to get the messages out there to people going through it. The power was still out in a lot of places."

That event was at the Charleston Area Alliance offices on Smith Street just days after the freak storm hit the area. A panel of experts, including employment lawyers and insurance company representatives, answered questions from business owners about how to comply with the law in regard to payroll, business closures and lost revenue. 

Because the event wasn't scheduled, Zacks said it illustrates the need for flexibility.

"You have to have flexibility when opportunities or needs or something good or a crisis happens. You have to have that flexibility to respond and pull together some sort of activity that will help business or the community," she said.

Flexibility also comes into play when selecting venues for different types of events. While some Alliance events are at the same venue year after year, scheduling conflicts sometimes prevent that from happening.

"A lot of the hotels are frequently booked," Zacks said. "Sometimes you want to do a major event but there is limited availability in town because they're already committed for conventions or other special events, which says they're doing very good business. They're providing a very good service. Otherwise they wouldn't be booked."

But Zacks said the Alliance has a good relationship with Charleston venues, including the Charleston Town Center Marriott, Embassy Suites, Clay Center and Culture Center, among others. It's a relationship established on trust, confidence and communication.

"You have to have confidence that they're going to deliver," she said. 

"The longer you work with someone, the more they understand the format of your event, what your expectations are, and then they can deliver. I've found all the hotels and venues here very accommodating. But it's really important to be explicit on what you expect and what the format is. We've done some different events such as speed networking with the stars, which is a whole different room configuration and it's not a traditional event, timetable or format. So helping everyone understand how we envision the event to unfold is very important. I've found the services very good. People are very accommodating and they're proud to open their facilities to us."

Thompson pointed out that having the events at the same venues is beneficial to everyone — the Alliance, the venue staff and attendees. But that doesn't mean Alliance staff isn't on the lookout for new venue spaces.

"Our policy is to patronize member businesses," Zacks said. "So when we have new members who can provide catering or any sort of event service, or if a facility upgrades and expands its capacity, we're always happy to have another avenue because we do have a lot of events. Sometimes other venues are booked, which is good for them but it leaves us scrambling. So we're always excited to have something new to look at as well."

But, Zacks stresses, the events don't happen organically — they are an integral part of the Alliance's mission to facilitate growth among small business and professionals. Each Alliance event offers a time for socializing and networking, which Zacks said is important, especially for young professionals. Being in the same room as business owners, managers and executives often leads to job offers and board placements.

"An event is not a party," she said. "An event is some sort of occasion to accomplish a purpose. So we look at what our overall goals are and then plan whatever the vehicle is to make that happen. For business development, professional development, a lot of that is face-to-face meeting and networking. Technology is great and it's made our lives more efficient and productive, but nothing can take the place of meeting face-to-face with someone or making a personal connection. That's what these activities are for."