"There's no owners manual for a pandemic. I and my staff spent a lot of time in the very early weeks of the pandemic reading everything we could get our hands on to see practices were being used in other organizations and other parts of the country."
Dirk Draper is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Council. The Chamber’s mission is to serve and support the Colorado Springs business climate and military community by providing education, events, resources, and funding. In addition, they represent COS as a key voice in public policy.
In this episode, Dirk details the very real disruption that COVID-19 had on the Colorado Springs area and in turn, the Chamber’s operations, including a major focus on response efforts and the formation of a new partnership with public health.
Listen to our conversation for a glimpse into the before and after-pandemic days in Colorado Springs, along with Dirk’s vision for what the road ahead looks like for his beloved community. To enjoy the full miniseries of COS in COVID interviews, visit our podcast library.
Joe: Hi there. I’m Joe Dudeck, president and founder of Keyhole Marketing.
Shannon: And I’m Shannon Jirik. I work for Keyhole as the assistant brand manager.
Joe: And this is Metaphorically Speaking, a podcast that explores the mysterious side of marketing.
Shannon: Welcome back to Metaphorically Speaking. We are just really excited for the opportunity to wrap up this cause and COVID mini series that we’ve been focusing on for the last several episodes. And to help us do that we are honored for the opportunity to chat with Dirk Draper, who is the president of the Colorado Springs chamber.
Joe: Yeah, this is a nice bonus episode of this series. We were excited to connect to small business owners and that was our main focus. And then we thought, let’s be crazy enough to reach out to the president of the chamber and see if they’re able to tell from their vantage point, what are the things they’ve focused on in this pre COVID and post COVID world.
Shannon: I love how you mentioned that Dirk even says in the episode, like AB and PA, I don’t even know the letters, but before and after pandemic.
Joe: Yeah. BP and AP.
Joe: You’re welcome.
Shannon: I’m a visual person I got to see it.
Joe: I think you’re right. I think that those would be some of the terms we use going forward of just like social distancing as a thing and curbside pickup.
Shannon: Yeah. We’ll have a COVID specific dictionary by the time we’re done with this.
Joe: For sure. Well, it was even in writing, what he talked about at the beginning of just, why does the Chamber exist? I think even for me as a chamber member, I have my own little world that I’m focused on. Like, what are they doing for me in this space? But they have so many different initiatives that they’re trying to tackle and specific to this community. And it was great for him to paint that picture and then talk about it, like how that has shifted from prior to the COVID arriving and since it’s been around.
Also what’s interesting what I’ve personally enjoyed we talked about this a little bit in the interview was just their ability to tell the story from a marketing perspective. Especially with COVID, there’s been so much information that’s gone out there. There’s so much new things that we just don’t even know how to navigate through. And there’s so much to consume and you don’t always know who to go to and how accurate is it? And can I even make sense of it? And I think they did a great job and I’ve experienced personally of just condensing that message down.
How does it make sense from your perspective as a business owner? What are the things you need to know? How do you apply for this loan and what are the timelines and the deadlines. And they’ve done a great job of that. And then even educating the consumer to know how to best support small businesses. And so from us as marketers, we get geeked out on this stuff, but I thought we can be really critical of that stuff and it can be really bad. But I think they did a great job of condensing the story and helping it to make sense from us and putting it in a way that makes it exciting to look at and helps guide us through this day to day scene that we’re trying to go through.
Shannon: Yeah. Not only that, but in their transition, they’re still putting out events, even if they are virtual or now with the ability to be a little bit more in person, just to support that community and let them know they’re still here to help. And that’s awesome.
Joe: For sure.
Shannon: Like we said, we’re wrapping up our cause and COVID mini series. We hope that you have enjoyed these conversations and just found some hope and some inspiration in just the wonderful entrepreneurs and small business owners that we’ve gotten to talk with and gotten to hear their stories from. So if you get a chance we would love for you to go back and listen to all the interviews, get to know your neighbors, if you’re in the Colorado Springs area. And like I said, just be inspired to keep pushing forward and keep looking for a supportive community because I think as we’ve found through these interviews, it’s out there and that’s just so hopeful to me.
Joe: Yeah. And if you know of any other stories that you think would be great for us to hear, we’d love to sit down and talk to other business owners who’ve either struggled really hard through this time and are working their best they can, or others who’ve had great success. We just love hearing these stories. We love connecting with business owners. So please just send us an email. You can shoot it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we would just love to connect with them and hear those stories.
Shannon: Absolutely. So we talk with Dirk a little bit about the road ahead and where he sees things going from a chamber perspective and a community perspective. And we know that there’s a lot that’s still to be determined. And we know that there’s been a lot of downside to this pandemic as well as an upside. So we’re just excited to walk that journey with the rest of you and see where we go.
Joe: Thanks so much Dirk for joining the podcast, really appreciate your time. We’ve started off this cause and COVID series by asking each of the business owners for their quick synopsis about his or her business. And I think sometimes with the chamber, it’s not always intuitive to everyone what it is the chamber does and why you exist. Could you give a little background on the purpose of the Colorado Springs chamber specifically and why you do exist?
Dirk: You bet Joe. So the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC really has four mission sets. We are a membership organization. About 70% of our funding this year will come from our private sector members, companies, organizations that support our work. And the balance comes from our private sector partners, the city and county, the Colorado Springs utilities and others provide a support for services we provide them as well. Little bit of background, four mission sets we have, one is to help current and future employers grow and prosper in Colorado Spring. We are focused on helping them create jobs for area citizens.
Second one, it’s in defense development, to work with our military community to ensure that they have a good safe operating place, that they’re supported by the community. And that applies to both the men and women in uniform. The companies about almost 260 companies and organizations in our community are related to the aerospace and defense industry. It’s an important part of our work. The third area is in public policy. We are the voice of business in this region and are deeply involved in public policy to ensure that we have a strong business climate, and that the voice of business has heard at a local level with our city and county, at a state level, and at the federal level as well.
And then our fourth one is to, I mentioned our members at the beginning, that’s the lifeblood of our organization. And so the fourth part or the fourth mission we have is to care for those members and to ensure that we have a strong business climate for them. They’re recognized for excellence in their work that they’re connected with each other. We have a strong fabric in the business community and that’s part of our work to bring them together and in a variety of ways through our member services and our communicational practices.
Joe: Yeah, that’s great. I know it’s been helpful for me since we’ve been with [Youngman 00:07:40], moved out here last year and getting acclimated into this community and meeting other members as well. So on a personal note, I appreciate all you’ve done for me as a business in the last year. How was your organization impacted by COVID? Were you considered an essential business? Did you have to shut down and go remote for a while? Or how did that work for the Chamber?
Dirk: Yeah, we were not considered an essential business, so we have been working from home since the middle of March.
Joe: Okay. Got you.
Dirk: We have continued operations full-speed. We’ve just shifted our focus pretty substantially as have many businesses. Today we’ve had a number of steps along the way Joe, where in the early months, I’ve got 22 staff members. In the early days we allowed up to five people to come back into the office at one time.
Joe: Got you.
Dirk: We have expanded that or relaxed a little bit to be up to 10 people now. And really we haven’t pushed that limit much because we are able to work remotely. We’re able to continue serving our members and doing our work on work from home basis.
Joe: Yeah. Now, that’s great.
Dirk: We’ve had impact geologist coming. We’ve had impacts in a number of other ways that the business community that has been impacted by COVID are our members. And so, we have had members who’ve gone out of business. We have had some who have had to reduce or drop completely their membership in the organization. So we’ve seen financial implications to the organization from COVID as well.
Joe: For sure. Yeah. I think it’s been an interesting on this whole series to hear really some inspiring stories and of certainly there are many of the other side of that and it’s been a mix. I think it’s been interesting to hear. When you think about prior to COVID, what was the chamber… What were some of the initiatives you were focused on? If you can look back, I know it’s pretty been a whirlwind since then, but what were some of the things that were on your radar at that point?
Dirk: Yeah, isn’t it true boy, days of COVID it feels like time has been. That I think there’ll be a BP and an AP timeframe for future generations before and after the pandemic. Some major things we were focused on before, some of which carry through today and I’ll talk in those four mission sets. Job creation mode, what we were working on before. We had 12 to 15 prospects that we were working with, companies that were looking at expanding in Colorado Springs or moving to Colorado Springs and we were deep in pursuits with those new companies coming, and we were deep in the process of supporting members in their expansion plans. That’s a very normal course of business. A quarter of my staff almost is involved in that work and have continued through the pandemic although that slowed substantially we’ll come back to them.
Before the pandemic, we were involved in pursuit of U.S Space Command, the headquarters location for Space Force. And we continue to be involved in that although it’s a slightly a different process. The Air Force has shifted earlier this year in May. That took a different focus, but it has been a heavy focus for us for almost 18 months now, and continues to be. In public policy we were represented on a weekly basis, at least at the state Capital. Although You remember back then in mid March, the state legislature was in session, family medical leave was a heavy topic. We were very involved in modifications to that program, that proposal and it shifted immediately at least that element of our work shifted immediately when the state legislature went into recess from COVID.
What I’d have to think, what we were working on at a local level with City Council at the time, was to look back at my calendars Joe and see what the issue was. And at the time, I’ll say the 1st of March, we were anticipating doing almost 150 events this year, everything from speaker series at lunchtime to the state of the city or the state of the region and our gala, everything from small gatherings to many hundreds of folks getting together. And of course that’s been substantially affected as well.
Joe: And I’ve seen quite a bit of the updates of what you have focused on as organization since then. How would you describe the probably immediate shift from those focus points to your new focus since the pandemics come around?
Dirk: Yeah. That’s a good question. First I’m going to go back to those past four. We continue to work with companies on expansion plans and relocation plans. Although what we have experienced and what we’ve heard nationally is somewhere between 40 and 60% of those projects are either tabled or canceled. And those that are tabled, we continue to stay in contact with ensure that they have information, maintaining a live line of conversation to ensure that they know we’re thinking about them, and we’re here to help when they’re ready to move forward. On the defense side, we paused our work on Space Command for a couple of months. Just knowing that any messaging, any advocacy we be lost in the national response, the national dialogue I should say, about the pandemic. And so we tabled that work, but we resumed it full speed late this summer again.
Public policy, we’re back in business, anticipating the legislature being in session in January and November ballot measures. And so our staff has continued to work hard in that area. And then member services, I’ll talk about that for a few minutes, because it is a little bit longer, because that’s maybe where we’ve seen the biggest shift, those 150 events that we would typically do in a year. Number one, they’ve been scaled back and number two, they’ve almost all gone to since mid March, everything has been on a digital basis through Zoom or other media like that, instead of doing live events. We’re getting ready to do our first live events since the pandemic really took hold, and that’s the state of this city which we’ll do later this month. It’ll be a modified event with some folks live at the pinery and the event broadcast to a hopefully a much bigger audience as well. We’ll do that for the first time.
If I look at our whole body of work Joe, I would say that our organization has spent about half of our time on COVID response. And it fits in several areas from the very beginning, companies needed three things. They needed immediate emergency cash. They needed longterm financial stability, and they need communications about policy and practices. And we jumped in and all of those areas. We were early supporters of the Survive & Thrive Emergency Loan Program that Exponential Impact put together. Our 501c3 foundation donated or lent to the program, excuse me, lent to the program a hundred $100,000 of money that was in the loan, down to the businesses. My wife and I personally put $20,000 towards the Survive & Thrive Program. I was involved in the oversight committee to help the strategy, and one of my senior staff members was involved in the loan committee, looking at the applications and making those decisions. And we promoted the program heavily through our communications channels.
That communication piece, we launched immediately a COVID-19 resource page with best practices and guidance from the state, and local health department, we’ve put on probably 20 events that were specifically about COVID, everything from HR practices, to liability, to hosting a business executive in a telephone town hall, how they have responded to share best practices. Significant shift in our focus and resources as I said about half our time, I think has been spent on COVID since then. And the biggest effort then has been with a partnership we’ve formed with public health, the Regional Recovery Council. We’ve been meeting weekly since early April to ensure that there’s a balance between economic health and public health, as policy decisions were made. They’ve been great partners. We’ve made very good progress working together for this region. I think it’s unique from what we understand. Unique in the state that our two organizations are working together as closely as we are.
Joe: Yeah. Such an interesting partnership they’re bringing those two entities. Because one can get out of balance with the other and not pay attention to the other side of the equation but it’s been amazing to watch in step coordination. Was there any… And also real quick on the communication piece as a marketer that was just so helpful from my end and I’m sure for many other businesses around here, because you have this global messaging going out and some of it’s applicable, a lot of it’s not, and for you to create more local pieces that are relevant to us as local businesses trying to serve other local customers, helps to make this huge message much more digestible and how to put it into action. And so thank you for that.
I really do appreciate. That’s certainly had meant a lot to me. It stood out to me as far as how you responded. Was there any model that you could even pull from as far as how to respond? Was there anything that you or the city looked at and said, “Here’s how this happened in 1918,” or some sort of past, I don’t know, situation where you could go, “Okay, here’s what we need to do as an organization in response,” or was it already sort of learning as you go?
Dirk: The technology has changed so much since 1918. I think the lessons that we drew from then were that, even then there were pockets of resistance to basic public health practices like wearing a face mask. It’s human nature. I’d say that initially one area we drew some inspiration from was the governor’s council on economic stabilization and growth. I served on that for a period of time representing areas outside the Metro Denver community. And that was an inspiration for me and how we shaped the Regional Recovery Council and just recognizing the important need to work closely with public health.
But otherwise, as I’ve talked with lots of my friends and peers in the business community, there’s no owner’s manual for our pandemic. I spend a lot of time in the very early weeks of the pandemic, reading everything we get our hands on from McKinsey, from Harvard business review, from other really credible sources to see practices that were being used in other organizations and other parts of the country. But it was very much a real time learning experience in adapting as quickly as we could Joe.
Joe: Yeah, now. I appreciate that. And I know we’ve experienced on our own level with school, and our son going back to school yesterday, and we’ve been inundated with all the updates, but there’s certainly a lot of grace given to organizations like that and yours, you have a plan and place, something else swoops in, now you’re shifting, you’re adjusting, you have to do formal communications on that one thing, and there’s just no like, “Here’s how this worked in the past. So let’s copy and paste.” So we’re all navigating through it. Just the last question, we talked a little bit about the stories of resiliency we’ve had on this podcast. You’ve talked about the other side of that equation where businesses have certainly gone out of business and members have had to leave your organization. As you look at the whole picture from your vantage point, what’s the road ahead look like for the business community here in Colorado Springs?
Dirk: Biggest part of that, I hate to give this answer, but I think it’s still to be determined. The biggest part of it, we still don’t know when this is over. And I think we’ll continue to have the virus with us even after there is a vaccine. Thank you. Vaccine that protects us against this. A couple of things I would say, and this is a reflection on our business community, the downside, and this has been well-recognized and addressed as well as we could, as the impacts to some of our retail industries and certainly our hospitality industries, which are in our important part of our community. Think about food services and our hotels and the vendors and their entire supply chain. It’s an important part of the long history of Colorado Springs and how important tourism is, here and hospitality is here.
The upside is that, we are very strong sectors that weren’t affected nearly as much. In some cases weren’t affected at all by the pandemic who have been able to maintain full operations, keep people employed, keep money circulating in our community. That’s really helped us offset the impacts we’ve seen in those other sectors. In our world. We call them the Professional Technical and Scientific Services. That includes our cyber security, our aerospace and defense or financial services industries, most of which were able to work remotely and work successfully through the pandemic. And that’s been an important bowie for our community to maintain a strong level of economic activity in our region.
Joe: I think you’re out of reset. There’s this sort of this indefinite end to this. As you said, things will come, vaccines will come, solutions will come and yet there’ll be other pieces that aren’t resolved. And so it will linger in certain other forms and fashions and we’ll just continue to navigate through it day by day. I appreciate all you guys are doing at your organization for us. And thank you so much for the time today as well.
Dirk: Joe, you’re really welcome. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and your audience. And I appreciate the feedback that you provided, that some of our communications have been helpful for you. I look forward to continuing to navigate this together.
Shannon: You’ve been listening to the “COS and COVID” miniseries on the Metaphorically Speaking Podcast. At Keyhole Marketing, we tell big stories for small businesses.
If you’re in the Colorado Springs area and struggling to tell your story in this season, we’d love to come alongside you and help you with your content, branding, SEO, social media, or photography needs.
Send us an email at email@example.com if we can help.