Stakeholder Engagement Part Four – Business Groups

In the fourth and final part of Roger French’s guide to influencing stakeholders, he turns his attention to business groups. They have ‘reach’ into the community and could be good for your skills, he says

My final foray into the world of influencing opinion formers takes us into the heart of each local area; mixing with those dedicated people who are the backbone of local business and community groups usually working on as voluntary basis with no thought of financial reward.

These aren’t the politically-inspired councillors, bureaucracy-loving council officers, elusive Members of Parliament or high-minded Board Members of Local Enterprise Partnerships with their incomprehensible high-falutin’ language I’ve referred to over the last three articles; these are ordinary down-to-earth folk just like you and me, coming together to share common interests in a local area and wanting to organise some action. Business and community groups are not usually talking shops but action superstores.

Business groups have proud pedigrees. Way back in history business people saw merit in getting together to improve the prosperity of towns and cities. Many Chambers of Commerce have proud histories dating back to early trading times. But in recent years there’s been an explosion in groups that bring like-minded business people together, either across common industry sectors in a local area (eg, the digital sector) or with common objectives (eg, improving a city centre’s public realm).

‘It’s definitely worth a suitably modest voluntary financial contribution to show commitment and become involved’

Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) began in the early 2000s and became popular because they enabled retailers and other town centre based businesses to compel all traders with premises in a defined area to pay a small percentage of rateable value into a fund for agreed measures such as Christmas lights, marketing schemes or security measures. With local authorities cutting back on these non-statutory activities BIDs have become the only way to make them happen.

Crucially the system ensures there are no longer freeloaders, as everyone has to pay. BID’s are great opportunities for bus and coach companies to get involved in the management of a town centre as BID Boards usually welcome key players even if they don’t own premises in the area. It’s definitely worth a suitably modest voluntary financial contribution to show commitment and become involved.

It’s not just BIDs; there’s now a whole host of organisations in many towns which bring business people together. Here’s a question. What have the following business groups got in common: Devon Chamber of Commerce; Plymouth Chamber of Commerce; Plymouth Area Business Council; Plymouth Growth Board; Destination Plymouth; Destination Plymouth Management Company; One Plymouth; Peninsular Rail Task Force; Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership?

The answer is you’ll find Plymouth Citybus Managing Director Richard Stevens involved in all of them. Richard is not only active in all these groups but takes the role of chair or joint chair in a number of them.

‘Chambers of Commerce and business groups of this genre are fertile grounds for involvement of bus and coach company managers’

It’s an impressive list and demonstrates the degree to which Richard has embedded the region’s bus company into the local business community as well as demonstrating amazing personal commitment. When he’s involved in discussions with colleague business leaders from throughout the area at meetings of these organisations, he’ll no doubt be talking up what’s best for the local economy but as a by-product he’ll be aware of what’s in the interests of his day job, managing director of Plymouth Citybus.

Chambers of Commerce and business groups of this genre are fertile grounds for involvement of bus and coach company managers. Some Chambers cover whole county areas and tend to be more strategic in their work compared to town based Chambers who tend to be more retail focused.

My experience was transport issues are never far away when you bring business people together at a local level. Whether it be highway issues across a county or parking issues in a town centre, there will be strong opinions expressed often using dramatic language of personal experiences to illustrate a point. There was a time when Brighton’s Chamber of Commerce comprised around 20 local business people meeting around a table every month and who just loved voicing their views on the city’s traffic woes and of course, each had a pet plan to resolve them which they’d delight in describing at every meeting.

In those days, the local evening paper employed enough reporters to ensure there was always one present at these meetings to dutifully record proceedings and ensure a ‘business leaders call for such and such in parking row’ would feature as a story in the next day’s paper. It’s what took me along to these meetings in the first place and I kept on attending until eventually these fellow members tired of hearing my counter-points about the smart things buses and coaches could achieve and I ended up chairing and vice chairing this and many other Groups of those times, rather like Richard Stevens is so effectively doing today in Plymouth. And crucially, something every manager and owner of a bus and coach company can do in their local area.

Why is this important? The success of a local bus and coach company is inextricably entwined with the success of the local economy in which it operates. The more successful an area is at attracting employment, retail, leisure and tourist business, the more opportunities there are for transport and moving people around. It’s no coincidence those areas which support attractive levels of bus services on Sundays, during weekday evenings and even right through the nights are those with thriving local economies, usually with extensive college and university markets close by.

‘Take a look at some towns and cities where this market was ignored in years gone by, and where you now see universities themselves running buses’

There’s been huge growth over the last couple of decades in universities. Understanding the business of moving students around is vital for bus and coach operators and it’s imperative to develop good relations with key people at a university both involved in running the institution as well as student organisations. There’s a lot of business to be had. Take a look at some towns and cities where this market was ignored in years gone by, and where you now see universities themselves running buses. A quite extraordinary phenomenon.

Alongside business groups there is also a myriad of community groups carrying out valuable work in every area. As local authorities have battled with funding constraints in the age of austerity and cut back on non-statutory activities, just as with BIDs, there’s been an increase in the voluntary sectors’ insolvent in delivering community services and support. An astute bus and coach company wanting to develop its local reputation will choose appropriate community groups to work with and aim to make a difference.

There are so many opportunities to make a real impact whether it be providing knowledge and expertise to charities and voluntary groups looking for management skills, whether it be help with donated resources in kind or whether it be practical assistance and reassurance in the whole area of accessibility to transport for those with disabilities either physical or mental.

Any contribution of time and effort will be hugely appreciated by those helped out of all proportion to the minimal impact on your business. Sometimes the most modest of financial support can make a huge impact which will long be remembered ensuring your business is seen as the valued member of the local community it truly is.

So, as CPT President rightly said in the blog which sparked off this small series of articles: “Get involved.”

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