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Chambers of commerce: gateway to global 


Even small towns have chambers of commerce, but what exactly do these organisations do and how can they assist your business?

A chamber of commerce, business chamber, board of trade—call it what you will, but any organisation that assists business is a friend of yours. You may be familiar with your local chamber of commerce already. Most metropolitan areas, even modest-sized towns, have one and they are usually positioned to play a prominent role representing commercial interests in their area.

While the specific objectives of various chambers of commerce do vary from location to location, in general they exist to facilitate business as well as act and lobby on behalf of businesses to other bodies, such as councils and Government.

“They would be set up to further the process of business, they have a commercial focus,” says Nathan Backhouse, director of trade and international affairs at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI). “There are core activities but they are very flexible, and that’s due to the general council structure, which moves the overall activities of the chamber in a certain direction depending on issues that may have arisen.”

Chambers vary in size from an organisation representing a single township through to city chambers, state chambers, national chambers and international chambers of commerce. The ACCI itself is the peak council for business associations in Australia and represents more than 350,000 businesses under its member umbrella.

“Business chambers are business networks whose goal is to represent members both nationally and internationally,” Backhouse defines. “They’re not associated with the Government but are often involved at local, state and federal level to accomplish chamber goals.”

The chambers follow a not-for-profit organisation structure and are legal entities, which means they carry a board, usually made up of experienced business people that members elect.

Chambers of commerce differ from trade associations in their broader objectives. While trade associations traditionally deal with facilitating trade relationships and all the activities that come under that banner, chambers tend to be more representative of their membership.

This is evident whenever Government announces a policy or legislation that may affect businesses; you will probably hear your local business chamber comment on politics in order to find a voice for commercial interests. Chambers of commerce may also set a policy themselves, which they can then present to Government as their contribution to the democratic process.

Help with trade

For businesses looking to deal internationally, a chamber of commerce can help with trade facilitation, which includes processes such as business matching where the chamber can introduce potential business partners. In some countries, this is “the key mechanism for businesses to connect with other businesses to sell their products or find partners,” says Backhouse.

“We have extensive contact with international chambers around the world and we get a lot of queries from overseas chambers looking for business partners here,” he mentions.
Most chambers also offer trade advice, whether it’s on international trade agreements or overseas investments, as well as market information. Backhouse also nominates seminars on how to import or export, and export documentation as other functions.

“The chamber is one of the few organisations authorised by the Government to issues certificates of origin, which are very important for overseas customs agencies,” he says.
Popular types of assistance includes export documentation and export documentation advice, followed by broader trade advice and then business matching, overseas trade visits, and trade-related seminars.

“Most businesses ask how to get involved in overseas markets, and about some of the key things they have to be aware of,” says Backhouse. “Usually it’s, ‘do you have contacts overseas that could help us sell our products?'”

More than trade
Although trade forms a key area of a chamber’s objectives, Backhouse says other things are also important. “You look at advocacy to government, business representation on business boards and committees and other consultative forums,” he lists. “Also representation on international bodies, such as the international labour organisation, research and policy development, on national business issues, surveys and business products.”

The other end of the spectrum includes industrial relations advice and policy advice, everything from the Environment Trading Scheme and its effect on business through to the training and education space. Lobbying government at local, state and federal level is therefore a key function of a chamber, with the critical mass of membership being more powerful than a single business speaking out.

“Take the changes to the EMDG [Export Market Development Grants] scheme: if members were particularly unhappy with what’s happening in that area, they’d ask us to lobby the government on their behalf. So the chamber also acts as a key conduit of information to the government,” explains Backhouse. “One of the best things about the chamber is that it is very representative of our members.”

The right chamber

If you’re interested in becoming a member of a chamber of commerce, it’s best to look in your own backyard first as there’s probably one representing your area already. Try to match the chamber with the scale of your business—local businesses should stick to local chambers of commerce while international businesses would probably need to tap into state, federal, bilateral and international chambers of commerce.

If you do a lot of business with a particular country or region, there may be a chamber representing that link, for example the Australia Chile Chamber of Commerce looks after business relationships between Australia and Chile, but you may also be interested in the Australia-Latin America Business Council, which is for Australian businesses dealing with the Latin American region.

You can usually ‘try out’ a business chamber by attending a networking event or a seminar to get a feel for the kinds of activities and assistance they offer before you commit to membership, or in some cases make a polite enquiry about something and see how they handle it.

Chambers of commerce do have their limits in terms of the kinds of help and advice they can offer, however. “For export documentation we can offer full advice but when it comes to post-business matching, at the point of market entry, we would recommend that people speak with overseas consultants, of which we have a lot on our books,” suggests Backhouse. “We can provide initial advice, but when it comes to setting up we’d recommend they speak to an expert.”

All in all, a chamber of commerce is a helpful ally for small and medium businesses, not only for dispensing trade advice, facilitating local and international networking, and finding a business partner, but for representing their commercial interests using a much louder voice than your small business ever could on its own.

International chambers

Here’s a list of some popular international chambers of commerce assisting Australian business with inward and outward trade.

American Chamber of Commerce in Australia: www.amcham.com.au

Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry: www.austarab.com.au

Australia India Business Council: www.australiaindiabusiness.com

Australia-Latin America Business Council: www.alabc.com.au

Australian British Chamber of Commerce: www.britishchamber.com

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry: www.acci.asn.au

Canadian Australian Chamber of Commerce: www.canauscham.org.au

China-Australia Chamber of Commerce: www.austcham.org

International Chamber of Commerce: www.iccwbo.org

Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Australia: www.spanishchamber.org

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