Travel agency owner Jimi Bown has used the sign in front of her business on East Freeway Drive to crusade against the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce's program of selling overseas trips as a way to raise money. -- Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
CONYERS -- Should the chamber of commerce be competing with local businesses?
For one local businesswoman, the answer is decidedly "No."
Jimi Bowen, owner of Bowen's Travel located on East Freeway Drive, has embarked on a crusade to try to stop the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce from selling overseas trips as a way to raise money.
"I have asked them to please stop selling travel in competition with my small business, which has been supportive to and supportive of this community for 35 years," she said.
For the past several years, the Chamber of Commerce has offered trips abroad to places like China, Spain, Ireland and Italy, in an effort to raise revenue for the organization.
This year, the chamber is hosting a nine-day trip to Beijing and Shanghai in October and another nine-day trip to Tuscany in November. The trips cost approximately $2,200 and $2,700, respectively, and include airfare, lodging, some meals, tours and transportation, according to the chamber's website.
The chamber derives its income from membership dues and non-dues-related income, such as fundraising efforts like a golf tournament.
"As part of the non-dues-related income, chambers of commerce throughout the United States have been sponsoring group travel programs for many years," said Chamber President Fred Boscarino in a written statement to the Citizen. "We participate, as do over a thousand chambers of commerce, through a very high-valued program arranged by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives in Washington, D.C. Whenever we make decisions regarding non-dues-related income-generating programs, we balance the mission of the chamber with the impact, first on our chamber members, then the impact on the local community. In this particular case, more than 80 percent of our subscribers to the travel program are from outside Rockdale County."
But for Bowen, who says her business is the only full-service travel agency in Rockdale County, the Chamber of Commerce is competing directly with her.
"I'm not mad that they're not doing business with me, but that they're competing with me," she said. "I understand competition is part of doing business, but it should be on a level playing field."
Bowen said the Chamber of Commerce has unfair advantages over a small business. Specifically, she said, the Chamber gets more exposure through free media coverage in the local newspapers; it has a built-in customer base through its membership, not to mention its tax advantage as a nonprofit organization.
Bowen had been an active member of the Chamber of Commerce for many years, serving at one time as chairwoman of the Small Business Council, as well as the first Cherry Blossom Festival when it was held in Olde Town.
She had organized trips for the chamber for several years when a delegation would travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress. She said Boscarino approached her a few years ago about planning some different kinds of trips. But when she learned the trips were to be international and serve as fundraisers for the chamber, she declined.
"I never dreamed the Chamber, of all entities, would be taking revenue out of the U.S.," Bowen said, adding that as she learned more about the proposed trips, it seemed they would be subsidized by the Chinese government in an attempt to entice American businesses to relocate or expand to China.
Bowen, who is no longer a chamber member, said the travel industry has been hit hard in the last decade or so. She said in this time airlines eliminated commissions to travel agents, cruise lines reduced commissions substantially, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks negatively impacted the travel industry, which is still struggling in the current recession.
"So folks in my line of work have had to survive the effects of three recessions in close sequence," she said.
Bowen has made no secret of her frustration with the Chamber of Commerce. She has spoken out about their travel program at local civic organizations and has posted messages on her sign in front of her travel agency claiming the Chamber does not support local businesses.
She said their efforts are particularly "hypocritical" since the Chamber of Commerce is a sponsor of "Shop the Rock," an initiative designed to encourage residents in Rockdale County to shop at and support local businesses. The kick-off event will be held in conjunction with the Rotary Clubs on Wednesday at Rockdale Medical Center.
But while Bowen's is the only local travel agency being affected, she is not alone in her efforts.
Chamber Board member and former City Councilman Marty Jones said he shares some of Bowen's concerns that the Chamber is competing with local businesses.
Jones said he asked the Chamber board to revisit the issue in light of Bowen's complaints. He said that many people currently serving on the Chamber's board of directors were not on the board when the travel program started three years ago.
"I thought it was appropriate that the board as a whole was made aware of the whole issue since few members either had a faint understanding or had no idea that this issue is out there," he said. "I wanted the board to discuss this, but the leadership said they didn't want to do anything about it until fall because they had already begun their program for this year."
In March, Jones presented a letter to Chamber members where he laid out his concerns and asked the board to consider taking action before it turns into "a public relations disaster."
"We are kicking off a 'Buy Local' campaign. We are advertising on the Chamber home page about these trips, which are not from a local business," he stated in the letter.
Jones pointed out that any local businessperson would rightly be angry if the chamber promoted any out-of-town business -- such as a florist, real estate agency, or funeral home, for example -- just because the Chamber received income from this business.
"To be clear, this is not a Fred or staff issue. This is a board issue. Fred and our staff have done what we have asked them to do. No fault is theirs," Jones continued. "Most of you were not on the board when we started this fundraiser. I was. I will freely admit that I voted to do this and with time have come to believe that I was wrong. If I am the only one, fine. ... But if anyone else thinks we might be wrong or have the makings of a PR disaster when we officially kick off our buy local campaign it is not too late. "