HAVERHILL — Local chambers of commerce used to be places where people networked and socialized — a good ol' boys club of sorts.
But today they focus more on tangible things that can really help businesses, like worker training and getting grant money.
At the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce in Lawrence, 1,400 business members are served in a variety of ways. Through its interactive Web site, members can place free business space listings and job advertisements, can offer free discount coupons and can post community events.
President Joseph Bevilacqua sees his chamber as an economic development resource center for the Merrimack Valley, offering more than 100 programs a year including a Hispanic Job Fair each March and two business expo trade shows.
"They allow local businesses to promote their products and services," Bevilacqua said. "We also host two networking mixers each month where companies can promote their products and services."
Chamber members are put in touch with local, state or federal agencies that provide assistance in work force training, permitting, financing, state or federal tax incentives, exporting, demographics, building or land search, and more.
The Merrimack Valley Means Business program brings mayors, town managers and economic development officers together to help attract and keep businesses in the region.
"One example of this program is Adamson Industries, which relocated from Lawrence to Haverhill," Bevilacqua said. "We worked with the owners and with Haverhill officials to keep Adamson in our area."
Jamie Santo, chairman of the Greater Salem (N.H.) Chamber of Commerce, said the focus these days is on economic development. Over the last year or so the Greater Salem Chamber has been reaching out and expanding to serve businesses in neighboring communities, including Windham, Pelham, Hampstead and Atkinson. It currently serves 325 members.
"The core of every decision we make is how we can bring value to our membership," Santos said.
On April 22, the Greater Salem Chamber will host an Economic Development Symposium at Castleton in Windham.
"We'll have a slate of speakers talking about grants that are available to businesses in our area, as well as what kinds of workforce training programs and employment opportunities are available," Santos said.
The chamber's Web site promotes members, featuring a listing of businesses and links to their Web sites.
"We revamped our Web site a year ago, and the traffic and exposure it's gotten has been exponential," he said.
In addition to its Business After Hours networking events, the chamber also hosts Business Before Hours events.
"A large number of our members like the early morning events because it allows them the flexibility to attend if they have commitments in the evening," Santos said.
Also new this year is an effort to forge relationships with chambers throughout the Southern New Hampshire region.
"There are a lot of opportunities to drive business to the New Hampshire marketplace," he said.
Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce president James Jajuga said his 600 members look to the chamber for "relevance."
"They are looking for networking, which takes place during events such as our monthly business after hours," Jajuga said.
Women in business are supported through the chamber's Winning Opportunities for Women seminars — where topics of discussion range from local tax rates to health insurance.
"We also have a number of initiatives where we work with the community, such as the downtown clean-sweep and Make a Difference Day," he said. "We have a host of initiatives where our members give back to the community."
The chamber's Web site features a community calendar for the 14 communities it serves, along with a member directory and more.
"A new piece of our Web site this year will be e-commerce, where we will list member businesses along with a way to purchase goods or services and pay for them online," he said. "You'll be able to pick up your item or have it shipped to you. It opens our members up to a whole new universe of consumers."
Late in April the Greater Haverhill Chamber will host a new online blog in an effort to stimulate a discussion of business topics as well as any other topics of concern.
"It's a way for us to connect businesses with whatever entity they might have a question for," he said.