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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

Chambers of commerce complain about state’s $2 million ‘buy local’ campaign

They express concerns that the focus is more on tourism and less on shops in the neighborhoods

A “buy local” ad campaign would seem like a sure thing for the state’s numerous chambers of commerce: anything to get more shoppers in the door, and to prevent more of their dollars from shifting online.

Plus, what’s not to love about a slogan like: “Put your money where your heart is: right here in Massachusetts”?

But not everyone loves the Baker administration’s new $2 million “My Local MA” campaign, intended to help small businesses bounce back from COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions. For many smaller chambers, it feels like a missed opportunity.

The rub: The newly created findmylocalma.com website does little, if anything, to directly promote the Main Street businesses that are the mainstays for these chambers. Instead, its map directs visitors to separate websites for the state’s regional tourism councils.

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As a result, the leaders of 16 mostly smaller chambers of commerce north and west of Boston are concerned they have been shut out. They sent a letter on Thursday saying so to Keiko Matsudo Orrall, the head of the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism.

“It doesn’t help local merchants in the way it positions itself to,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber. “It’s a tourism campaign, but it’s not what the administration promised. . . . What we’re really crying out for is marketing dollars to promote and save our local businesses.”

Still, the campaign has plenty of fans. They note that reminding consumers to shop locally is never a bad thing. Massachusetts only spends about $10 million a year on tourism promotion, so this represents a significant increase. The pandemic prompted the state tourism office to shift focus: This campaign is aimed at people who already live here, instead of the usual out-of-state targets.

Federal stimulus funds, approved through the CARES Act in March, will provide $1.5 million, with the state’s tourism budget covering the rest. The project was put out to bid in July, Orrall said, and Boston marketing firm ThinkArgus won the primary contract.

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Governor Charlie Baker unveiled the multimedia campaign at the Belmont Wheelworks bike shop, in advance of the sales tax holiday weekend on Aug. 29 and 30. Digital ads are already running, but state officials are waiting to run TV spots until after the November elections when the prices for airtime should drop.

Mike Kennealy, Baker’s economic affairs secretary, said input from the chambers has been enormously important throughout the pandemic.

“We launched this campaign pretty quickly,” said Kennealy, who currently hosts twice-monthly calls with leaders of chambers and other business groups. “It’s going to evolve as we go from here. Engaging with the chambers is a really critical part of that.”

For example, Orrall pointed to a link that was just added to the new site, to a database of local chambers. And on Tuesday night, a spokesman for the administration said more changes are coming, to highlight all chambers and other business groups that want to be listed.

But any tweaks until now seemed like minor concessions to several of the chamber leaders. One key component that some say is missing: adequate messaging to persuade consumers it’s safe to shop or dine indoors again.

“They’ve changed their mindset to shopping online,” said Megan Day, executive director of the Stoneham Chamber of Commerce. “We need to try to bring them back.”

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Karen Masterson, co-owner of Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton Centre, said she worries small-business owners haven’t been adequately represented. “Bureaucracy is making decisions on behalf of businesses they want to help without input from the businesses themselves about what would be helpful,” she said.

But Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, likes the campaign so much, he’s already told Orrall that the state should double down by allocating nearly another $2 million from a largely untapped fund created in 2019 to help the restaurant industry. “I think it’s a very important message,” Luz said. “I know everyone thinks they know best how to market, including me, but at some point, I think we need to trust the marketing professionals.”

Some tourism bureaus are already capitalizing on the “My Local MA” materials. The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, which doubles as the Cape’s tourism council, has asked members to use the logo in their social media accounts and websites, and to hang flyers in their businesses. Chief executive Wendy Northcross said the biggest need expressed by her members, after more grants and loans, is marketing help. “What the state basically did was send us a toolkit,” she said.

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, has been preaching “buy local” for decades. So for him, this campaign is long overdue, and more important than ever. He said he recognizes the shortcomings — it should do more to promote local events and bring together Main Street groups — but “for something that was thrown together rather quickly, I think the website itself is pretty good.”

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The grumbling, he said, underscores the need for a central agency that can coordinate and elevate these local efforts.

There might be a happy ending after all for the local chambers — or at least the ones within the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau service area. Martha Sheridan, chief executive of the regional tourism council, said her organization is creating a new landing page that features each of the local chambers in her area. That way, when visitors to the state site click on the “Greater Boston” portion of the map, they see other, more local options.

The imbroglio has prompted Sheridan to open up lines of communication with these smaller chambers in her region, outside of the core Boston-Cambridge market.

“We want to be as inclusive as we can,” Sheridan said. “This campaign has opened the door for us to start some new relationships.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.