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Marseilles had the first – in 1599, when its chambre de commerce was empowered to send consuls, embassies, and commercial missions to certain countries. In the UK, the interests of merchants and craftsmen were protected with the formation of guilds in the Middle Ages. Now we have 110 of them in London alone, including the Stationers’ Company, with more spread around the country.

The benefits of membership

Back in the present day, there are a multitude of trade bodies, associations and organisations. But at the core of each is a member-based organisation that is funded by a group of people or businesses in a specific industry who want collaboration between companies.

They defend their members’ interests by advertising, producing standards for industry, lobbying, holding exhibitions and conferences, empowering networking, aiding the finding of new customers or potential suppliers for member businesses through trips and meetings, and last but not least, offering educational materials or courses.

Linda Cavender, chief executive of the Trade Association Forum, thinks that all businesses should join an association because, quite simply, “in the long term it is in their financial interests to do so.”

She says that associations “sit at the heart of their industry and offer many benefits to members including money saving activities such as free advice on many issues, access to special rates through affinity services and regulatory cost avoidance which can often cost a significant sum of money on the open market.”

But how do firms choose which body, or bodies, to join?
The first step is to look at is that which serves the sector, for print, it’s the BPIF. Chief executive, Charles Jarrold, believes members join it because “we do a great deal of work supporting the overall sector’s needs with training, development of the apprenticeship standards, lobbying and talking to civil servants about the sector’s needs.” He says that this overall business representation is really important for the sector, “but can be a bit ‘behind the scenes”.

More overtly, he says that the BPIF supports businesses with expert sector specific employment, health and safety, and legal advice – not forgetting that “some events just celebrate success and help businesses network and build contacts.” BPIF advisors also help members deal with challenges, and, equally importantly, “raise standards to ensure that issues do not arise in the first place.”

The BPIF also offers seminar-based sector knowledge, and research and data about the sector’s performance.

But while the BPIF has by definition a print focus, so other organisations take a different line.

Take the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). Hannah Essex, co-executive director, considers “chambers [to be] the voice of their communities, helping companies, places and people to grow and thrive. We call it ‘business togetherness’.”

Chambers offer a variety of services including trade support. One good example she cites is the certifying of origin of goods – “we’ve helped reduce the possibility that overseas customs authorities stop British shipments.” She says that last year alone, more than 600,000 shipments were supported in this way.

As with the BPIF, Chambers of Commerce offer a range of business services to members. Essex explains that the BCC “works with a small number of partner organisations with the expertise to deliver market leading services nationally and has exclusive deals which can only be accessed by members.”

And then there’s the Forum of Private Business (FPB). Matthew Walker, business development manager, notes that while the FPB offers much of what other organisations do, the FPB can help with general business advice and can signpost towards business information including legislation and regulation.

That said, the FPB aims to back members. It, says Walker, “steps in when a business doesn’t have a health and safety or HR department. We are a voice for small businesses within government.”

Specially, the FPB offers legal expenses insurance cover. Of this, Walker says that for some this cover makes membership worthwhile in its own right – it covers employment disputes, health and safety prosecutions, tax protection, debt recovery help, data protection and even offers a jury service allowance.

Yet another body to consider – and there are others (see over) – is the Institute of Directors (IoD). Euan Holmes, press officer, reckons that aside from the advice services the IoD provides, “our market intelligence is worth the annual subscription alone.” Here members can search sources, undertake research and seek out help to gather information that can take a business forward.

The IoD offers more, of course, including high-end meeting and workspaces in cities across the UK, “not least our historic HQ on Pall Mall,” notes Holmes.

Members also gain discount on the IoD’s professional development courses.
It’s also worth pointing out that trade associations can be of significant help to start-up businesses. This is something that the FPB expressly recognises – it offers upto 25% discount across membership levels. Says Walker: “We believe that in the first three years of starting a business is when you most need help, support and advice; we can offer that to start-up and micro businesses alike.”

Looking at the bigger picture

The work that any association does should be examined from a macro perspective, looking not so much as the grass roots but instead, how they interact with officialdom.

Here, as Jarrold lays out, the BPIF “plays an important role in helping government understand real business issues. For example, late and extended payments is [something] that we’ve recently submitted views on, asking for stronger action, in particular stopping tenderer’s requiring extended terms as a condition of submitting the tender.” He explains that government looks, in the case of print, to the BPIF “to help understand how businesses are getting on, especially right now, with Brexit (arguably) right around the corner. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have asked for our quarterly Outlook report, and also want to talk to individual companies to understand the issues.” Jarrold firmly believes that through the BPIF, the print sector has a strong voice.

But just as the BPIF walks the corridors of power, so do other organisations.

For the IoD, Holmes says it runs monthly Policy Voice surveys, where “we listen directly to the views of our members, using them to help shape our campaign priorities.” Recent wins he mentions include the increase in the Annual Investment Allowance, action on late payments, and the creation of the Wates Principles for large unlisted firms.

It’s worth taking the wins of the bodies with a slight pinch of salt because others claim the same victories, the BCC included. For example, Essex says that the BCC network has gained policy wins including the chancellor’s decisions at the Autumn Budget to raise the Annual Investment Allowance, business rates relief for the high street, and lower the cost of apprentices for SMEs. “These [wins] help businesses to grow and recruit.”

Interestingly, and on a more current concern, Brexit, Essex says that Chambers of Commerce “have been focusing on offering practical support and guidance, running events and seeking answers from government on the answers that matter most to them.”

Functionally, and this is a point worth dwelling upon, each Chamber has a different offering, often with a range of membership options available to suit the size and needs of the business. In other words, those wishing to join need to be proactive when seeing if a local chamber offers what is being sought. The same will apply to the other bodies too.

Audience participation

As with anything in life, those who participate gain the most. Structurally, Jarrold outlines that the BPIF makes participation easy through six regional boards that are made up of individuals from local businesses in that area. “This,” he says, “is a real strength of the BPIF, with these individuals having a strong input into the focus and direction of the BPIF, as well as strengthening those individual’s local networks.” He adds that there are various committees that provide sector focus, such as the carton or labels sectors, and the creative and digital sectors. That said, overall strategy and direction of the BPIF rests with the National Council which comprises of regional board representatives, the special interest groups, and the BPIF Board.

The BCC is similar in outlook. Essex says that there are 53 accredited chambers “so firms in every part of the country can join their local chamber... [they’re] at the heart of a network of chambers in every region.” She continues, “our network exists to support and connect companies, bring together firms to build new relationships, share best practice, foster new opportunities and provide practical support to help member businesses trade locally, nationally and globally.”

Essex says that chambers “have packed event schedules, hosting everything from networking events, to seminars and award ceremonies.” She says that businesses can participate in the policy work of the network through roundtables, feeding into surveys and sharing their views on the issues affecting their business environment. “Members,” she says, “are encouraged to participate.”

The FPB, according to Walker, also encourages participation and it too holds events regularly in local areas “and informs all our members of the events. All events are free to attend.” His view is that as a ‘not for profit’ organisation “the FPB does not expect anyone to pay to network.” And for those unable to attend an event, they can see everything online as all events are filmed and a synopsis is published.

As if to prove that the FPB doesn’t live in an ivory tower, Walker says that the FPB attends business shows in London (May and November) – “where we get the chance there to meet with many of our members... and they are always welcome to our offices in Knutsford.”

While the physical is important, it’s also worth looking at the digital offering that the bodies offer.

Holmes says that the IoD has, as well as memberships, “our IoD Advance community which offers extra benefits and facilitated networking including through our app.” The IoD Academy app allows online learning on the go.

In comparison, the FPB’s app offers direct access to forums, business calculators and features a mileage tracker and a receipt manager and more. The BCC has no app at all.

To finish

So, ultimately, how should a trade association be chosen? The answer is simple reckons Walker: “Find out what the services that membership offers and see if it suits your business!” Look at peripheral services such as any guides and resources that are made available – will they really be used? Will help lines – general business advice, health and safety or employment – be of value?

Holmes fundamentally thinks that, “the more you put in the more you can get out.” He finds that members value playing a leading part in their business community,” – a point thrown into relief because of the Brexit machinations.

Apart from networking and information exchange, having the backup of services is rather like having insurance: nice to know that it’s there but you really don’t want to have to use it.