Eyes on the prize: For Renna, leading South Jersey chamber has demanded flexibility, focus

Christina Renna took over as leader of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey in January 2020 with many new hopes and ambitions for the business community in the state’s seven southern counties.

“It’s always a goal for the chamber to try to come up with fresh concepts, and programming and offerings that you’re currently not doing and that can shake things up and keep things new and keep members engaged,” she said.

Like everyone else, she had no idea what was coming.

On March 16, 2020, the state of New Jersey was forced to shut down. And Renna was forced to think outside the box.

“It was time to fire on all cylinders and refocus, because of the unforeseen circumstances the pandemic brought around,” she said.

Pre-pandemic, Renna was anti-webinar and anti-online connectivity.

“I saw all that as being counter to our mission of joining the chamber,” she said. “Well, it shows you what I know. Moving forward, the model must be a hybrid of in-person and online.”

Just a few days after the state shut down, Renna said the chamber hosted its first webinar.

“We pivoted very quickly to the brand-new technology, for us,” she said.

By the end of 2020, the group — which had never used Teams, Zoom or WebEx — had hosted more than 220 online webinars or networking opportunities and found ways to connect with other chambers.

In fact, since that day in March, the chamber attracted nearly 20,000 unique participants through its online networking offerings, Renna said.

“We were able to make that shift very quickly,” she said. “And it is a blessing because, as a result, our members saw that we were really trying very hard to keep them engaged and informed, and they appreciated it, and we showed our appreciation by hanging in there quite well under the circumstances.”

Renna recently spoke with ROI-NJ about all things connected to the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey.

Here’s a look at the conversation, which was edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: No one can predict the future of the pandemic — a point made perfectly clear by the rise of the Omicron variant. So, as you look to 2022, what do you see?

Christina Renna: We are really going to continue to build on the things we launched. Pre-pandemic, we hosted more than 140 in-person events a year. The challenges are operating in a pandemic environment — we, at one point, were under the impression that COVID would be over, but, now, the reality is that it is ongoing. The challenge really is knowing that we need to do what we do effectively, while keeping our members as safe as possible.

Two questions

Name a significant New Jersey figure, dead or alive, real or fake, famous or infamous, well-known or unheralded.

I will say my two grandfathers, jointly. My grandfather on my mother’s side passed away when I was a freshman in high school. I was very close with him. He was an entrepreneur in many ways. He was a sewer and had his own drapery business in Vineland. Then, during the disco era, he opened a saloon on Route 54 in Buena with his brother that was a bar/restaurant. And, later in his life, he became a big developer in Ocean City. He went down after a big hurricane and bought beachfront lots for $5,000 apiece and everyone thought he was nuts, but he had a very successful career in Ocean City real estate after. When I look back on my grandfather’s life, especially with my background in business, and see what he was able to create, I am so inspired.

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet my grandfather on my dad’s side. He passed away before I was born. But that side of the family is from Millville, where Tom’s Tavern — a local watering hole — was on High Street. He ran that after my great-grandfather passed away. He was said be everyone’s best friend and a truly great man.

So, given my business background and seeing both my grandparents in different ways, it’s neat to see that I have that in my heritage.

What is your favorite New Jersey food or meal?

I’m good for anything Italian because I am Italian, from Millville and Vineland in Cumberland County. There was a restaurant in my hometown of Vineland called the New York Inn. It had the best clams casino — and had a salad bar before anyone else ever did. The owner (John Forosisky) opened up the South Vineland Tavern, which served all the food from the menu of the New York Inn, anything from pork chops to chicken parm. Unfortunately, the South Vineland Tavern was a victim of the pandemic and had to close.

ROI: And, while it is easy to look back at 2020 to see how you adapted to the pandemic, there also is a need to look back on what you may have been unable to fully implement. What is the biggest focus for the chamber going into 2022?

CR: So, 2022 will be a little interesting because, usually, we are coming in with new initiatives and, right now, our team is focused on just really strongly executing on the groundwork we laid in December of 2019 and going into 2020.

In the past two years, the chamber has done a lot to increase member benefits and add new programming. We changed our mission; we changed our ambition. We created core values and a lot of our new programming went along with that, specifically making ourselves a more community-driven organization as well as having a business focus.

ROI: You mentioned new programming. What is something your members can look forward to?

CR: I am excited to finalize and introduce the chamber’s diversity and inclusion plan, which has been one of the biggest and most important programs we have been working on. We have been working aggressively behind the scenes and we are very close to finalizing our DEI program that is a compilation of a year’s worth of work with board-level companies that really takes a deep dive into how the chamber can grow in this space. By doing so, we can become someone that is a good community partner and make ourselves a more community-driven organization with a business focus.

ROI: Describe the challenge of offering these aspects in a way that can be effective, meaningful and valuable to your South Jersey members.

CR: The chamber has been an essential resource for businesses and nonprofits, no matter the size, for many years, but especially so during the pandemic, one of the hardest times for small businesses in recent memory.

It has been there to support businesses, make and provide connections and introductions, provide referrals and recommendations. I personally think we have done a pretty good job, but we haven’t been able to execute on all cylinders the way I would like to, because of the circumstances that no one had any control over.

ROI: Pre-pandemic, the chamber would hold events with upward of 500 people in a room. Things had to be scaled back, but the chamber had to pivot and remain relevant during a time when no one knew how they were going to conduct business and grow. More than ever, the chamber became important. How did you continue to offer events that could still benefit your members?

CR: We have made every one of our programs available via a recording — unless the speaker requested it not to be. Members were able to sign up and pay a minimal fee and get a get a recording. They were still able to get that value without being there, for whatever reason.

We anticipate continuing to grow aspects that are not normally under a chamber of commerce umbrella, and do so in a way that’s effective and meaningful and really valuable to the members that we serve here in South Jersey. Next year is going to have a lot of exciting opportunities coming down the pipeline.