Dynamic Chamber Leadership Emerges from Central Square

Luca Paris

Sitting in a second-floor conference room overlooking Keene’s Central Square, Luca Paris recounted a recent breakfast. 

He had been in Peterborough, meeting with several people from the local business community. As they sat and talked, Paris caught a moment of connection.

“I saw one person go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you guys did that,’” he says. “And they’re in the same town.”

For Paris — a longtime restaurateur who became president and CEO of the Greater Keene and Peterborough Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 1, 2021 — moments like that epitomize what the chamber can offer its members. (Members include The Keene Sentinel, which publishes the Business Journal.)

Paris says he wants the chamber to deepen ties between local businesses, making sure they are aware of potential collaborators in the region and promote their work to the community and the wider world.

“We’re responsible in helping them learn about each other, so they can better see where they can help work together,” he says. “So it could be connecting two businesses that didn’t even know that each of them were in the same area.”

Paris, 54, of Marlborough, takes the helm at an important moment for the chamber. A year ago, the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce merged with its counterpart in Peterborough. The chamber is also embarking on a multi-year marketing effort for the Monadnock Region. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the economy and everyday life.

Amid all of that, Paris says he’s relentlessly focused on providing value for chamber members.

“That’s the most important thing,” he notes. “Once you view stuff from the end-user, everything else you do before that is because of that.”

From Central Square to ... Central Square

Paris came to the Monadnock Region from New York at age 33, opening Luca’s Mediterranean Café in downtown Keene. 

“I moved here 21 years ago, fell in love with Keene, fell in love with what it meant,” he says. “And what this whole region is about is taking care of each other.”

He says he felt he had achieved his goals in the culinary world two decades later. But he didn’t realize heading up the chamber would be his next step until he started talking to the board about what he hoped to see in its next president — someone who’s run their own business and would understand the needs of entrepreneurs like him.

“I was not expecting it to be me,” he says. “… But I started mentioning that, and then I started talking about all the things I would love to see. And as I started doing that, I said, ‘Maybe I can do this.’”

Paris succeeded former President and CEO Phil Suter, who retired this year. Paris says he’s devoting himself entirely to the chamber and no longer involved in day-to-day operations at Luca’s.

Even before joining the chamber’s staff, Paris was an active presence in the area, notes board Chairwoman Patty Blake.

“He is a really good marketer, he is a really good ideas person, and prior to taking on this job, he was already thinking of activities and events that might better incorporate the eastern part of the region,” says Blake, vice president and senior market manager for the western New Hampshire market at People’s United Bank.

Paris has long had a radio show and appeared on TV, and has helped organize community events.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, hitting restaurants especially hard, Paris participated in regular Zoom meetings with other business leaders and created the Monadnock Restaurant Project. This homegrown stimulus effort raised money to buy more than $30,000 gift cards from 51 local restaurants. (The Keene Sentinel was one of the initiative’s partners.)

“What a lot of people will tell you is that I was doing this already in some fashion before, whether it was coordinating the restaurants together during COVID [or] working on ways to help businesses grow,” Paris says.

Merging and marketing

In November 2020, the Keene and Peterborough Chambers of Commerce announced plans to merge, saying it would put them in a better position to maintain enough staff and offer strong programming to their 700 or so members.

Chamber officials said that integrating the two and making sure the combined chamber truly represents the whole region has been a priority.

“At the time, we were post-merger, trying to navigate through the merger process of the former Peterborough Chamber and the Keene Chamber,” says Blake, who became chairwoman of the board in October. “So how do we create this continuous corridor of commerce? How do we link these two regions?”

She says it was a perfect time “to have a force like Luca come with his background and his dedication to the region, his passion for the region as a whole.”

While Paris has been based in Keene for two decades, Blake says he’s been proactive in engaging with members from Peterborough and other parts of the region.

Paris notes that outreach is key. He said it tells members what the chamber is doing and gets them excited about being a part of it.

A new branch office on Main Street in Peterborough is slated to open in early 2022. Paris says it’ll be staffed Thursdays and Fridays, and he plans to spend Wednesdays there himself — if he’s in an office at all.

“My goal is not to be in the office too much, ever,” he says. “I want to meet with our membership; I want to work with people, learn about what the community has, develop new strategies and be involved where it matters, where the voice of the chamber matters for its membership.”

Marketing Monadnock

Another ongoing initiative is a marketing campaign for the Monadnock Region. Backed by a $300,000 federal grant, the project aims to develop a compelling brand that will draw people to the region and then promote it. 

The chamber has hired a project manager and engaged a marketing firm, North Star Branding and Marketing, which recently spent a week in the region learning about it, according to Jamie Trowbridge, the president and CEO of Yankee Publishing and a chamber board member who has previously led the branding push.

“We drove them all over the region, introduced them to all kinds of people,” Trowbridge says. “They had interviews with more than 75 people while they were here. And Luca was integrally involved in that whole process, that whole week.”

Paris says that one of the insights from traveling around the region is how interconnected it is, despite encompassing a wide diversity of places. Regional hubs like Keene and Peterborough depend on the surrounding small towns and countryside, and vice versa. 

“I realized that one doesn’t work without the other,” Paris says. “So the city of Keene can’t stand alone without the beauty and the grandeur of the lakes and the mountains and the climbing that the region has to offer. The town of Peterborough can’t stand alone without what the region has to offer.” 

Paris has the “passion of a convert,” Trowbridge notes. “Didn’t grow up here, but he has come here and knows it and loves it.”

‘For the membership’

Board members say Paris has hit the ground running, engaging with members and launching new projects.

One is Chamber Night Out, a monthly networking event that patronizes an area business. The first was at The Outlaw Brewing Co. in Winchester. Outings planned for next year include trips to a casino, bowling alley, shooting range and AAA baseball game in Worcester, Massachusetts (with travel provided by Keene-based Thomas Transportation).

Other efforts focus on promoting chamber members. While some businesses, like restaurants, are highly visible, Paris says many local manufacturers fly under the radar. “From beer to spirits to water coolers to flagpoles they make in Fitzwilliam, nobody knows what’s made in the Monadnock Region, or we don’t have enough people that know.”

So the chamber has started work on a new video series, “Made in Monadnock,” that will highlight local producers in three-to-five-minute segments shared on social media. Paris has also recorded interviews with members, known as Chamber Business Spotlight, to air on WKBK.

Because of his background in running a restaurant, Paris says he understands small business owners need a return for their money.

“A lot of times we’ll say when you go to write out a check for any organization, ‘What’s the value in my membership?’” he says.

That’s the basis for everything he does as chamber president: whether hosting a networking event, recording an interview or joining a local committee.

“It only matters if we’re doing it for the membership. It’s not whether I get another reason to be on the radio, or I get this, or I get that,” Paris says. “... It’s about the members, and they’re the ones that will tell you if the chamber is successful in our community.” T

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