In Chamber of Commerce circles, this time of year is known simply as “Banquet Season.” Practically without exception, chamber staff members are planning and holding annual dinners to celebrate the achievements and programs not just of the chambers themselves, but also of their members and communities.

We have a saying about chambers of commerce that if you’ve seen one chamber you’ve seen, well, one chamber. The meaning here is that while all of these organizations exist to support and promote the local business community, each one has unique characteristics, programs and initiatives specific to the community served. The same holds true for our annual banquets.

“Each chamber banquet I attend has many of the same qualities and components, yet each one has its own very distinctive personality,” said Bruce Wallace of Affordable Gas and Electric, a Mount Vernon-based energy program that works with Southern Illinois chambers. Wallace knows chamber banquets because, in his role with AGE, he attends nearly ten each year. Plus, as the former executive director of the Murphysboro Chamber of Commerce, he’s planned a number of annual gatherings. Many chamber executives lend support to one another by attending each other’s banquets as part of an informal brotherhood.

Most all of the banquets in Southern Illinois are held sometime between mid-January and late March, and all of them recognize outstanding businesses and individuals in the community. Some include honors for the Citizen of the Year, some name a young professional of the year and others recognize individuals for a lifetime of contributions to the community. The Herrin Chamber is one that presents an award to an outstanding high school student and at the Carbondale Chamber, our banquet serves as a venue for the Carbondale Community Arts organization to recognize one firm each year for “Keeping Arts in Business.”

The awards are presented in a unique way, too. Marion’s Chamber named “finalists” for awards this year prior to the banquet and then named one of the finalists as the winner at the dinner. At some chambers, award winners are a complete surprise, making for impromptu acceptance speeches. The Carbondale Chamber informs award recipients prior to the banquet but asks them to keep the honor quiet until the ceremony. This also allows the chamber to film interviews with the award winners which are shown instead of requiring winners to give speeches.

Some of the annual banquets are formal, some have themes and others take on a gala flavor. The Benton/West City Chamber recently held a murder-mystery dinner as part of their 2018 banquet and Murphysboro’s Chamber is planning a Hawaiian luau for their annual event.

Even though the formats and meals vary from community to community, one thing is consistent throughout the annual chamber events in our region: each annual banquet celebrates the businesses which call our region home and the people who work tirelessly (often without recognition) to make our cities better places.

At a time when negativity seems to be at every turn, chamber banquets are a respite from bad news and dismal outlooks. They bring together the “movers and shakers,” boost morale and give all of us a chance to be proud of our hometowns. The banquets give everyone in a community – business leaders, governmental officials, residents and students an opportunity to learn more about their neighbors and friends. They are memorable evenings and gathering not to be missed.