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John Lai to become new CEO, president of Sanibel Captiva Chamber

By Staff | Sep 12, 2017

John Lai will become the new Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce president and CEO effective Jan. 1. MEGHAN MCCOY

Sanibel holds a special place in the heart of the newly announced Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce CEO and President John Lai, which is igniting a true excitement of what the role holds.

“I’m thrilled about it and honestly couldn’t be more encouraged about what is coming the next few years,” he said, adding how grateful he is to the community for the opportunity to serve in the capacity in which he can serve.

“There was an extensive search to fill this position,” said Board Chair Donna Puma in a prepared statement. “But it was a unanimous vote by the search committee, Board of Directors and Executive Board that John was the best candidate to lead our Chamber into the future. John has a strategic view of our Chamber’s mission of ‘To promote the prosperity of our members and preserve the quality of life in our Community. On behalf of the board, we look forward to John’s leadership and wish him success in his new role.”

When Lai first moved to the area from Miami with his parents, his father began working with the Prawnbroker Restaurant Group and his mom worked for Bank of the Islands and Suntrust and Colonial Bank.

“When Ric Base was hired, she was the chairperson of the board of the chamber,” he said. “From a historical perspective, Sanibel is somewhere I grew to know very well when I was still in middle school and high school.”

From a personal perspective, Sanibel was where he and his wife got married, and where he proposed. The island was also were his family held a memorial service for his father.

“It’s been professionally, and personally, the most special geographic place to us. It’s a really cool circle that I feel just got completed,” Lai said. “It’s a really interesting story that in my life has come full circle because I get to serve the community that I love, as opposed to just simply making a living off of it. I am now in a position to where I can give back to it.”

He said you work so hard to gain a vision of who you are, and now at the age of 46, he can begin to give back to the community.

“This is a great spot to do that, to give back to a community that has given so much to us,” Lai said.

Lai will start his position as the CEO and president of the chamber on Oct. 1, which gives him three months to work with Ric Base, the current president and CEO. Base, who has been the president and CEO for the past 11 years will retire at the end of the year.

“We will do our first budget together. We’ll be able to tie up any loose ends. We will really be able to transition well, which is something this chamber has not had a history of doing,” Lai said.

Lai joined the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce staff in March of this year as the member service manager. Prior to that he had been a member of the chamber as a business operator for five years. Lai has also been on the chamber board for the last year and a half.

“I have always seen it as the most important business alliance on the island,” Lai said of the chamber.

He said he believes his entire employment with the chamber has worked out well because the first six months he had the opportunity to work with the membership capacity.

“My focus for the last six months has been advocating for the members and finding out what we do well in their eyes, what we need to do more of, what we need to do less of and what we need to do the same,” Lai said.

Although the number of members changes on a daily basis, on average there are about 515. Approximately 90 percent of the businesses are located on island.

“The member services manager is a position that is not a sales position, but more of a retention position. So, I want to know basically how we are doing as an organization that is helping your business,” Lai said. “When they hit a wall, or hit a snag, they think of the chamber not just as source of marketing, but a resource to help them move forward with their business. We can be a resource for them, as well as a network resource, and a marketing resource, as well as a consulting resource.”

With the advantage of being a member for so many years , Lai said he is not alone in believing one of the things the chamber has done consistently well has been creating a network for the businesses on the island, marketing the island and advocating for the businesses on the island.

The next three months, he said will be focusing from a 50,000 foot level of what loose ends need to be tied up before Base leaves and what projects they can focus on in the immediate future, as well as five and 10 years from now.

When he completely takes over the role as president and CEO on Jan. 1, Lai wants to focus on taking a closer look at better utilizing technology to enhance the visitors experience, both at the Visitor’s Center and in the community; take a closer look at the website to make sure they are maximizing the visibility for the site, as well as driving visitors to the site and to their members and preserving the quality of life for the businesses and residents on the island in a sustainable manner.

Before joining the chamber, he managed resorts for a little more than 20 years. Most recently he had managed the Inns of Sanibel over the last three years. Those four inns include Sanibel Inn, Song of the Sea, Seaside Inn and Sunset Beach.

Prior to that he was involved with Sundial and the old Best Western from 2001 to 2005.

“Just before, and just after Hurricane Charley. I was involved with the rebuilding of those properties and getting them reopened after Charley hit,” Lai said.

Lai has lived in Lee County for the past 30 years on and off.

For more information about the Chamber of Commerce, visit www.sanibel-captiva.org, or call (239) 472-1080. The Francis P. Bailey, Jr. Chamber Visitor Center is located at the entrance of the island, 1159 Causeway Road.