NEWPORT BEACH — The post-recession consumer expects more value and better service for less cash, prominent community business leaders said Wednesday.

The Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce hosted "Strategies for Growth in a Recovering Economy," a morning seminar at Newport Beach Lexus dealership.

Panelists included Jim Walker, owner of The Bungalow; Gary Sherwin, president and chief executive of Visit Newport Beach Inc.; Bobby Sento, sales manager at Newport Lexus; Gavin Herbert Jr., president and CEO of Roger's Gardens; and Shannon Fowler of the American Cancer Society.

Speakers shared with an audience of about 60 how their respective businesses, which include the travel sales, restaurant, home improvement and nonprofit industries, were hit hard by the economic downturn and what they had to do to build back to pre-recession levels.

"Newport Beach is much like any other successful product on the market," Sherwin said of promoting Visit Newport Inc. "You can't have a successful product without having an arm out there and talking about it."

For Sherwin and several other panelists, creating business growth meant building an online presence through websites and social media.

"The key is to not simply have a website," Sherwin said. "Everyone likes to just throw up a website, but you need to have one with a strong strategic purpose and provide value to the customer."

However, before business owners rush to start promoting themselves online, they need to make sure that they have a message or product that appeals to the customer.

"If you take care of the customer, the customer will take care of you," Sento said of expanding his Newport Lexus sales team to keep customer service strong during the recession.

"The best advertising is word-of-mouth. The worst advertising is word-of-mouth," he said. "One bad customer, and it's plastered all over the Internet that they had a bad experience."

Overall, the message for attendees was that the post-recession consumer is more cost-driven and owners need to be more creative in promoting value, Walker said of experimenting with promotional discounts to The Bungalow to attract sales.

"At the end of the day, the most expensive thing in a business is an empty seat," Walker said. "When you have an empty seat, you do whatever you can to fill it."