Virtual Trade Missions Or "HOW TO SAVE BIG TIME on Foreign Travel"

International Technology Exchange
June 2002

We ran across this cost-effective technology while attending a "Doing Business in Germany" Conference in Washington D.C. on 4 June. It was such a good idea, we decided to stop the presses and hold up printing our June newsletter in hopes that we could talk the owners into allowing us to feature this technology in our June issue. So if you get this a little late, please be understanding. What follows is an interview between Mike Patterson, CEO of WorldTech and Virginia Littlejohn, Chairman and Co-Founder of a Washington-based firm called "TradeBuilders, Inc."

Virginia--What is TradeBuilders and what do you do?
Let me set-up my answer with a question of my own. When was the last time you took a business development trip overseas and how much did it cost you?

I just returned from a Prague about a week ago and I guess my airfare and expenses ran about $5,000.
What would you say if I told you we could potentially save you about $4,500 to obtain essentially the same results?

I'd say: "Where do I sign up?"
Good! Now, I'll tell you how we do it. Instead of getting on an aircraft to Europe, Asia, the Middle East or Latin America, and spending a whole bunch of time and money to go out and market your company's wares, firms like WorldTech and government agencies can now be brought directly "face-to-face" via sophisticated and cost-effective Internet-based technology and video links. We can achieve potentially the same results - at least in the early stages of business development.

I've heard the word "potentially" mentioned twice in as many questions. Why the caveat?
Well, we all know that in marketing, nothing can replace that magic moment when you meet face-to-face with the potential customer, shake hands and get up "close and personal" about whether you think you can work with that person or trust them. So, we are not suggesting that electronic hook-ups would or should ever replace in person, face-to-face meetings with international customers. However, it has been my experience, that when you attempt to enter international markets, you need two, and, often, three trips to: 1) introduce yourself to the potential customer or partner, 2) become familiar with their needs, 3) get back to them with specific proposals to solve their problems, and 4) strike a deal. At TradeBuilders, we contend that the best way to do the initial, or some of the subsequent meetings, is via electronic means. If you use it as a "first contact" in a controlled and facilitated virtual trade mission atmosphere, this allows you to open a private dialogue with more than one potential customer. You first browse through the participants' corporate credentials and needs that are listed in their virtual trade mission, or VTM, registration information. This allows you to pursue more than one business lead in the target country, and improves your chances for success in a business relationship. That is the principal value added of virtual trade missions.

How do Virtual Trade Missions (VTMs) work?
First a bit of history. The idea that led to the business model for TradeBuilders sprang from electronic bulletin boards in the early nineties. This innovation allowed businesspeople around the globe to engage in discussions of all sorts when there was a common area of interest. At TradeBuilders, we took this concept several steps further by designing a step-phased approach to meeting business contacts online who are engaged in the same lines of business as you. It starts with general discussions among all participants and evolves into one-on-one business discussions that eventually lead to getting together on the ground and closing deals.

How many of these VTMs have you done?
We have done several between the U.S. and countries such as Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Israel, and Germany.

You mentioned VTMs are keyed to specific business sectors. Can you give some examples?
It is no different than when an association or government agency has a conference that focuses on communications or information technology. VTMs provide the same kind of focus. For example, in the case of Israel, we limited participation to companies directly involved in physical and electronic security. In the case of Germany, we are keying on the digital and multimedia solution industries-software solutions for e-business, e-government, e-learning and that most promising of communications technologies-wireless.

Are these events sponsored by governments, associations or business groups?
All of the above. VTMs are typically organized by government agencies anxious to develop business in specific sectors. In the case of the German VTM, it is being organized by several German government and industry groups such as the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, the Saxony Economic Development Group, and gotoBavaria.

What types of people normally participate in VTMs?
The main players are representatives of companies of all sizes-large, medium and small. Some of our bigger participating companies included EDS, IBM, Kodak, Lockheed Martin, Lucent Technologies, SAIC, UPS, and some of the top global accounting and law firms. We also have a lot of government agencies participate-The U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and the Indian Ministry of Information Technology.

Can you walk the readers through the process? How is the average VTM is structured?
Sure. Although we can structure a VTM specifically to meet client needs, the elements below constitute what a typical Virtual Trade Mission looks like from start to finish. Keep in mind, this whole process spans a three-week period. Just like using an electronic bulletin board, this allows "players" to sign in, ask or answer questions and make their individual contributions at their leisure. This is particularly important when dealing with different time zones so players don't have to get up in the middle of the night to participate.

  1. REGISTRATION: This is important because it is like a company resume with the added advantage of listing exactly what the company may be offering or seeking by way of cooperation with other participants. For example, a registrant would check one or more of the following sample blocks:
    ____ Sell technology goods or services? Examples:
    ____ Buy technology goods or services? Examples:
    ____ Potential joint venture partners? Examples:

    This kind of information is then put into a matrix through which all participants can browse online.

  2. TRAINING: Before we go on-line, we train all participants on how the Virtual Trade Mission works and how it will unfold. We teach them everything they need to know to take maximum advantage of all of the available electronic media technologies that come into play for any given VTM.

  3. BUSINESS DISCUSSION: These online discussions are usually asynchronous (input provided individually in different time zones) so that company representatives can log on a few times each week durring the VTM at times that work with their schedules. These are open discussions wherein all of the participants can participate.

    These are followed by closed, private discussions. This is where two or more parties adjourn to a "private board room" to discuss further matters of mutual interest. These can be synchronous or asynchronous. This phase typically marks the beginning of individual exchanges that explore areas for potential cooperation. Here we can use any number of devices to enhance the exchange:

    • Bilateral Video Conferencing-you literally see the other party at the other end in either special facilities or in many cases their own teleconferencing facility
    • Call Centers-direct phone hook-ups

  4. ASK THE EXPERTS: We normally have a special feature in all VTMs whereby participants can query experts made available online to answer questions applicable to particularly the laws, direct foreign investment, or licensing requirements of the environment they are considering entering into with a participating firm. These experts typically include recognized authorities in legal, regulatory, and capital investment matters.

  5. VIRTUAL LIBRARY: To further assist participants, we normally make a virtual library available to them online that includes the most frequently used reference materials in the trade sector being covered by the VTM.

How secure are these electronic connections?
Our virtual trade missions are hosted over the Internet using a powerful firewall system for our pass code protected group discussion areas. We learned a great deal from our last VTM with Israel that focused on cyber and data security. Based on the information that was shared inside the VTM, these IT security experts from the public and private sector clearly felt confident in our ability to protect their information.

If I Were a Minister of Defense or Economics and Wanted to Set Up One of These VTMs Between My Country and, say the U.S., How Much Would It Cost?
In some cases, less than it would cost for you to send a two-person delegation practically anywhere in the world. Again, it depends on what kind of VTM the customer wants. We can do a "bare-bones" basic but very effective VTM for as little as $25,000. For a more sophisticated or complex multimedia VTM for hundreds of participants, it can run up to around $75,000. But keep in mind, the best business model for the typical VTM is for a government or association to sponsor it (guarantee the funding), but for the individual participating companies or agencies to pay for admission and participation. The individual fee that sponsors pass on to participants is anywhere from $400 per participant to $1,000. But this is what companies usually pay to attend a conference in their own country anyway-much less getting the advantage of an international hook-up of interested parties.

Have the Tragic Events of 9/11 Made Much of a Difference In VTM Participation?
In general, the answer is yes, we have experienced increased demand for hosting VTMs. Clearly, global business travel did decrease considerably last year and this year, but the situation appears to be improving. Either way, this VTM process can help busy corporate executives save not just money, but time-and that will always be in demand.

Editor's Note: Virginia Littlejohn is Chairman and Co-Founder of TradeBuilders. Virginia has distinguished herself by serving as National Prsident of the National Association of Women Business Owners, and served on the IBM Small Business Research and Technology Advisory Council. Virginia is a prominent keynote speaker in a wide variety of international for a. She has testified frequently before the Congress on matters dealing with technology and trade. If you would like to contact her for more information on this very creative way to conduct international Virtual Trade Missions, here is how to get in touch with her directly regarding this process or expansion plans:

Virginia Littlejohn, Chairman,
TradeBuilders, Inc.
Tel. 1-301-951-9411
Fax 1-202-237-7809

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