The Virtual Trade Mission Experience
The Globe and Mail, "Around the World in 80 Clicks"

The factory that Carol Blakey is helping to develop in Malaysia owes its existence to the click of a mouse. Working out of a home office in Calgary (Canada), Ms. Blakey runs a small company called Cheiron Resources Ltd. that advises clients on international trade.

Last summer, she was among a group of Canadian businesswomen who used the Internet and videoconferencing to link up with their counterparts in Singapore and Malaysia in what was described as "a virtual trade mission."

On-line communications with women whom she had never met in a country where she had never thought of doing business helped Ms. Blakey link one of her clients, International Landmark Environmental Ltd. of Richmond, B.C., with a Malaysian oil refinery. The plan for the join venture is to develop a factory for absorbent sponges used to clean up oil spills.

Ms. Blakey says small businesses like hers can seldom afford to participate in overseas trade missions because they usually involve at least two trips and extended stays in the host country. "We don't have the kind of resources or time that we can be off on two- or three-week jaunts on the hunch that it might work," she says.

A formal trade mission can provide businesspeople with contacts, resources and opportunities that are not readily available. The virtual trade mission, sponsored by various business associations and corporations, including the Royal Bank of Canada, Lucent Technologies Inc., and International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), offered 65 business women the advantages of being apart of an official delegation while cutting down on unnecessary travel.

A Web site served as an on-line meeting place where participants could make initial contacts discuss possible deals and begin cementing relationships. As a result, says Ms. Blakey, "We had almost accomplished deals before we ever got on the plane."

Ms. Blakey was reluctant to join the virtual trade mission at first because she did not see the point of it. She likes working on a one-to-one basis and was afraid she would have to "waste a lot of time learning a lot of convoluted technical things.

"But, once I got into it, I was astounded by the possibility that there was in it, and the capacity that there was behind it," she says.

The hardest part of using the technology was remembering her password and logging on to the Web site, which provided links to various resources of information about trade laws, economic conditions, cultural issues and other relevant concerns. Once they were online, participants introduced themselves and described their businesses and trading objectives through email messages that were displayed on the site.

The women also took part in a videoconference, which "was used as a icebreaker and to make things seem a little bit more real," Ms. Blakey says.

Participants were able to move into private chat groups whenever they wanted to enter into more detailed discussions or negotiations. Ms. Blakey found three potential customers for her clients' products and private email discussions helped her nail down what seemed like the best prospective deal.

But virtual meetings can only take you so far in dealing with Asian businesspeople, who put a premium on personal relationships, Ms. Blakey says. "Nothing's going to happen until they know you. You get to a certain point where you need to meet."

She and other participants flew to Malaysia to complete their negotiations and firm up their deals. However, they didn't have to start from scratch, as they would in a normal trade mission. "We were a lot more targeted in what we were doing and who we were talking to," Ms. Blakey says.

"The whole group scenario had given us a very good overview. We had a knowledge of Malaysian culture, the economic and political situation before we go there." On a personal level, Ms. Blakey adds, "we already had a pretty good sense of one another's personalities, interests and skill levels, which would normally have taken weeks to acquire.

"It was like Old Home Week. Everybody was excited to finally meet," she recalls.

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