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Bringing a trade mission online.

Sometimes, bringing together business partners is as easy as planning an impromptu meeting at the coffee shop around the corner. But when an ocean separates partners from investors, the logistics can be a little trickier. Invest-UK, the British government’s investment arm, is trying to bridge the distance by using the Internet to connect executives with resources, information, and each other. Dave Feldman, vice consul for investment in Invest-UK’s Washington office, talks about the many forms of networking.

Why did Invest-UK decide to undertake a virtual trade mission?

It made a lot of sense to a number of people here. The company that provides the technology, Tradebuilders, had been doing this for other countries, and they started getting requests for a UK-focused trade mission. When I first heard about the idea, I knew it made sense, because you could bring together all the parties to share and collaborate, and get so many organizations involved.

Who is part of the trade mission?

We have development agencies, trade partners, and corporate sponsors, but the main participants are companies that want to access an international market. Usually it’s a CEO or another senior level person who is looking at expanding internationally, and they’ve come on board for this to try and understand what it’s like to do business in the UK. Or it’s an executive in the UK who wants to do business in the US. For example, if a company specializing in cybersecurity here wants to know what it’s like to do the same kind of thing overseas, the executive can talk to a cybersecurity company in, say, London, to ask about operations and marketing and so forth.

You use electronic bulletin boards to bring companies together; are there any challenges to having these virtual meetings?

From a technical standpoint, it’s been pretty easy, because it’s all Web-based communication. A message is posted to a board, and since it works almost in real time, it’s like having a meeting in the real world. One of the obstacles that has been a little bit challenging is that it’s a new medium for some people. They’ve had to get used to doing more than sending an email message, and it takes awhile to get acclimated. We’ve been trying to be gently encouraging, but we’ve also made sure that the trade mission goes for quite awhile, three weeks in fact, so they have the opportunity to get used to the technology.

What’s been the reaction to the virtual trade mission?

Very good, very encouraging. After all, the economy right now is very challenging, so every dollar spent needs to be justified. The cost of this for three weeks is $395, which allows each company access for two individuals. From an economic standpoint, if you’re planning a trip overseas, the trade mission allows you to establish relationships and understand markets before you get there, and that saves time and money. Or, sometimes, this saves a trip altogether, which falls in line with the desire of executives to be traveling less right now.

This trade mission is in beta right now, with a small group of participants; how do you plan to expand it in the future?

There are many ideas being tossed around in regard to that question, and there are some exciting things being talked about. Right now, we need to gauge how successful it has been to see how much we should be doing in the future, but so far some of the discussions have included thinking about regionally-focused events rather than just reaching out to D.C.-based companies. We’ve also heard requests for an ongoing networking event that people could come in and out of, like an ongoing meeting. This is very much a pilot project now, but I definitely think we can improve on it, and we look forward to the future.

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