Trade secrets: how to get the most from a trade mission

Fri 15 Sept 2023
Posted by: Richard Cree
Trade News

Trade with GB flag

As she glad-handed politicians and business leaders in Jaipur a few weeks’ ago, the UK business and trade secretary, Kemi Badenoch, made a series of announcements related to UK-India trade.

With a trade deal between the two nations still “on the horizon” (both sides are keen to get one concluded quickly), Badenoch instead announced a new trade promotion campaign.

Alive with Opportunity” set itself the goal of “helping to doubling trade with India by 2030”. A cornerstone of the campaign will be a series of targeted trade missions for UK firms in high-growth sectors. The IOE&IT Daily Update decided to look at trade missions, asking what they are; how they work; and how participants can make the most of them.

Trade missions are not one thing

It’s worth noting that trade missions come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, with numerous different sponsors and organisers. Many are run, supported or sponsored by government agencies and departments, with the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) given the main brief to oversee them. At their most basic, trade missions boil down to a visit to an overseas country by a group of business leaders, often accompanied by government representatives.

Mark Kempster knows a lot about such missions. He is founder and CEO of CT Travel Group, which includes specialist travel logistics provider CT Trade Missions. As such he has been on, and led, hundreds of missions to different countries and regions.

He explains that missions fall into two broad categories:

“Trade missions are normally sector specific or country specific. The mission goes to promote a specific sector, such as oil, or it goes to explore the opportunities that might exist in a particular country for firms in all sectors.”

Kempster is diplomatic about which approach is better, highlighting pros and cons in both. He adds that the nature of the company, its size and client base, how advanced it is in its export approach and what it wants to achieve from a mission will influence the value of each approach.

But Katie Birrell, head of international sales at Nairn’s Oatcakes and a DBT export champion warns that while there is clearly a place for trade missions, they may not be right for all businesses. While she admits it’s been a while since she went on one, she says that for some businesses their value can be hard to assess.

She says this is particularly true for an established FMCG business like Nairn’s, which has an experienced export team in place and is more confident in approaching new markets.

Value

Kempster says country-specific trade missions, especially to unusual locations or markets, have their place:

“If you are new to exporting and are fact finding about a new marketplace, an in-person visit and overview of how a country operates and the opportunities there can be useful.”

But Birrell remains unconvinced of their value for a firm such as Nairn’s:

“We have done both sorts of trade missions and the ones that aren’t sector specific primarily bring networking, which has a place, but isn’t quite enough for a company like ours. You end up meeting government people because they are run by governments.”

While that can be useful, she says that for an FMCG business the focus is usually more on finding importers, meeting buyers and gaining distribution at retail. “There tends to be less focus on that aspect, in my experience.”

‘Clean and cool’

This drawback was recognised some years ago by Oli Barrett, who co-founded the first Web Mission in 2008 and went on to launch the Clean and Cool trade missions, taking groups of cleantech entrepreneurs on a dozen missions to the US and Brazil. He describes both sets of missions as “entrepreneur-led”, allowing them more freedom to move away from less-than- inspiring air-conditioned hotel meeting rooms.

“I’m not sure a government department would have signed off a back streets treasure hunt in New Delhi, for instance,” he adds. This reflects Barrett’s views on the best way to maximise the experience.

“While staying safe, I tell people not to be afraid to go off the beaten track and discover a place. It is very easy to just go airport, car, hotel lobby, function room, car and airport. That doesn't give you a sense of what makes a place tick.”

Who attends matters

Another element in making a mission a success, says Kempster, is the attitude of participants. Ultimately, it comes down to the type of people taking part. “The bulk of our clients are owner-run SMEs, and they take these trips very seriously.”

Even if some costs are subsidised by either government or a trade body, firms on the trip are likely to have invested several thousand pounds to be there. While there may be drinks receptions and a day’s sightseeing at the end of the trip, people want a return on the money and time invested.

Barrett takes this further, saying that the downtime is when the real magic can happen.

“People tend to bring their game face to the gate,” he says. “It's only when they start to take the mask off that they have the best conversations.”

He adds that businesses that get the most from missions also go above and beyond the standard agenda set by organisers. He cites one mission attended by the founder of then little-known internet business, Skyscanner.

“He was on the bus at 9am with the other delegates, but he’d already had a couple of early-morning meetings he’s arranged,” says Barrett. Perhaps it’s no surprise that not too long after that Skyscanner was sold for over £1bn.

The other people matter

Barrett adds that you learn a lot from fellow mission delegates:

“I would say embrace the chance to meet and get to know your fellow participants, because you can become their hidden sales assistants and they can become yours.

“It's one of the most powerful introductions during a mission, someone looking across the room and saying ‘oh, you should talk to that person over there’. If you play it well, you mobilise an army of hidden assistants.”

Kempster concurs. He always suggests delegates go with an expectation of building long- term relationships and tells them not to ignore other delegates or think of them as competitors.

“Countless times I've come back from a mission and people have messaged to say ‘thanks for introducing me to so and so’ who was someone from the UK. That’s an opportunity as much as what happens in-country. Although you’re going somewhere new, don’t ignore the person you sit next to on the transfer bus.”

Birrell sounds a note of caution here and warns against banking on these connections:

“These trips are great fun, and you can meet good people. You might meet somebody you end up doing business with. But the opportunity cost for me and my business means the money is better spent elsewhere.

“Established FMCG companies like ours need distributors in this new territory. That suits my products and is going to build my brand. That’s my objective. I recognise it’s not the same for everyone and some companies find this type of trip productive.

“But what I want help with is specific to our type of business. And these trade missions are expensive. If there is money to be spent, even £10,000, I could use it to pay an agent to find me a distributor and ultimately sell more products.”

Not a one-hit wonder

But while growth is the ultimate goal for most business owners, Kempster and Barrett suggest that assessing the impact of trade missions requires taking the long view.

Kempster says one trip is unlikely to achieve much by way of direct sales. “Your first trade mission is not going to necessarily result in a massive contract. In fact, it’s unlikely to. This is the start of the journey. If you've never done business in Brazil, you might use the mission to go and understand the opportunities that could exist for your company there.”

He cites the example of missions to the Middle East where the culture is such that you need to persist:

“One visit won’t secure a contract. The culture in Saudi Arabia, for example, is such that you need to build relationships. They don’t want people to go once and think they’ll leave with a contract.

"You go, shake hands with someone the first time, then you have correspondence and go back again, either on a mission or solo. You need to meet people again and they need to feel you’re committed to doing business with them.”

Barrett agrees that missions are just the opening of a door:

“The bad news is that, if someone was only ever prepared to do one visit, whether to San Francisco or Boston, it was highly unlikely that what happened in that week would set off such a chain reaction it would lead to an investment or deal.

"The advice was to see this as the opening of a door. Start thinking about when you are next going to have boots on the ground.”

Preparation is key 

Like any successful trip, it starts with investing time in preparation. Barrett says for founders and business owners this can be easier said than done:

“Too many founders, because they're so busy, get their head into a mission for the first time only as their plane is taxiing down the runway for take-off.

"It sounds obvious, but the more you can think about it, drop a few notes in advance saying ‘I'm going to be in your city in this week’ the better.”

Susan Roe is E-Commerce Trade Commission secretariat lead at the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT). Before she joined IOE&IT, she ran workshops for firms heading out to global trade fairs preparing them for what to expect and equipping them with an essential checklist. She says putting the time in on prep makes the difference and that planning and preparation are paramount.

“Find out who is going to be attending, get to know as much as you can about delegates and any invited guests,” she says. She adds that in some cultures it may not always be clear what the order of someone’s name means or how they prefer to be addressed.

“Everyone joining a mission should do their own homework in advance, even if the organisers are supporting you. Take responsibility for being well prepared.”

For more formal missions, with lots of organised receptions, Kempster suggests producing a brochure about your company and its products, with some basic information about yourself. And to have that information in English and the local language.

“A two-page synopsis of the company and what it does and how you see the opportunity in the new country is enough. I know everything is digital now, but to stand in a room, have a drink with people and be able to give them a piece of paper in English and the local language is incredibly powerful.”

The point on language matters, he says, because you can’t control what happens to the document.

“You might be talking to the CEO or marketing director, but they might share it with someone who doesn't speak English.”

In the same vein, Kempster suggests learning about the culture and even picking up a few words of the local language.

“We hold a pre-mission briefing in the UK, and if possible, do it at the embassy of the country we’re going to. You get to meet people going on the mission and experience a piece of that country.

"Understanding the culture, how to dress and not dress, what to do when you greet people and so on, matters. Learning some basic phrases like ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’, goes an awfully long way.”

Roe agrees that cultural knowledge is a major factor in a successful mission. “If you run a family business or if your business has a long heritage, for example, and you’re going to an Asian market or to a Latin country, make sure that element of your story is front and centre. It will go down well in those markets.”

Think about objectives in advance

But if Birrell’s objectives of getting sales and distribution deals from a mission are too immediate for some, they are at least clear and measurable. Where things can go wrong is if people attend with only a vague idea what they want out of it.

Kempster says: “You need an objective. It can be as broad as just wanting to understand whether a new country offers any opportunity for your business or not. There are many different reasons why people might go, but having a clear objective matters.”

Roe goes further, “Whenever you’re going on this kind of trip, whether to do a trade show or as part of a trade mission, you should identify your top three objectives and ideally be able to measure them for ROI. If you don’t meet these three objectives, it could have been a waste of time. Then also line them up three nice-to-have objectives.”

Get involved in the agenda

It may seem an odd call as a visitor to a new country or city, but Barrett suggests that delegates can be bold when it comes to organising small events alongside the main mission agenda.

“It's quite counterintuitive if you're visiting somewhere for the week to host an event. But something like a brunch on Sunday morning where you can invite people can work well.

"Understand which parts of the mission have a three-line whip on attendance, and then don't be afraid to go around the schedule to organise additional meetings. It’s about respecting the agenda of the mission but not being afraid to organise around the sides of it.”

He adds that it also makes sense to lean into and embrace the support locally of those who can help such as DBT representative:

“Look at what their services in the region involve and ask if you can get a sneak peek at things like guest lists. Also don’t be afraid to tell organisers and the local teams the sort of people you'd like to meet.”