Many UK businesses will be considering a trade mission in 2018.

A trade mission can be a key instrument in developing overseas business, but how effective a trade mission is remains inconclusive. Immediate benefits are often not forthcoming for those taking part and so it is indirect results, sometime after, that are used to justify them.

Governments like to claim that trade missions boost exports but research on this is not convincing. The reasons and motives of businesses signing up for government organised trade missions vary. The government’s own motives need consideration too – there is always an element of politics and self-justification (on both sides); the government needs to be seen to be doing something and they are more than happy for taxpayers to pay for it – government trade missions do not come cheap, but are they worth it?

How can you really measure the success of trade missions? It’s very difficult; who really benefits from these potential junkets? Without question, the civil servants and bureaucrats of government and its agencies do very well out of them; good salaries, all expenses covered and spending money, without any real targets or accountability. The bosses of some of our most pointless quangos do quite well out of them too, often going along for the ride, usually bankrolled by the tax payer too.

Clearly there are some success stories, but these tend to be in areas of economic size and scale where political influence can play a part. For most businesses though, particularly SMEs, there is little the government can practically do to help generate business in foreign markets, so why pay for help you don’t get?

Those with the greatest need to get something out of a trade mission, the businesses paying for it, often get the least. Why?

The answer is quite simple. Individual businesses need individual attention and the government and its agencies can’t provide that.

One key issue with many trade missions is the matchmaking arrangements done in advance. All business people going on the mission hope and expect that introductions have been arranged. But do the staff in, say, China really have the interests of the individual business at heart? Is there sufficient understanding of each business’s needs to arrange introductions specifically for them? Probably not, and so a path of least resistance is followed by the organisers, with arrangements and introductions made that are convenient rather than relevant.

More than likely the mission’s schedule and meetings have been planned to fit an already well-established template, and includes a lot of familiar faces.

Matchmaking requires a lot of groundwork the government is not equipped to do. If you’re an SME wanting to promote a food product (for example), the top or specialist distributors in your target market aren’t going to sit down with you just because our government’s trade mission organiser asked them to.

And do you honestly think that a factory visit, an office tour or a meeting with a local business group for dinner is going to lead onto great things? No. Arranging such things is easy but it’s seldom productive. After these courtesy trips, there may be an exchange of friendly emails but more often than not any apparent interest often fades away and our UK SME is left wondering whether the thousands spent, and the time invested, was worth it.

So, what to do?

Trade missions can be a useful thing but in the government format they don’t seem to work very well for many who go on them. For these businesses specifically, an alternative approach is needed, one which focuses more on an individual business’s requirements and less on creating the illusion of value to justify the cost. And focuses more on the mutual benefits of doing business and less on the niceties of talking about it.

The first step is to connect with the right people on the ground in-market, and who specialise in doing international trade there. Like-minded business people (not civil servants) who have business expertise and all the local knowledge needed to go with it. People who are going to focus on your business and your specific needs, who will garner a detailed understanding of your business and your objectives, then formulate a budget driven strategy and action plan to achieve your goals. They are then able to do all the preparation relevant only to you and your needs including any market research, identification and assessment of potential business contacts and arrangement of meaningful introductions to make your mission a success.

Practicalities such as local laws, documentation, IP, packaging and logistics – to name but a few – is another area often overlooked. These issues and more need to be considered in advance and again, local knowledge is key. Many businesses feel they’ve made great leaps forward during a trade mission only to discover that there is a myriad of regulatory or operational obstacles still in the way. Knowing in advance, through pro-active thinking by trusted partners on the ground is vital, so that surprises and hurdles can be avoided. The point is, when you go on your trade mission you should already be prepared and informed to make meetings and discussions more productive, and so avoid the post mission communications that will take the wind out of your sails.

Where do you start?

UK International Trade Service has its own people on the ground in many markets around the world. They believe in the value of trade missions and do not believe the government’s trade missions are right for all UK businesses, our SMEs in particular. For those wanting a more individual approach and hands-on help, specific to their business objectives alone, they can arrange a bespoke trade mission and (probably) at less cost than participation on a government group mission.

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