Go Global, Act Local

The best trade missions aren't really trade missions at all. Increasingly, the goal is not to sell or trade but to learn.
October 2006
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

Next month, business executives and economic development specialists from San Bernardino County will head to Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. It's their first trade mission ever to China and part of the county's "Opportunity California" economic development marketing campaign.

A trade mission to China is hardly an innovative idea. Political and business leaders from Westchester County, New York, went in March. The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce went in May, as did folks from Missouri's economic development office. In July, Houston Mayor Bill White paired up with the president of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, to lead a delegation. A group put together by the Montana World Trade Center went in August.

The list goes on. It's gotten to the point where it's hard to find a state or local official who hasn't gone on a trade mission to China. And once in China, they're likely to find that their competition is not only from elsewhere in the United States but also from Australia, Ireland, Israel and dozens of other industrialized countries trying to get a slice of the Chinese gold.

But are the trips worth it?

The economic development groups that organize the trade missions always say they are. They point to the contacts and contracts that their people bring home. Yet more than a few politicians of long tenure, such as Tom Bradley, who served as mayor of Los Angeles from 1973 to 1993, have been accused of going on such trips out of boredom with their jobs. In other words, the typical rap on the trade mission is that it's just a junket.

Many probably are--although most participants these days pay their own way. But there's little question that, in a global economy, overseas contacts are critical to the prosperity of a city or region. And the best trade missions these days aren't really trade missions at all. Increasingly, their goal is not to sell or trade but to learn.

The granddaddy of today's trade mission trend is the Greater Seattle Trade Alliance, which has been organizing overseas trips since the early 1990s. Some of these trips have been classic trade missions, seeking to open up new markets for the internationally-oriented Seattle economy. For example, the Trade Alliance went to Vietnam in 1993 and 1994, before almost anybody else from the United States was going. Partly as a result, delegations from Vietnam now tend to go to Seattle first.

But the most important Seattle innovation is to move beyond the "trade mission" to what the Trade Alliance calls "study missions." The primary goal of these annual trips is not to drum up business for local companies--although that might be a happy side effect--but to learn from other regions throughout the world.

Trade Alliance President William Stafford says that a study mission is kind of a "floating university," in which Seattle political and business leaders go to school on another region's success and, in return, learn better ways of dealing with Seattle's own issues. In Germany, for example, Seattle found that regional government fragmentation is not unique to the United States; Munich's 185 local governments made the Seattle area seem simple by comparison. In Spain, the Seattle leaders discovered that, no matter how far apart parties are, nothing is more important than presenting a unified message: They heard the Communist leaders in Barcelona state the same economic goals as the business leaders.

The Seattle group has attempted to stay ahead of the curve by continually connecting with emerging economic powers. The Trade Alliance went on study missions to Shanghai in 2003 and Ireland in 2005--again, not to sell but to understand why those regions are economic success stories.

Not surprisingly, Stafford says, the components of success are pretty much the same all over the world: Devise a strategy and stick to it; know your local economy and what you're trying to sell; and communicate the message consistently. But you can't hear that message enough. Indeed, one of the things that Stafford says his folks have discovered is the detailed knowledge that politicians and economic development experts overseas have of their own economies. So maybe the best goal of an overseas trip is simply to know yourself better when you come back.