This SME got a six-figure grant as a direct result of a trade mission

Are trade missions a waste of time? Well, let me put it this way: on the flight home after five days in the Emirates with London Chamber, I had this realisation: “Our business will never be the same again.”

I don’t know what it is about trade missions, but many people seem to think going on one will cripple the finances of their business for years to come. Every time I ask audiences how much do they think a trade mission costs, I get tentative answers in the vicinity of “I don’t know, five grand?” And that’s because I’ve planted an expectation that trade missions are a lot less expensive than commonly thought.

No, the real cost of the trade mission that transformed my business wasn’t anywhere to close to that. The flights and accommodation were heavily discounted, but the trade mission itself – five days in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah – was 150GBP. I think we can agree this is not expensive, for an experience that has the potential to put your business growth on the fast track.

So did I go home clutching a thick sheaf of million-pound contracts to my heart? No. Did I go because I was expecting to do business in the Emirates asap? No. And still it was the best investment of time and money that I could have made for my business in a week.

I see three main advantages to a trade mission that people completely overlook – and these advantages are huge.

First of all, the networking on the trip. Yes, you go on a trade mission to network, and London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) and Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) did make sure that we got plenty of opportunity to meet with local businesses. The emphasis was very much on the rubber hitting the road: fewer high-level briefings and seminars, and more time for buyers and sellers to have great conversations.

But what people often miss is that, by definition, you’re not going on a trade mission alone. I was part of the UK delegation as my company has an office in Wales and we do a lot of business in Northern Ireland, London, Manchester and Bristol. The other people on that delegation were delightful – and we were together for five days. That was a networking opportunity like no other. Instead of a rushed networking event where you can actually, really, meet six people at the most – and you have to make an effort the next day to remember who was who –, here we were, for five days, with plenty of transport time as we were ferried from one place to the next. The quality of the conversations was of course immensely better. What is more, our own delegation was part of a European group. So not only did we get to meet businesses from the UAE, and not only did we get to network in our own backyard, but we also mingled with highly motivated business people from Belgium, Greece, Italy, Lithuania and Hungary. As all the implications of BREXIT are becoming clear, nourishing these relationships will be essential.

The second important thing that people overlook is the way travelling to a foreign country, with a business focus, has a knack for making you see things in a new light. Of course they do things differently there: every single thing, big and small, that you find strange and unusual, is one of your assumptions being challenged. Cultural differences suddenly throw into relief things we take for granted. That’s when innovation and disruption happen. Nothing will encourage you to think outside the box like realizing people find perfectly normal something that you find inconvenient, or that they find mind-boggling something you’ve been doing without even thinking. This is one of the main reasons I go on trade missions: taking a few days away from the minutiae of business, to focus on the big picture – and what is more, in a context where you have to question all your assumptions: that’s the ideal headspace in which to strategise.

And finally, even if I never do business in the Emirates, I am now more knowledgeable about Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah than before the trade mission, of course. This has increased the value proposition of our business at home: this knowledge has found its way into our entrepreneurial trainings and financial market briefings. And our existing network can now benefit from this knowledge, too. You don’t go on a trade mission representing your business only – you are also gathering information and business intelligence for your business network at home. This will allow you to provide more value and nourish those all-important relationships.

So how do you make the most of a trade mission?

1. Choose your trade mission wisely
The mission put together by LCCI and EEN was tremendously well-organised. Every little detail had been optimised with business in mind. As a result, there was no time wasted and all the delegates were able to meet highly relevant business contacts. So find a trade mission organised by people who truly get business and who work hard to make the mission worth your while.

2. Preparation is the name of the game
London Chamber put together a full day pre-briefing before the mission, and this was immensely helpful, especially as the culture of the UAE is quite different to that of Western culture. I was doing business in Belgium that week, but I made a special day return to London to attend that pre-briefing, and I was very glad I did. You should also take the time to think in detail about what you want to achieve on the trip, and how the trip will help your business. Don’t make your plans too rigid, because opening yourself up to opportunities is paramount, but the better you prepare, the luckier you get.

3. Efficiency and focus
On a great trade mission like this one was, everything has been pre-arranged for you. It’s like having a group of personal assistants. They set you up with actual face-to-face meetings with people that you choose. They take care of all the logistics. You get a full profile of everybody on the mission, their background and what they’re looking for. A trade mission is not a discounted holiday or an opportunity to go shopping. Your business will benefit if you have laser focus, if you avail of as many of the meetings as possible, and if you follow up without fail.

4. Remember that 90% of the work happens afterwards
It’s very important to not leave it at that when you get home. On the trade mission I met a business woman who was extremely knowledgeable about a market I was interested in. We were able to meet up for a longer conversation, and from that conversation a new business idea was sparked. I got to work as soon as the plane landed, and a year later our company won an Innovation Partnership in Ireland, a 60% funded grant of €125,000 to commercialise research. This wouldn’t have happened without the incredible conversations and the high energy onthe trade mission.

It sounds obvious but one year from now, your business will be a year older: where do you want it to be? Start planting the seeds now of what your business will be next year: foster new relationships and widen your horizons. A trade mission is just the ticket.

By Susan HayesCulleton

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