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Virtual events offer unexpected benefits for foreign trade and investment

May 26, 2021
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With the pandemic causing a drastic drop in travel and limits on in-person gatherings, events of all kinds have been forced to go online. Reducing health risk by holding meetings virtually has come with some trade-offs—but also some unexpected advantages.

In the last six months, WEDC has organized or participated in six events focused on attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) into Wisconsin from these overseas markets including South Korea, Japan, the UK, Spain, Italy and Luxembourg.

“Many of these events we had initially planned to do in person, but when COVID came along, we had to change our strategy,” says Katy Sinnott, WEDC vice president of global trade and investment.

The countries that were chosen as a focus for these events included some that were already leading sources of FDI into Wisconsin, and others with opportunities in targeted industries. For example, the Spain and UK events focused on water technology, and the Japan event focused on the biohealth sector.

Although offering these events in a virtual setting was not the first choice, the new format has brought some lessons that will be carried forward with future virtual offerings, even once the pandemic ends.

For example, the virtual events were able to attract top Wisconsin executives who the attending companies otherwise wouldn’t have been able to hear from, since those speakers would be unlikely to have the time to travel overseas for an event held in person.

Virtual events lower the barrier to participation not just for high-level executives, but for all participants. Sinnott notes that a partnership between Marquette University and the Luxembourg government on the topic of blockchain is now moving forward—an initiative that probably never would have happened were it not for the virtual event.

Sinnott says WEDC is especially likely to organize future digital trade and investment missions for markets that Wisconsin companies might not typically consider, since traveling in person to those markets will be a harder sell.

Another benefit of virtual events: They can accommodate many more attendees. For example, the Italy event drew more than 300 people, and the Japan event 250—many more than would have attended an in-person event held in-country, let alone traveling to Wisconsin to learn about business opportunities here. And although there is value in one-on-one meetings, a larger virtual event might be a first step in making connections that later lead to a smaller number of one-on-one meetings that are better targeted.

Virtual trade ventures have replaced in-person trade ventures for now, but even once trips to foreign markets resume, WEDC may organize virtual events to precede them. For example, a company that wants to travel to Germany might have virtual meetings with 10 potential export partners in advance, with a goal of narrowing down the list to a smaller number of companies for in-person meetings upon arriving in Germany.

“Often, within 10 minutes, companies know whether it’s a good fit, or they sometimes realize there are demo or sample items they wish they had brought with them,” says Sinnott. “The pre-meetings can help make the time in country more productive and efficient, and the meetings more meaningful.”

When trade ventures restart in person, they may still blend in virtual elements. Previously, having the governor participate in an event virtually wasn’t even considered; it was just assumed that he couldn’t take part in the event if the travel dates didn’t fit his schedule. unless he could travel to the market in person. Now, “there is more openness to virtual appearance and giving their time still being meaningful,” says Sinnott. Even once the pandemic ends, Sinnott predicts that “people are going to be much more selective about travel” since virtual options have proven effective for a wide range of purposes.

“The same model may not work for every market, since some markets are still heavily reliant on in-person contacts,” Sinnott notes. “Test-driving these new virtual options has allowed for a more flexible approach that tailors the model to each market, instead of assuming that one size fits all.”

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