OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington seafood has faced some recent challenges, from trade issues with China to reduced demand from restaurant closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, opportunities for seafood have emerged, especially for Washington shellfish products and particularly in Vietnam. But travel restrictions have limited the ability for in-person meetings and activities like trade missions or visits to Washington from potential overseas customers.
So WSDA’s International Marketing team looked for other opportunities where virtual tools could help exporters and importers connect.
We selected Vietnam as the first market to try out a virtual export-import visit. It has strong market potential and already ranks among the top 10 markets for Washington exporters. Our in-market representative was keen to work with us, and 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of resumed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam.
We decided to kick off this initiative by working with a small group of companies that had worked with us before, since new programs have a higher potential for implementation challenges.
WSDA’s International Marketing Program typically has contractors in several countries who help us and Washington state businesses build markets and navigate import requirements. We worked with our contractor in Vietnam to set up an online matchmaking meeting in late June to help Washington seafood exporters connect with Vietnamese seafood importers.
Trade mission goes online
For the event, we used a video conference platform that features “breakout rooms” allowing participants to hold side conversations. Four Washington export companies and six Vietnamese buyer companies participated, in addition to the WSDA International Marketing team—who spent quite a few hours and practice sessions preparing for launch!
We compiled buyer and supplier company profile information and provided to participants before the meeting, so companies could prepare by becoming familiar with each other.
The program kicked off at 5:30 p.m. in Washington state — which is 7:30 a.m., the next day, in Vietnam. Everyone was a little outside their regular work hours, but all seemed happy to accommodate the time difference.
We began with all participants together in one session for introductions, a short market briefing, and an update on Vietnamese seafood trends. Then, we used the rest of our two and a half hours for one-on-one matchmaking meetings between participating buyer and supplier companies. Using the breakout room feature, importers and exporters were able to have direct conversations, with the WSDA team joining different sessions to assist as needed. In total, we facilitated 12 individual meetings.
The ability for companies to “meet” in “separate rooms” was well received and we learned a lot from this inaugural program that will improve similar programs in the future.
Future virtual visits
Although no transactions have yet resulted, several companies are corresponding with each other and conversations between them are continuing. The Vietnamese buyers are interested and eager to import Washington shellfish, such as live geoduck, oyster and king crab.
The Washington companies said they found the meetings valuable and worth their time, and all the businesses that participated expressed appreciation for the opportunity to meet, even online.
We are now planning for future similar encounters with new product sectors, such as fresh produce, dairy, and specialty beverages, as well as value-added products. We plan to try this again ourselves, but also working through our trade association, the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association.
Visit agr.wa.gov/international if you own or work for a business interested in learning more about our export assistance programs or future virtual export-import events.
— Washington State Department of Agriculture
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