Meeting Under a Safety Net

washingtonpost.com
By Shannon Henry
Thursday, April 11, 2002; Page E01

Any typical trade mission planned this month bringing Washington technologists to meet Israeli business leaders probably would have been scrapped amid the intensified conflict in the Middle East.

But one event, the U.S.-Israel Virtual Trade Mission, which lasts from April 22 to May 22, will continue as scheduled because it exists only in cyberspace.

Participants may do deals from the comfort of their offices and discuss technology issues in chat rooms rather than boardrooms. There will be much typing and clicking, but not one real handshake.

It's an experiment in virtual networking.

The project, which was commissioned by the Israeli Embassy and the Washington D.C. Technology Council, underlines the growing importance of technologies such as video conferencing and online discussions, but it is also a reminder that nothing is quite the same as face-to-face meetings.

And it brings up some difficult questions about global trade. The meeting's organizers, who planned the mission in the aftermath of Sept. 11, have already hit a major glitch: Several participants have pulled out because they don't think now is a good time to do business in Israel.

"There is some uncertainty in doing business with a country at war," says Elizabeth Vasquez, president of TradeBuilders, the Washington-based company that created the meeting. "Some of the companies are hesitant to sign any agreements before they have stabilized the region."

But this particular event, which will focus exclusively on technology security issues, was necessary, she says. Many businesses now are trying to find the best security technologies and experts in that field, no matter what country they live in.

"Companies need ways to talk," Vasquez says. "If you can help local companies reach foreign markets, it helps them grow."

Participants will receive access codes to sign in to the Web site. They may come in at any time during the month, as often as they would like. Research on technology topics will be posted and experts will hold forth. Vasquez guesses there will be about 75 company representatives signing on, the majority being from the United States. The goal is for Washington and Israeli companies to sell technology products and services to each other.

Washington companies Aurora Biometrics, Seenex and Swivel Secure America, all in the security industry, plan to participate. It's not clear how many contracts, jobs or customers will be gained by the project. It may end up being more educational than lucrative. But still, there may be a spark or two of introduction, understanding or new knowledge.

"The whole point is to bring people together in a public room and let them all talk at once," says Vasquez. She expects people to use the virtual trade mission as "advance work" before committing to travel overseas.

Tradebuilders has never designed a virtual Israeli mission before but has done virtual missions with Malaysia, Singapore and India, among other countries.

Sharon Sloane, chief executive of Will Interactive of Potomac, which creates interactive training videos for those in the security business, plans to tune in several times a week, more often if she meets someone who looks to be a good prospect. She has never before participated in a virtual trade mission and has not yet done business in Israel, but would like to.

Current clients of Sloane's include the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, for whom Will is creating a library of interactive war-game movies in which military commanders can choose how to react to certain situations and then see what might happen next. "It enables you to play it out before you live it out," says Sloane.

Vasquez says that while the two countries are sharing business expertise, they are not swapping information on military issues. "We're not talking about defense . . . we're not talking about rockets," Vasquez says.

The format of this trade mission is, certainly, clever. And cheap: Companies pay about $250 to register. If it generates a few business leads and introductions, it has done its job.

While some companies have withdrawn from the project, Vasquez says, others have signed on because they would like to do business in Israel but don't want to travel there.

Still, others wonder how much work can be done electronically. What about building trust by meeting in person? Shouldn't there be real-life visits to these companies, not just the tours you can view on the Web?

Sloane says this alternative, which she sees as simply a new way of communicating that didn't exist five years ago, is much more attractive than getting on a plane to Israel right now. It is a use of technology that makes sense in unsettled times.

"This is a safe way to exchange expertise without putting anyone in harm's way," says Sloane.

Shannon Henry's e-mail address is henrys@washpost.com.

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