First international trade mission in cyberspace gets a passing grade

Washington Post: Washington Techway
Digital introductions

June 10, 2002
By Lloyd Batzler

A round-trip, business-class airline ticket from New York to Tel Aviv is priced at about $5,800 these days.

But for the bargain price of $250, executives from roughly two dozen Washington-area technology concerns got the chance to put out business feelers with about seven companies in Israel through live teleconferences and online chats last month.

About all that was missing from this first "virtual trade mission," coordinated by the Washington DC Tech Council and TradeBuilders, was a handshake between the executives.

"It is an extremely cost-effective method for being introduced," said Dan Epstein, executive director of the U.S.-Israel Business Exchange, a nonprofit "community network" based in Vienna that links businesses, investors and service providers. "Right now, it's still a new experience. I think this will become much more prevalent."

By early accounts the experiment in doing business in cyberspace was a success. Organizers and participants say at least five strong leads developed, travel accounts were spared and travel-safety concerns were eased. Other similar missions will follow.

"These are people who otherwise would not have met. First of all, they would not have traveled," Charlotte A. Hayes, president of DC Tech, said. "It's designed to induce the deal. It starts them down the road faster."

Heightened security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, as well as continuing suicide bombings in Israel, added urgency to the sessions. The mission included companies selling cyber- and physical security products and services everything from firewalls to biometric identification systems and disaster and border management systems. There are an estimated 3,000 technology companies in Israel, including an expanding base of biotechnology interests.

Epstein notes "there was skepticism in the beginning" about exchanging business information in e-mails, chat boards or two-way TV links, especially among security-conscious companies.

"I think there was a lot of mistrust about this as a feasible tool," Edny Raz, an economic and trade officer in the Israeli embassy in Washington, said. "After we concluded the mission, the security companies felt better ... They changed their mind after they saw the video conferencing. The idea is the Israelis believe in face-to-face meetings."

"This only complements the traditional face-to-face meeting," said Elizabeth Vazquez, president of Washington-based TradeBuilders, which this month is helping to organize another virtual mission with Germans. "If they can find each other ... and get the high-level due diligence done, it helps."

There also was greater familiarity with teleconferencing, she said.

Analysts and executives say the predicted surge in teleconference business following the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center has been slow in coming and business air travel on some routes is returning to normal.

"We'll become more mainstream," predicts Dave Lilling, vice president of Netcaster1.com, a Silver Spring company that arranges interactive web conferences. "This is going to be a slow growth. It is not going to go away.

Netcaster1.com, a 3-year-old offshoot of a television production company, has arranged web conferences for federal agencies in recent weeks. It was not a part of the DC Tech mission.

"More and more companies are looking to save money and communicating over the web is an efficient way to save money," Lilling said. "The issues for the web are some of the same issues that were here two years ago: not all of the people are on broadband and some of the people who should be on broadband are resisting it because of the cost."

Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company


Henrik G. de Gyor/Techway

Security and training technology companies, trade groups and government representatives wrapped up a "virtual trade mission" at the Greater Washington Board of Trade's International Gateway center in Washington May 22.

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