Here is what really happens off the back of a UKTI trade mission

UK Trade & Investment had a budget of more than £250m for 2014-15 and is charged with being part of the government’s goal of hitting an export target of £1tn by 2020 and 100,000 more exporting companies by the same year.

It does this through a variety of measures, allocated across trade and investment mediums, one of which is its trade mission drive. More often than not geared towards a certain type of company attempting to enter a specific sector in a chosen country, they provide valuable introductions and an opportunity to obtain the lay of the land.

Real Business was invited to join ten gift, homeware and lifestyle businesses from the South East of England on a trip to the Big Apple. Across four days, the businesses would have the chance to meet retailers, visit a key trade show, obtain advice from UKTI and get plugged into a network of experts who know what it is like to do business in one of the most regulated and tax-heavy environments.

We went into detail on what went on during he trip during our trade mission diaries set of articles, which can be found by accessing the below links. It was all about the companies in attendance extending upon the existing ties each had with the New York and US markets, or simply making a start on it.

UKTI New York trade mission diary: Day 1 – Travelling across the Atlantic

UKTI New York trade mission diary: Day 2 – Finding out the motivation behind trade shows

UKTI New York trade mission diary: Day 3 – Getting the lowdown on finance and logistics

All businesses in attendance were fairly young, but were run by entrepreneurs who clearly had a clear idea of where they wanted to take their company and what it was going to take to get there. All had been through a competition process to win a place, and from the very beginning our conversations led us to believe that they would not be using it as a jolly, but a valuable fact-finding trip.

One of the things Real Business has often found to be frustrating about UKTI trade missions is the lack of information relayed when businesses return. We, and we assume our readers too, want to know if serious progress is made by flying across the world and spending time out of the office. That is what this feature will be all about.

For Jinny Ursell and her business Jin Designs, as a new business the trip was about gaining an understanding of doing business in the US. This included how to find buyers, pricing products, exhibiting, selling and distributing. “If there were to be any orders during the short space of time I was there, then that would have been an added bonus,” she said.

Ultimately, Ursell described the trade mission as “very successful” – with time spent at the NY NOW trade show chatting with British and US businesses about issues such as getting products to a show, setting up the stand and all the costs involved.

“This kind of knowledge was invaluable. It puts me in a strong position to plan and prepare to exhibit in the next couple of years at one of the biggest home and giftware trade shows in the world,” she added.

While Ursell and her homeware brand did well by gaining show knowledge, Tony Brown took it to the next level by achieving some impressive commercial successes during the stay in New York. His business produces sports-themed kids backpacks, a sure success for a hungry US market.

Brown had some astonishing luck, albeit derived from having the presence of mind to do what he did – by walking round major New York departments stores with a handful of his products on display. With eagle-eyed managers walking up to him and enquiring if their store sold those bags, as they had never seen them before, Brown quickly found himself on a store level not normally seen by everyday retailers speaking with buyers.

He got an introduction and initial phone call with the kids buyer at Bloomingdales following his store visit, where he was given access to the retailers buying details by its PR department. All this was off the back of two recommendations from store managers.

Brown obtained confirmed interest from four small independents around New York to stock his bags, and is now in the process of agreeing minimum orders, carriage costs and some other terms.

“I also met with three sales agents and distributors who I am having further discussions with. This will be more of a slow burn as I need to refine my US strategy and decide to what extent I want to penetrate the market and what I can afford,” he commented.

“There was also some learning to be done about my Sportpax manufacturing costs in China. This needs to be lower to drive an effective margin with distributors if I am to use this model in selected markets.”

All in all, Brown felt there was a great “cross-fertilisation of ideas” amongst fellow delegates on the trip and he felt the retail contacts exchanged were very useful. It’s a sentiment shared by Ursell, who said: “One of the most valuable parts of the trade mission was travelling with ten other businesses, spending time with them and talking and learning from each other.

“It was a highly useful networking opportunity and I’m sure a lot of us will keep in touch and, where possible, help each other along the way.

One of the bigger businesses which joined the trade mission was Josephine Home, set up and run by Stephanie Betts. Now turning over around £1.5m, and with a growing staff count of eight, Betts set out on the trip looking for a select number of partners in the US to help them build the recognition of the brand.

Her targets before boarding the plane were SAKS, Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus/Bergdorf Goodman. “As always, it takes time to track down a senior buyer, but although SAKS gave us a meeting immediately as I emailed them from London, the meeting had to be cancelled at the last minute as the buyer had resigned to join another group,” she explained.

Undeterred, and realising after research that perhaps SAKS wasn’t the best partner as it was revisiting its homeware strategy, Betts used a contact from UKTI to make progress with the retailer.

Finally, and showing what can happen if you are in the right place at the right time, Betts met a potential partner for Asia at the NY NOW trade show. Sharing a similar set of values to Josephine Home, the partner will provide a way to distribute throughout Japan and the rest of Asia. If the partnership is finalised soon, the brand will actually launch in Japan before the US in 2017.

“The trip was totally worthwhile as it enabled us to refine our search for a US distribution partner down to three key names and make contact with all potential partners,” Betts expand.

“On the ground market research is simply irreplaceable as you never really know what a country will be like, until you get there. One of the best findings about the trip was the extent of UKTI support but also the way sharing experiences with like-minded entrepreneurs can change the way you see your own business – it is a tremendous catalyst.”

For small businesses like Josephine Home, Sportpax and Jin Designs, making the trip to the US can be an expenditure simply beyond means. Led by UKTI, and supported in this case by low-cost airline Norwegian Air, trade missions allow for that first foray into an exciting, but daunting, new market.

Real Business will be in contact with all the businesses we joined in New York over the coming weeks and months to find out what was achieved by being on the mission. However, already it is clear to see that the entrepreneurs made it a very productive four days indeed.

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