In a typical year the NCDA&CS International Marketing team travels extensively to promote North Carolina products. This is necessary because around 95 percent of the world population lives outside the United States, which means international trade is a key to continued and future agricultural success for North Carolina. On average, NC agricultural exports increase 10 percent annually.
But what happens when a division that is defined by travel and creating overseas relationships for our agricultural products is grounded by a global pandemic? For Peter Thornton and his International Marketing team, it means you find opportunity.
“Every trip was canceled, every trade show, every mission – in-bound, out-bound,” Thornton said. “It made us adjust our strategy and find new ways to promote NC products. In some ways, the pandemic has changed everything we do and how we do it.”
The team moved to virtual trade shows and missions, which resulted in expanding the number of companies participating in the shows. Companies that could not travel overseas could get on a Zoom meeting and meet buyers from around the world. “Moving trade shows to virtual actually had the enhanced benefit of getting more participants. Where travel and a week’s hotel expense and shipping product would have been cost prohibitive for some new exporters, a virtual meeting didn’t require these expenses,” Thornton said.
“Earlier this year we had a virtual trade show with Argentina, which before, never would have happened. Secondary markets like Argentina, were previously outside of our budget, but are now much more accessible to N.C. agribusinesses. On a normal trade show, we would get five companies. On this Argentinian show, we had 20 participants.”
The team also shifted to a greater focus on in-store promotions and other programs in regions that are growing markets for N.C. commodities. This included hiring a company that could do sampling at German supermarkets for sweet potatoes.
With two full-time team members based in China, the team also had in-person opportunities that other exporters could not during the shutdown. “Our employees in the China office have been really good getting out in China doing what we couldn’t do,” Thornton said. “They also provided us a direction for our digital marketing/social media group. We saw the success that office was having with digital and social and our team in North Carolina worked towards developing videos that highlighted North Carolina-based exporters.
“When we are trying to reach buyers, several countries offer the same products. The export market can be competitive,” Thornton said. “Our videos help tell the story of our growers and producers and hopefully create a personal connection to the products North Carolina has to offer. Our goal is to use this as a way to place North Carolina at the top of the international buyers list.”
Thornton sees the biggest game-changer and success of 2020 as the virtual trade show. “Normalizing this way of doing a show has opened the export market to companies that may have not been able to commit financially to travel and time away from their business. It has helped us expand the number of potential first-time exporters. I see this being incorporated into future shows. Why not have a computer in every international trade show booth? That way if a potential buyer asks for products we don’t have with us we can Zoom the person that does have that product. The result of 2020 is that buyers are more comfortable with the virtual format. It’s a new way of doing business and we are better as a result.”
The virtual trade show wasn’t the only success story for the year. In 2020, pork and poultry exports to China were up 20 percent. Beer, wine and spirits exports increased 50 percent. Tobacco growers have also been encouraged that China is back and buying tobacco again. Sweet potato growers have begun selling to new markets, such as the Middle East. Prepared foods have risen from just over $45 million a decade ago to almost $400 million last year.
Moving forward Thornton envisions that trade shows and missions are going to have to have a hybrid approach. People will attend in person, but then there will also be virtual meetings with suppliers back in North Carolina.
Some of the issues to figure out is working through time differences and how to schedule follow up meetings with buyers and potential exporters. He envisions his staff working through these differences and figuring out how you put together the two sides – virtual and in-person – successfully.
“There are downsides to working in a completely virtual format,” he said. “When you do travel you do have meetings with the Embassy and individual companies. You learn a lot with in-person meetings and gain information from visiting countries and learning cultures. We are slowly going to emerge out of this and we are going to schedule 2022 as if we can travel. But many of the lessons we’ve learned from 2020 will help us be even more successful.”