How colleges can prepare for trade missions

Trade missions are essential for colleges trying to secure an international training contract – here's how to ensure success

Matt Anderson

Trade missions: how to make them successful for your college

I’m a big fan of the trade mission. The arrival of a group of motivated, like-minded people ready to do business has far more impact in-country than an individual looking to explore a new market. Sadly, however, I know that far too many delegations come home red faced and empty handed. The reason? They weren’t properly prepared and they didn’t have a plan.

Here are a few things to consider before you embark on your next trade mission:

Do your homework
Learn as much as you can about the culture of the country, how they do business, what the social etiquette is and so on, as well as researching the commercial facts and figures. Take time to look into the funding available: does the government or partner have the finance to buy your services? Or are the people looking for a tick in a box or completing a vanity exercise to advance their own agenda?

More: Why UK colleges can't compete internationally

Background: Colleges earn £57m from international work

Opinion: Exporting technical education? Say bonjour to Africa

Should you go with educators?
As an education provider, you may presume that you should choose an education trade mission. Many vocational providers, however, find that they are overshadowed in favour of the "big boys" of higher education. A multi-sector mission could be a better route into a country with other organisations who might need training and development for their pitch. 

Choose the right mission
Personally, I favour a private trade organisation run by a business council or a company that has a technical understanding of the industry and the market.  Before signing up, I share my objectives for the visit and have the trade mission leader confirm they know and understand this.  

Prepare the way
Ask the mission organiser for contacts of key people and other delegates ahead of the visit, and contact them to introduce yourself. Be aware, though, that you may not always receive a reply or acknowledgement prior to the visit, even if someone is interested in meeting you. Make sure you are empowered to make decisions and prepare a few standard offers that you can quickly customise.

This is just step one
Essentially, you are paying to be introduced into a new market on the back of someone else’s connections and intellectual property. And, although the relationships the trade mission organisers have in-country can open doors, there is no way you can build 100 per cent of the necessary friendships and connections on your initial visit.

This isn’t a competition
If a country offered you a contract for every bit of training they needed, you wouldn’t be able to cope. That’s why going in with a consortium mentality, seeking collaboration, meeting new friends and networking is the way forward.  

Be flexible
Don’t turn down an offer of a meeting with a serious prospect because you’re following the mission programme. Look at your priorities for engagement and adjust your schedule accordingly. Talk to the organisers – they might be able to organise meetings on the fly, if an unforeseen opportunity arises. 

Avoid the hard sell
Most potential customers will be more interested in your character and intentions than your product at first. Try to get to know the person, ask about family and life establish a rapport. Hopefully, business will then follow.

Follow up as soon as possible
Agree on next steps and how you will communicate on your return, with interested parties. Make sure you can access the same providers (for example, are they on WhatsApp, WeChat or Telegram). Bear in mind your contact’s level of English and use Google Translate for example if you want to be sure they understand.

Target your communications 
If you have an offer, state it concisely in a tailored document rather than sending your college brochures, marketing materials and annual report – you shouldn't expect them to work out what you can do to meet their specific requirements. Take your offer and translate it into the local language. Communicate on their terms. 

Don’t be downhearted
Don’t expect to come home with a handful of MOUs from one mission. You only need one project to make the trip a success. Rejection can be a good outcome: you tried, it didn't work, learn the lesson and move on.

Remember, a trade mission is not standalone business development activity: it’s part of your mix of a market development strategy that includes further visits, time and effort in follow up and preparation of proposals. Do not allow yourself to lose momentum and get sucked back into the day-to-day when you return from the visit. 

Matt Anderson is managing director of TVET UK

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