SPOKANE, Wash.—When the pandemic shut down restaurants, bars and tasting rooms across Washington State, producers of artisanal and craft adult beverages, including wine, cider, beer and spirits, were hit hard. In response, the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) began working with partners across the state to expand export opportunities.
When COVID restrictions were in effect, the SBDC international trade team organized virtual trade missions to Mexico and Hong Kong for adult beverage producers, but now that restrictions have been lifted, the work continues.
In April, SBDC international trade advisors Ellie He, Allan Peterson and Christy Mastin led a 10-day trade mission to Hong Kong and Taipei, Taiwan, where seven Washington businesses were able to showcase their products to prospective buyers. Stacey Dacar with the Washington SBDC Lead Office supported the mission as well.
The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 40 business advisors and three international trade business advisors who assist business owners who want to start, grow or buy/sell a business. SBDC services are confidential and one-on-one advising services are provided at no cost to the business owner. Trade mission participants were responsible for their own travel costs, but many were able to defray the cost of the trip with a STEP (State Trade Expansion Program) grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce.
Over the course of the mission, the business owners participated in more than 100 one-on-one meetings, toured markets and retail shops and visited wineries, distilleries and breweries. The trip also coincided with the Taipei International Wine and Spirits Festival.
“The SBDC trip to Taiwan was critical for us to meet buyers in person,” said Ernest Troth, who owns James Bay Distillers with his wife, Leigh. The Troths had already talked with buyers over Zoom, but meeting in person makes a difference, he said. “We also had the chance to see retail pricing locally and to gauge buyer interest in gin and vodka products. We are now following up with a half-dozen leads produced by the trip.”
Troth said he was impressed at the coordination between multiple Washington agencies, including the SBDC, the Washington State Department of Agriculture and the Washington State Department of Commerce, and the in-country organizers such as the U.S. Agricultural Trade Office (ATO), GIS-Group and SMH International, which resulted in a professionally run trade mission.
Charles Finkel, owner of Pike Brewing in Seattle, has been involved in export for more than 50 years and 10 years with Pike Brewing, primarily in Japan and Europe. This was his first organized trade mission, and he said it exceeded his expectations. “It was not only educational and fun, but it accomplished our objective, which was to expand our export program,” he said.
Finkel and the other participants were able to ship their products ahead and then share them with buyers during multiple one-on-one meetings.
Meeting with prospective buyers face-to-face is critical, he said, because they want to establish on-going relationships, not simply sell cases of beer. “It was well worth our time,” he said. “We increased awareness and sales of U.S. products and made friends at the same time.”
A highlight of the trip was a reception at U.S. Consul General Gregory May’s residence in Hong Kong, where trade mission participants and local buyers had the opportunity to toast the return of in-person trade missions.
SBDC trade mission participants spend weeks if not months working with an SBDC trade advisor in advance of the trip, making sure that they are export ready and prepared to engage in productive discussions with local buyers.
“The trade mission is just one piece of a comprehensive effort to develop a productive and profitable export plan,” said Peterson, the SBDC international trade advisor in Moses Lake. “A lot of work goes into planning the trip and a lot more work will go into follow up meetings that, we hope, will lead to ongoing relationships.”
Ellie He, the SBDC international trade advisor in Bellevue, agreed that advance preparation and follow-through are critical to success, as is the support of numerous state agencies focused on export success.
Planning for this trade mission involved invaluable assistance from multiple agencies and organizations, including staff at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, Export Finance Assistance Center of Washington, Washington State Department of Commerce, USDA Agricultural Trade Office (ATO) in Hong Kong and the U.S. Commercial Services.
“Our partners on this mission have been incredible,” she said. “Export has incredible potential for a wide range of small business owners, but there is a huge learning curve and it helps to have access to a wide range of expertise and resources.”
The mission was supported by a Portable Assistance grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). SBA Portable Assistance grants are intended to fund innovative initiatives that could be replicated in other regions of the country.
The Washington SBDC has been hosted by Washington State University since 1980. Funding for the Washington SBDC is provided through a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and WSU. Additional funding comes from Washington State Department of Commerce, other institutions of higher education, economic development agencies, municipalities, civic and business groups.
For more about the Washington SBDC, go to www.wsbdc.org.