Mayor's Trade Mission Center launches own travels with six-day junket to Jamaica
By Catherine Lackner
The 2-year-old Trade Mission Center of the Americas, which has funded trade missions by others, will take off Monday on the first one it has organized itself, a six-day trip to Jamaica.
The center, which falls under the office of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, is taking 21 persons to several cities in Jamaica to meet with representatives for the Jamaican Association of Manufacturers, the Jamaican Tourism Association, the Jamaican Embassy and other official and private entities.
Participants include officials from the trade center as well as from the airport and seaport, principals of an architectural firm and a law practice, distributors of automobile and electrical equipment, and others hoping to do business with Jamaica.
"Normally we fund third parties and nonprofit entities," said Tony Ojeda, center executive director. "But this year, we're going on our first center-led mission" to Jamaica.
"We are our own organizers on this one," Mr. Ojeda said. "We felt we're sophisticated enough to fund our own mission."
Jamaica, he said, "used to be our 11th most important trading partner and has slipped to No. 16 because of economic difficulties. We just want to make sure they don't keep slipping.
"The Caribbean is right next door to us and continues to be a viable trade entity for us," Mr. Ojeda said. "Jamaica is the largest island in the region and we are a sister city to Kingston. In this mission, we're joining the sister city program to the trade mission program.
"People we know through the sister city program have stepped up to help organize the mission."
Mornings will be spent in orientation meetings and tours, with afternoons devoted to one-on-one business meetings, he said.
"We will ask people to submit an end-of-mission report, ask them, 'Did you have any luck?' Hopefully there will be some sales. But we are not guaranteeing it. Trading usually takes place after a mission, not during one."
Harold E. "Ed" Patricoff Jr., a Miami attorney and partner at Shutts & Bowen, sits on the center's board of directors and will be part of the Jamaica mission.
"Obviously, there's a flow of tourism both ways," Mr. Patricoff said. "A lot of products Jamaicans use and consume are manufactured in South Florida or pass through our gates. That includes everything from wheat grown in Iowa and shipped through Miami to textiles and electrical goods produced here and sold in Jamaica. All of it creates jobs and business."
South Florida imports food products from Jamaica and the island is an assembly point for clothing that is later shipped to Miami for distribution throughout Latin America, he said.
Mr. Patricoff said his service on the trade center board has been rewarding. "We would all like to do more trade with the Caribbean. And we have many great opportunities to do so."
With the fiscal year coming to a close, it's time to consider next year's opportunities, Mr. Ojeda said.
"We will have a board retreat in early October to sit down and look at the possibilities of missions we will lead and missions we will fund," he said.
He predicted the center will fund three to four outgoing missions and lead two to three of its own.
"The logical places are Africa, probably also Brazil and maybe another trip in the Caribbean," he said.
"None of this has jelled yet. It takes 90 days to organize an outgoing mission, and it's a lot of work. But we figure once you've got the mission you'll find people who want to go."
He said the center would also direct more of its attention to Africa, Europe and Asia, though Brazil remains Miami's top trading partner and much emphasis has been placed on South America and the Caribbean.
"It's a natural evolution," he said.
Mr. Patricoff said helping push through "fast-track" legislation to create free trade zones has been among the most satisfying aspects of serving on the trade center board.
"We were lobbying hard for that and were pleased that it passed. It should improve the level of trade greatly to our benefit, especially with South America and Africa."
The center's efforts all break fresh ground.
"This is only our second year - and that's an important statement in itself," Mr. Ojeda said. "When you launch a program of this magnitude, you spend awhile getting established. More people are now paying attention to us.
"Creating that credibility is an important milestone in our development."
He counts among this year's achievements support for several outbound trade missions, the launching of the center's own upcoming mission to Jamaica, help and counsel for business people who come to Miami on inbound missions, some direct matchmaking and the compilation of a trade directory.
"We've done the trade numbers," he said, referring to publication of a list of Miami's top trading partners. It's the second annual printing of "an amalgam of our most important trade partners," Mr. Ojeda said.
The trade center paid for 2,500 copies to be produced and distributed to "consulates, chambers of commerce - anyone who wants it," he said. If an entity requests multiple copies, "we're charging a small handling charge. But otherwise copies are free. We've taken important data and put it together in a way that's easily available."
The mission's functions "run the whole gamut," from ongoing orientation tours to people and from trade partner nations to matchmaking here in Miami, Mr. Ojeda said. Its $400,000 budget is expected to be renewed for next year and may even be increased, he said, because the center is seen as crucial.
"We provide service and information whether, for example, a group of Austrian businessmen need help organizing a luncheon to present what Austria has to offer or a group from Thailand wants to meet with the mayor."
Matchmaking is an important function the center would like to perform more often, he said.
"We've had people who wish to buy something contact us. We, in turn, find out who's selling the merchandise," Mr. Ojeda said.
In the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, he said, "we hope to expand our role."
Matchmaking "is a very complicated process and one that requires that we be notified 60 days in advance so that we can compile a complete list of who's coming and who's selling. Then we make arrangements for them to get together. We haven't had as many of those as we'd like, but we're hoping to do more."
The center determines who's selling from entities such as Enterprise Florida, the Miami World Trade Center, chambers of commerce and others. Recently, however, it requested proposals for a research organization to compile a merchant and trader database.
"We want to create our own database using a survey," Mr. Ojeda said. "It would be a marketing outreach tool. We would make it available to others and, when we have the information in our own computers, it will make the matchmaking process much less laborious."
One of the center's most important functions is to help people who want to travel abroad on trade missions, Mr. Ojeda said.
"We have been able to create our own program for coordinating and funding outgoing missions," he said. "What we have found is that the office of the mayor of Miami-Dade County has a lot of prestige in Latin America and in the world. By using the concept of certifying a trade mission, we're offering people who meet our criteria a foot in the door. They can use our logo, and they're not just some Johnny-come-lately."
Anyone interested in having a mission certified can file an application, which the trade mission center reviews "to see that they're serious-minded individuals," Mr. Ojeda said.
Once a mission is certified, it's eligible for $2,500 in county funding. Organizers can then apply for a $7,500 stipend from Enterprise Florida.
The money can't be used for individual travel or lodging expenses - participants must pick up those tabs themselves - but can be used to pay for translators, administrative costs and events in the target country.
Mr. Patricoff participated, along with Mayor Penelas, in last year's trade mission to Johannesburg, South Africa. The group attempted, among other things, to restore nonstop air service between Miami and that city. The service had been diverted to Atlanta.
"We have a tremendous opportunity to get that back," Mr. Patricoff said, though it's not known yet what the outcome will be.
He said he is also working to create further links between the trade program and sister cities. "We want to target new cities," such as Montevideo, Uruguay, and renew relationships with existing city cities such as Cali, Colombia, he said.
Maintaining those links keeps Miami's economy relatively strong, he said. "When the global economy is doing poorly and economies in South America go bad, wealthy people move to Miami," partially because they know they can get to the goods and services that they're used to.
"It's a safe haven and one that feels comfortable because of the ties we have worked to maintain."