Personal touch pays off for B.C. exporters in Asia

Face-to-face interaction yields unexpected gains for companies at Seoul food show
Large industry trade shows like Seoul Food 2017 remain key venues for B.C. products | KOTRA

Despite the advent of e-commerce and online import-export platforms, the most effective way to get B.C. products abroad remains face-to-face contact at events such as large industry trade shows.

That’s the opinion of several B.C. importer-exporters after returning from Seoul Food 2017, one of Asia’s largest industry exhibitions of its kind, in South Korea earlier this year.

Not only do such trade missions yield opportunities abroad, they also spark profitable connections closer to home, said one business owner.

“During the mission, we met a maple syrup company from Quebec that was part of our own [Canadian] delegation,” said Jaey Kwak, whose company, CoChef Food Inc., specializes in selling B.C. organic food to local and international markets. “That company from Quebec asked us to be the distributor for their products in Western Canada. So it’s funny, but I’ve not only found customers in Asia on this trip … I’ve also got Canadian suppliers, too.”

Trade officials say large industry gatherings like Seoul Food allow companies to gauge first-hand the pulse of an industry around the globe. The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) in Vancouver, which organized this year’s Canadian delegation to the show in May, holds major events every month to promote the South Korean market in B.C. because of the effectiveness of face-to-face relationship-
building – with the additional help of a new trade deal – organizers said. Seoul Food 2017, now ranked fourth in size among Asian food shows after attracting 1,520 exhibitors and 53,406 visitors in 2016, is a prime opportunity to demonstrate the value of face-to-face business contact, said Jung Hyung-shik, director general of KOTRA Vancouver.

“We agree that B.C. businesses can be cautious when it comes to foreign markets, especially overseas. However, since the Korea-Canada Free Trade Agreement came into effect a few years ago, we have seen an increasing trend of B.C. agri-food and seafood businesses willing to consider Korea [as an export market].”

That was the case with Kwak, who came away from the show with two deals other than the one reached with the Quebec maple syrup distribution business.

Susan Leung, a senior import-export manager at Vancouver’s Fresh Direct Produce, started working with the Korean market seven years ago, and mainly imports Asian specialty fruits and vegetables into the Canadian market. Leung agreed that any traders going to a major industry show like Seoul’s need to be flexible to maximize their potential.

“In terms of finding a supplier, sometimes it fits, and sometimes I would say it doesn’t,” she said. “Otherwise, I don’t have that much opportunity to go make that face-to-face contact. It definitely helps, considering the business we have developed so far.”

Leung said her company is focused on bringing Korean grapes and strawberries to B.C., something that only recently became an available option for importers due to a change in Canadian trade regulations. She and Kwak agreed that while consumer awareness in Canada and South Korea about each other’s food products can still improve, the market potential is there.

That’s why, KOTRA’s Jung said, his organization will continue to seek delegations to visit Korea like the one that made the trip this year (consisting of 20 B.C. firms and five companies each from Alberta and Quebec). The focus, he said, will likely be organic produce, given Korean consumers’ newfound appetite for healthy living, but he added his office won’t limit itself to health-food producers.

“We welcome and support any company, big or small, that shows interest to do business with Korea,” he said. 

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