Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Trade Mission

Last week’s trip to Long Beach, California, was a trade mission.  I helped staff a display for Carmanah Technologies, a Victoria based business that specializes in solar lighting systems for a variety of community and industrial applications.

Carmanah’s new crosswalk beacon system makes it safer to cross the street, a simple need at probably thousands of locations across North America where too many cars and too many roads are compromising the urban environment, discouraging kids from walking to school and creating a host of other problems in a society becoming too comfortably sedentary.

Solar powered systems are a fraction of the cost of hard-wired systems and Carmanah’s beacons have been well received by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.  The company’s previous forays into the marketplace connected them with the engineering or signal systems communities, but the Pro Walk – Pro Bike – Pro Place conference was a revelation.  The people at this conference are passionate about their work to humanize American cities and make walking and cycling an option for more people again.

I know a lot of the people working in the field, from advocates to practitioners working for cities or states, and some of those who play a major role in developing standards or approving systems for making walking and cycling safer and more appealing in the U.S.  The conference has always had a few handfuls of Canadians and international delegates in attendance, and it’s always good to keep those networks current.  I think if you check with Carmanah, they’ll confirm my impression that I provided a valuable addition to the team, making introductions and connecting their guy with the people who are looking for the kind of technology solutions Carmanah has to offer.

Taking Victoria technology on the road to markets that matter is good for business and I was happy to be part of that.  Carmanah paid the freight – covering my expenses for the conference, and I think they got a good deal.

Previous “trade missions” to previous editions of the Pro Bike conference helped me do my work in Victoria, and our standard bike rack design is a result of my first trip in 1998 (the conference was held in Santa Barbara that year).  The inverted “U” design is now being used in numbers of municipalities in the Capital Region and the basic design has been adopted in Vancouver too.  Our racks are finished and installed by city staff, supporting good jobs here in Victoria.

My next mission unfolded in Philadelphia (2000), where I starting putting together our bid to bring the conference to Victoria.  By 2002 when the conference hit Minneapolis – St. Paul, we had won our bid and, along with other local advocates and a politician in tow, we put together a great promotion to make sure delegates signed up to come.  Pro Bike (as it started out as) had only come to Canada once before, but so many were excited to come to Victoria.  When it arrived in 2004 nearly 600 delegates were here, along with spouses and family, and the various business exhibitors that populate the trade fair element of the program.  Estimates of economic impacts for Victoria approached almost $500,000 in local spending (and yes some of that was on beer).

Pro Walk – Pro Bike next hit Madison, Seattle and Chattanooga, and I made sure I was at all of them.  The Long Beach conference brought the National Center for Bicycling and Walking together with the Project for Public Spaces and attendance has hit 800.  My attendance over the years proved a good foundation for connecting Carmanah to new markets.  Our conference centre asked me a couple months back about bringing the conference to Victoria again and one of my connections from the city of Vancouver will chase me down soon to talk about bringing it to the big city.  Economic development isn’t handed to you; it’s something you have to work at.

I expect Carmanah will harvest all the contacts made and realize some successes at selling their technology to cities in need – and who doesn’t need safer walks to school, a better pedestrian environment, lower collision rates and better health outcomes, to name a few of the benefits of making walking safer again.

Multiply my experience by the many companies and businesses in Victoria who export product or expertise abroad – across Canada, into the U.S. or overseas to established or emerging markets.  Trade missions are good investments, not just junkets for the lucky few.

I worked hard (had a good time with old friends too), and probably added some value to Victoria’s economic prospects while I was at it.  Don’t be fooled by those that offer discount ideas about how we can prosper.  We have to build what we have at home, but we also have to reach out for ideas and take what we have to offer to a world equally as eager for what we can share. 

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