One of the real pleasures about international trade is that you are able to experience a snapshot of the lives of other peoples and cultures. I frequently returned from overseas trips having been royally entertained by both selling partners and customers alike, and with the feeling that perhaps I needed to look at how well I reciprocated on their visits to the UK. However, in thinking about it over the last few days, I have decided that actually I seem to have done a pretty good job, and these are some of the ways in which I have entertained business visitors over the years.
My Turkish distributors brought a group of buyers from Garanti Bank to visit our factory near Blackburn, so we took them for a meal at a typical English pub, and as they were five in number, we matched that by including two customer service operators as well as my boss and his boss! Those two hours remain etched on my mind because although Garanti Bank placed their orders elsewhere, my distributor saw how our company was prepared to support them with their more important clients. It was in both our interests to combine effort and resource in making customers want to buy from us. That one meal felt like a shot in the arm for the relationship between our two companies, and we enjoyed several years of excellent business together.
I found that most of my Central European distributors and their customers were obsessed with football. Prague Electricity was our main customer in the Czech Republic, so we attempted to earn and retain their loyalty by ensuring a Premier League football match with every visit. From memory, we entertained them at Manchester United, Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers, and Bolton Wanderers (with the latter two having since slipped a division!). In return, I was taken to the top of a windswept hill in the middle of nowhere to view the tiny stadium of a third division team with an unpronounceable name, but it’s all part of what makes a connection and gave us all a conversation outside our business relationship.
With business continuing to go well with Prague Electricity I helped our Czech distributor to take them and their wives on a whistlestop minibus tour of Scotland, taking in Edinburgh, the Edradour distillery, a boat trip on Loch Ness, Stirling Castle, Glencoe, and a seaside village whose name escapes me where we were treated to an unexpected display of traditional Scottish music and dancing. My role combined tour guide and bus driver! And the bus driving theme continues because several years previously a group of four Australian machinery dealers visited our engineering factory in Windermere, and I drove a 12 seater minibus over Hardknott and Wrynose Passes by way of showing our guests some of the real Lake District. This well-intentioned and mainly enjoyable tour was slightly marred by the main man in their group becoming hideously car sick because Australians are not accustomed to steep gradients and bendy roads!
In 2007, I was invited to present to a visiting delegation of nineteen Chinese government regional trade officials in London, to provide them with a snapshot of how UK businesses do international trade. When I found out their visit to the UK was for a full two weeks, I offered to host the presentation in Manchester, where RBS’s Global Transaction Team kindly provided facilities in their new Deansgate offices. They arrived by coach for a lunchtime meal in Chinatown, and I had arranged speakers on various international trade topics to cover the following two days. After lunch I took the group on a coach tour of Manchester City centre, when unfortunately the heavens opened with such a downpour that it was impossible to see a thing! So plan B had to spring into action and I directed the coach to Manchester City’s stadium, where I recall standing in the club shop wondering what the heck to do next!
I asked one of the stewards whether or not it would be possible to arrange for the group to take photographs inside the stadium, and he directed me to a manager who immediately offered a cut-price mini tour. The club were incredibly accommodating and after each of the delegation of 19 had their photograph taken with Mr. John Reed (lifelong Manchester United fan) with a backdrop of blue Manchester City seats, then with each other, our tour guide pulled a rabbit out of the hat. She took us into the Dressing room where each of the delegation of 19 then had their photograph taken with Mr. John Reed and the shirt of Sun Ji Hai, City’s Chinese full back at that time! It was all so slick that my Chinese visitors refused to believe it was not pre-planned. City went the extra mile that day.
None of these activities was hugely costly, but the goodwill generated proved invaluable and secured the commitment of our distributors and the loyalty of some very important customers. So when you budget to entertain your overseas visitors, show them both what they want to see and something of the country that they would not normally see. It is all too frequently the case that overseas visitors restrict themselves to the sights and sounds of capital cities, when with just a little imagination you can make their visit even more memorable.