As the coronavirus pandemic disrupts business as usual, in-person trade events have been among the casualties with numerous cancellations. But Colombia’s organization for the promotion of trade, tourism and foreign investment found a virtual solution so its exporter event could carry on in a safer format.
ProColombia’s Business Matchmaking Forum was supposed to take place from March 16-18 in Medellin, Colombia. Adhering to the government’s safety precautions, which include the suspension of large gatherings, the organization chose to instead turn the forum into a two-week virtual event. Despite a ban on non-residents entering the country, effective March 16, the event was able to continue with the help of digital connectivity.
“This is the most important commercial event [that] Colombian exporters and business have to continue, even more so during this global pandemic,” said Juliana Villegas, vice president of exports at ProColombia. “We saw that it could be done without putting the health of the entrepreneurs at risk thanks to technology.”
The forum is aimed at helping entrepreneurs grow their exports, while also capitalizing on trade agreements between Colombia and other nations. Buyers hail from 58 countries, and 60 percent come from nations where there are existing Colombian commercial relationships. While other Latin American countries including Mexico, Peru and Ecuador are among the top participants in the event, the United States boasts the largest number of buyers attending the virtual meetings. Due to the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement that went into effect in 2012, most imports to the U.S. are duty-free.
More than 2,500 Colombian exporters participated in the virtual event, about 659 of whom represent the apparel and textile sector.
Meetings took place via video conferencing technology such as Microsoft Teams. Since physical aspects of certain products cannot be communicated in a virtual format without the benefit of touch or feel, ProColombia worked with companies to send samples to prospective buyers.
“The response from entrepreneurs has been largely positive,” Villegas said. “Many of the buyers and exporters have agreed that this was the best strategy to continue with the Business Matchmaking Forum.”
Due to the extended two-week format of the forum, participants had more time to negotiate than they would have had with an in-person meeting. About 13,000 meetings took place from March 16-27, compared to the approximate 10,000 during the 2019 edition. Last year’s Business Matchmaking Forum led to a total $400 million worth of contracts.
“It’s a different format, so we expect to have different results [than other years], even more opportunities,” Villegas said.
In addition to the videoconference meetings, ProColombia said its virtual showroom showcasing 150 brands received 2,000 visits.
“This Business Matchmaking Forum virtual format leaves us many lessons for the future,” Villegas said.
ProColombia is not alone in shifting its strategy to promote safety without sacrificing connectivity. Denim show Kingpins recently announced that it would hold a virtual event in place of its April Amsterdam show, complete with streamed panels, interviews and exhibitor content.