Trade mission restrictions throttle market information flow

Commodity and trade groups are feeling the effect of not being able to conduct in-person intelligence gathering because of COVID-19 rules

Few organizations have been more directly impacted by COVID-19 than the Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership.

STEP used to organize 40 to 45 national and international trade missions every year.

“Since the pandemic has occurred we haven’t had one international in-person mission,” said STEP president Chris Dekker.

The organization has hosted more than 50 virtual trade missions, matching Saskatchewan exporters with overseas buyers via the web.

The virtual missions have been well-received but Dekker acknowledged it just isn’t the same.

“Our members have indicated they would very much like to get back to in-person engagement,” he said.

The Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission (SaskFlax) is one of those members.

SaskFlax executive director Wayne Thompson said virtual meetings are not the same.

“We just can’t go anywhere and have those side conversations to figure out what everybody is really doing right now,” he said.

The lack of in-person meetings makes it difficult to consummate business deals and gather market intelligence.

“It has made the flow of information really bad at the moment,” said Thompson.

SaskFlax is participating in virtual meetings and the technology has been working well but the exchange of information is stilted.

“It’s a little difficult sometimes to really answer some questions using a chat function on the side versus being able to see each other and talk about the nuances,” he said.

Dekker said business relationships are built on trust and it is easier to foster that trust during face-to-face exchanges.

“That’s what our members say is missing,” he said.

Health officials have indicated to Dekker that travel restrictions likely won’t be lifted until the second quarter of 2021 at the earliest.

The organization will have a number of new safety protocols in place for when that happens, such as preparing and distributing COVID-19 status reports on target markets.

One of the most important measures STEP wants to implement is testing of all mission participants upon their return from a trade mission.

That means participants would only have to be in isolation for three or four days waiting for results rather than the usual 14-day travel quarantine, which is “very problematic” for business people.

There will also be new safe travel and trade show protocols for members.

In the meantime, STEP has cut its membership fees in half for new members and for one-year renewals for existing members.

The regular fees range from $800 to $2,800 per year depending on annual revenues. The organization has about 400 members.

Exports out of Saskatchewan were down 1.6 percent year-on-year through the first eight months of 2020.

If potash and crude oil are removed from the mix, exports are actually up 20 percent for that period, which Dekker said is “no small miracle.”

Crop shipments have fared particularly well with canola up 37 percent, wheat 14 percent and lentils 107 percent, to name a few.

Customers have been stockpiling food in the wake of the pandemic, which could have ramifications for future demand.

“If they’re using that supply we should be fine,” said Dekker.

“If they’re storing or hoarding there could be some minor impacts in the next few months.”

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