JAPANESE PARTICIPATE IN VIRTUAL TASTING OF OREGON
Video conferencing used to bring Japanese buyers together with Oregon companies
May 30, 2001. . . Gery Amos of Rainsweet, Inc. of Salem sat in the room and watched as Japanese food buyers sampled his company\’s frozen berries, onions, and mushrooms. He watched for their reaction and then stood ready to answer their questions. It was the first step to what he hopes will be actual sales to Japan. To him and the four other Oregon food companies in the room, it was Monday evening. To the representatives of the five Japanese entities, it was already Tuesday morning.
The presentation, the tasting, and the discussion took place simultaneously, but the potential buyers and sellers were separated by an ocean.
Welcome to 21st Century technology.
Through the power of video conferencing and the aid of a satellite high above the Earth, Portland and Tokyo were linked this past week to provide a virtual tasting of Oregon food products. The tasting might be virtual, but the results will be real.
\”Nothing is perfect, but I thought the event went very well and was a good experience,\” says Amos, who stood in front of both a monitor and a camera at Portland\’s Food Innovation Center to communicate with Japanese at the other end.
Thanks to a $50,000 grant originating from the U.S. Department of Agriculture\’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and administered by the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association (WUSATA), Oregon offered the nation\’s first \”virtual tasting\” event as part of an experiment in export marketing. A similar event is scheduled for September.
\”It\’s important for us to take advantage of the technology available to assist our companies in presenting their products around the world,\” says John Szczepanski, assistant director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which arranged the video conferencing event. \”We need to give them opportunities at low risk and low cost, to meet with potential buyers in foreign countries, to display their products, and to talk about them. This virtual tasting event is a new twist to what is an old fashioned idea– get the customer together with the producer and talk face-to-face, even though face-to-face in this case is over 3,000 miles.\”
The two-hour event was a true partnership between WUSATA, ODA, and Oregon State University, which provided the technology housed at the Food Innovation Center. The five Oregon food companies that agreed to participate included: Rainsweet; Pyramid Juice Company of Ashland, offering assorted natural juices; Painted Hills Natural Beef, Inc. of Fossil; Turtle Mountain, Inc. of Junction City, offering non-dairy frozen desserts, and Bob\’s Red Mill Natural Foods, Inc. of Lake Oswego, offering a variety of baking mixes.
On the other side of the Pacific were a variety of potential buyers representing Japanese retail and food service sectors. ODA international trade manager Patrick Mayer coordinated activities in a makeshift studio at a Tokyo hotel. Also present were translators to help facilitate the conversation back to Portland, and a chef, who prepared special recipes involving the Oregon food products.
The Japanese tasted the Oregon products– sometimes on camera– gave an evaluation, then were able to ask questions of the company representative back in Portland. Each Oregon company was afforded about 20 minutes to further describe its products. Questions ranged from whether the products could be adjusted to better satisfy the Japanese consumer to whether different packaging could be used. Even if no orders are ever taken, the feedback was extremely valuable.
\”The opportunity to present products to a foreign buyer, to be able to get them to evaluate the product and offer a professional opinion– these are opportunities seldom given even when a company takes the expensive route of traveling overseas,\” says Szczepanski. \”We provided the contacts, the venue, and the technology. For next to nothing, these Oregon companies were able to benefit and do something that, in normal circumstances, would have cost thousands of dollars to achieve.\”
The virtual tasting was better than a phone call and almost as good as a face-to-face meeting in the same room, according to Szczepanski.
\”A face-to-face meeting would have focused on other aspects that may have helped the two sides get to know each other better\”, he says. \”But the actual business at hand was really conducted in that 20 minutes the companies had on camera.\”
The participating Oregon companies came in not knowing what to expect. Many had low expectations, but came away feeling that the event surpassed their initial hopes. The key will be the followup so essential in any business relationship. Some feel the video conferencing might actually provide more information.
\”Considering the customers were Japanese and knowing how polite and somewhat reserved they are with criticism, I don\’t think we would have received the candid feedback had we been in the same room,\” says Amos. \”That\’s good.\”
The virtual tasting can lead to an even more effective platform in the future. At the start of the presentation, companies may be able to show videos of their production facilities and their process– or even the beautiful setting of Oregon itself. Both ODA officials and the companies that participated this month in the initial event believe it will become more commonplace to use the technology.
\”I would do it again,\” says Dennis Gilliam of Bob\’s Red Mill. \”I believe this is the wave of the future as technology becomes an even bigger factor.\”
The success of the first virtual tasting will help recruit more Oregon companies for the second one in September.
For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.