Editorial Credit: Global Ventures

They say necessity is the mother of invention. They also say that adversity is its father - and there has been no greater adversity for international engagement than that which has been generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

STEP reacted quickly to the expanding levels of restrictions imposed to “flatten the curve” and stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Within days of the provincial, national, and international lockdown, STEP re-allocated resources to focus on member-centric services and pivoted trade mission efforts to web-based opportunities. Indeed, seven Virtual Trade Missions (VTMs) have been delivered since travel and gathering restrictions were invoked (see “Anatomy of a Virtual Trade Mission”). STEP has also delivered three web-based export information seminars - “Domestic and International Logistics During COVID-19”, “Creating New Business Opportunities in a COVID-19 World” and “E-Commerce Opportunities Through Alibaba”.

While reacting quickly to provide immediate and relevant services during the pandemic, STEP began to consider the medium- and long-term consequences on export services and program delivery. STEP developed a post COVID-19 re-engagement strategy that outlined issues that may persist during and following the removal of travel restrictions and the loosening of public gathering limits. To reduce these lingering risks and to ensure the health and safety of members and staff, STEP will be introducing a number of new initiatives, including distributing COVID-19 status reports in target markets before travel, implementing safer travel and trade show protocols, and instituting testing for all mission participants upon return.

STEP President & CEO Chris Dekker noted that Saskatchewan is an export dependent province and export services will continue to be as vital during COVID-19 restrictions and after. “It is critical that Saskatchewan companies be well positioned to re-engage and re-establish their customer base as COVID-19 restrictions are removed,” Dekker said. “While it is important to flatten the curve, Saskatchewan exporters need to get ahead of the curve to ensure our place on the international stage”. To this end, STEP is offering enhancements to the current suite of export programs, including the Market Access Program and the Incoming Buyers Program. STEP has also introduced a new, temporary program - the Market Re-engagement Program - which is designed to incent and promote Saskatchewan exporters to re-establish presence in existing markets. To help relieve financial pressures on STEP members during difficult economic times and to maintain their access to the full suite of STEP export programs and services, STEP has also instituted a one-time membership discount for any new and renewing memberships. For one year starting July 1, STEP members will benefit from a 50% annual membership investment reduction. With COVID-19 restrictions and regulations changing on a daily basis, STEP will continue to evolve its programs and services to ensure Saskatchewan exporters remain connected to the world. “STEP has always been able to move at the speed of business,” Dekker concluded. “That speed and flexibility will serve us well during these uncertain times.”

STEP Program Enhancements

Market Access Program (MAP)

To incent and promote Saskatchewan exporter re-engagement on the international stage, STEP is offering the following Market Access Program (MAP) enhancements:

  • Increased funding limits. The cap for the Market Access Program will increase from $5,000 for Regular Members and $6,000 for Premium Members to $6,000 and $8,000 respectively.
  • Expanded eligible costs. Coverage for costs associated with in-market ground transportation, internet/WIFI, and interpreter services.

Market Re-engagement Program (MRP)

  • Temporary Market Re-engagement. The program allows a one-time MRP application for 50% funding of one mission or activity in an established market or previously attended trade show with an objective of re-establishing connections post COVID-19.

Incoming Buyers’ Program

  • Enhancements to Incoming Buyers' Program. To promote to the world that Saskatchewan is open for business and to enhance market access and export B2B deal making, STEP will continue to focus on organizing incoming buyer events and extend increased buyer support through funding of travel costs for international customers. Costs will include air/ground travel costs to a maximum of $500, hotel costs as arranged by STEP to a maximum of four nights, STEP arranged meals and ground transportation in province as well as STEP arranged interpretation services.

The Anatomy of a Virtual Trade Mission

Each year, STEP organizes 40 to 45 national and international trade missions for Saskatchewan exporters. These missions are highly productive, generating thousands of trade leads and hundreds of export deals for members. So - what do you do when borders close, air travel is curtailed, and trade shows are cancelled? You go virtual! Through the months of April and May, STEP has organized seven Virtual Trade Missions (VTMs) with another three planned for the early months of summer.

According to the provincial government,Saskatchewan Q1 exports were up 4.2% over 2019 to $7.4 billion, and exports increased 30.5% between March 2020 and April 2020. 

How do Virtual Trade Missions work?

STEP has been “mining” its massive databank of international buyers to determine immediate or future procurement opportunities for Saskatchewan suppliers. To date, 1,160 international contacts have been approached generating 80 qualified trade leads. Once the buyer’s product needs and preferred logistics are established, they are matched with STEP exporters, and a VTM is set up using a web-based  conferencing platform. The format opens with a general discussion and presentation by the buyer followed by private one-on-one (B2B) meetings. To date, member feedback has been very positive. One exporter noted that “this is a really good idea… and would say we are open to doing these meetings all day long! I’ve already sent (the buyer) a follow up email and we are looking to get something going with him right away.” Two additional exporters noted that Saskatchewan was “eons ahead” of the other provinces in which they do business in terms of serving exporters and engaging during COVID-19 restrictions.

For more information on becoming a STEP member, or to learn more about their programs and events, visit sasktrade.com.