What do a university dean, contract manufacturer, and chamber of commerce president have in common? All three made valuable connections with international partners at the World Trade Center Tacoma’s (WTCT) most recent trade mission to Vietnam.

While the WTCT hosted virtual trade missions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the fall 2022 event was the first in-person trip since March 2020. The group spent more than a week in the country, meeting with potential partners and suppliers.

“One of our biggest contributions to the community is making connections,” said Michael Fowler, executive director of the WTCT. “It makes all the difference in the world to introduce somebody personally rather than sending a cold letter to ‘Dear Sir.’”

Since its inception in 1979, the World Trade Center Tacoma has helped thousands of local businesses succeed in international markets. The organization strives to grow trade and investment in the Pacific Northwest by building relationships and introducing people.

It provides a variety of services and resources to its members, focused on helping local companies, both large and small, expand their global reach and navigate the complexities of international trade. This includes providing market research, educational materials and business matchmaking; hosting events and seminars; and organizing trade missions and facilitating trade deals.  

“Businesses often don’t have the bandwidth to think internationally. There’s a lot of mental blocks; that it’s too complicated or we can’t do that,” Fowler explained. “We break down that barrier and get them doing international business.”

Like everything else, the Covid-19 pandemic dramatically shifted the WTCT’s operations. The organization quickly pivoted from in-person meetings, events, and trade missions to virtual programming and services—and found great success.

“The world has changed since Covid, and for the better for us,” Fowler said. “The world became fluent in Zoom.”

This newfound “Zoom fluency” allows Fowler to more quickly and easily connect local businesses to potential customers.

For example, a local small-business barbecue sauce manufacturer was interested in exploring export markets. Within a few days, Fowler had scheduled a video conference with potential buyers in Japan. That conversation led to samples being sent and the Japanese loving the sauce.

“Video conferencing has really changed the game for small and medium-sized enterprises,” Fowler said. “Multiple video communications leads to trust.”

While export assistance is fairly easy to find through federal government programs, it’s much harder to find help importing, Fowler noted. This is where the WTCT comes in, filling that gap to help businesses find trusted import partners and direct sources for components or materials.

Take the story of a local coffee roaster that was expanding rapidly. Their existing operations relied on making their own bags and they struggled to keep up with the growth. The WTCT connected the company to a manufacturer in China that now makes the bags for a fraction of the cost.

“When a business is growing, they start to buy things in the quantity that makes sense to go direct, and we can help find those sources,” Fowler said. “By sourcing those materials directly, the company is able to focus on growing, able to spend time on strategy rather than the nitty-gritty details of doing everything on their own.”

This focus on opening trade channels, and helping to create and broker opportunities, directly supports the Port’s mission to drive economic development in the South Sound, said Erin Galeno, chief financial officer at the Port of Tacoma. The WTCT also works closely with the Port and Northwest Seaport Alliance to promote the gateway as an efficient trade hub.

“It's a wonderful institution that has a tremendous network,” Galeno said. “We partner with the World Trade Center because it provides a unique bridge between the Port, local businesses, and resources overseas.”

World Trade Centers are licensed through the World Trade Centers Association, and the Port purchased the Tacoma license in 1979. It still owns the license and is the organization’s largest sponsor.

More than 300 World Trade Centers exist across the globe, and this extensive network is one of the benefits of being a member, Fowler said. Many trade centers provide reciprocal services, meaning that Fowler can help arrange for a Tacoma member visiting another country to have access to their business services.

The WTCT is the only full-service trade center in the Pacific Northwest, and its members hail from the public and private sector. It is managed by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and maintains its own board of directors.

The WTCT has several upcoming events, including an August webinar broadcast to an audience in Thailand and a visit from a Vietnam delegation in early September.

On September 28, the WTCT will host the 31st Annual Globe Awards, which recognizes individuals and companies excelling in international trade and trade promotion. The event will be held at the Port of Tacoma administration building. To nominate a local organization or individual, please complete this form prior to July 1.

Learn more about the World Trade Center Tacoma at wtcta.org