Shortly after the final curtain fell on the first ever Caribbean Specialty Expo in March 2017, Business Focus sat down with the team from TEPA, Saint Lucia’s Trade and Export Promotion Agency, which drove the event in partnership with the OECS and other regional collaborators. Suddenly the name on everyone’s lips, the facilitation experts are clearly happy with the outcome of two years of planning, and optimistic that the Expo can become a signature OECS event.
BF:How did the idea of the Caribbean Specialty Expo originate? AS: In 2012, TEPA held a successful exposition, but we realised in order to make it a regular event, collaboration was needed with the OECS and other region-wide organisations to engage and mobilise stakeholders. So the OECS became a critical partner in executing the whole event.
Two years ago, we began planning, trying to get people to buy in and engaging key stakeholders in Saint Lucia and the member states to help with technical and financial support, which took quite a long time. Of course we also had to secure our sponsors, including our presenting sponsor, Amerijet, who were instrumental in the planning and execution.
However, we were committed to the idea that the OECS needs a platform for its exporters, and this was an opportunity to build on the previous experiences of TEPA and OECS at exporting to regional and international markets.
BF: What were the challenges you met during the planning process? AS: Actually locking in the involvement of key stakeholders took a long time. But getting the appropriate venue was a big problem. Size was the main issue, we needed space for 100 exhibitors at least. No other elements of the plan could move ahead until the venue was settled. Saint Lucia has no indoor facility of that size, and although the Daren Sammy Cricket Ground is large, it gave logistics issues and required extra cost to outfit the stadium to the standard needed to host an international trade show.
GG: Execution was a tighter timeline simply because of the problem of finding the venue. Planning had to stop each time we hit an obstacle.
AS: Another challenge became the unavailability of flights, which affected exhibitors reaching Saint Lucia. The contingency from St. Kitts weren’t able to make it to partake in the event. Some of the flights were actually cut a few weeks before the expo, so our northern neighbours were affected. It was actually highlighted by our CEO at the opening of the exposition. Luckily we now have ferries, so many of our participants came by ferry.
It shows that we can create something great but there are a lot of things which are outside of TEPA’s control, even government and OECS, that need to be solved for development of this sort of event.
BF: Who participated and from where? AS: Although the original target number for exhibitors was 100, interest in the event was strong, and in the end approximately 160 signed up for the expo. The number of interested companies was so great, the plan evolved to include ‘pavilions’ that would house a certain number of vendors, like the OECS delegation, which had more than sixty people, and the Martinique delegation, sharing booth space so smaller exhibitors were able to participate. We had approximately fifty-five local buyers and purchasing managers from hotels, Massy, Lumnat and other distributors. There were thirty regional and international buyers, including missions from the U.K and Martinique, and buyers from Barbados, Cuba.
AJ: Demand for participation from the wider Caribbean was amazing. Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Suriname and Guadeloupe were among the markets that expressed an interest in taking part. However, we decided against opening it out as the event was conceptualised as a showcase for the OECS manufacturers and service providers to connect with local and international buyers. In the end, a number of representati ves from export and manufacturing agencies in the wider Caribbean attended to “scope us out” as competition.
BF: Does TEPA track the impact of the show on the participants? AS: We are there to facilitate the exhibitors to make the connections and take advantage of everything the exposition offers, but we don’t track the details of orders, that’s between the businesses and the buyers. Right now a post mortem is being compiled but anecdotally, early feedback shows that we met our objectives. Participants were really happy because they were able to meet buyers and enter into discussions with them.
Of course, TEPA is involved in ongoing initiatives such as the Cuban Export Entry Program – we are working with seven exporters and have one success story so far. A Cuban buyer attended the expo and the companies are now exchanging specifications and pricing, so it is optimistic that more of our exporters will be successful in that important emerging market.
BF: What are the next steps? Do you think Caribbean Specialty Expo is destined to be an annual event? AS: (Laughs) No, given our experience this time, realistically we would see it as happening every other year. Saint Lucia TEPA realised early that we wanted to be the initiator and get the expo going, but that we would need to hand over to a key agency like the OECS, which can represent everyone’s interests. They are in the best position to own this type of event and execute it well. The intention would be to have it move around from one state to another, and Martinique has already expressed an interest in hosting the next one.
Moving forward, one of the key things will be to form strategic partnerships with other agencies and stakeholders that can help with technical – and of course financial – support, because an event of this magnitude brings a lot to the development of the economy of all the participating states.