Very likely the first trade show took place at a crossroads, where merchants laid out their blankets to show off their wares. As the global economy continues to expand, more and more associations find themselves at a crossroads, trying to decide whether an overseas exposition is right for their organization.

When the Personal Communications Industry Association came to that point, the association, after much market research, successfully launched the Wireless Showcase in Singapore in January. PCIA joins a growing roster of associations participating in expositions overseas, including the International Gas Turbine Institute, the Dental Manufacturers of America, and the Wood Machinery Manufacturers of America. But how do you know whether your group is a good candidate for an overseas show? Here are some critical questions to ask: 1. What's in it for members? Your members, if they are manufacturers, may want to plumb new markets. New markets mean increased sales that can level the cyclic peaks and valleys of product marketing. For a sporting goods manufacturer, for example, summer in the U.S. is winter in Santiago, and broaching the South American market can make its ski accessories a year-round earner.

In the case of professional associations, your members may be driven to participate in international conventions/trade shows primarily for educational and information exchange with their peers abroad. In either case, well-manicured golf courses and white, sandy beaches come under the "bad reasons" for going transoceanic.

2. How can my association get into the international arena? If you organize an annual exposition in the United States, you might clone that event in the destination that your intensive market research indicates is ripe for your group's products or services. This decision must be predicated on a complete understanding of the similarities and dissimilarities of producing a trade show in the U.S. and your selected destination. (More on this topic in later columns). This approach can be done cautiously. For example, in March the Water Environment Federation produced a conference-driven event in Singapore that offered a very attractive technical program and a modest exhibition.

By far the most popular initial approach to overseas shows is that taken by the Dental Manufacturers of America every year since 1983. DMA leadership encourages members to be part of a DMA pavilion mounted within an existing international dental event. With minimal financial exposure, the association coordinates the recruiting and promotion, leaving the logistics to an outside consultant. The members benefit from the economies of scale, the impact and cachet that the American tag line produces, and the clout that a sizable contingent has in obtaining prime booth (or "stand," as booths are called overseas) location within the show.

3. Where can I get information on international trade fairs? The best starting point for international commerce is the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington D.C., although nearly every district office (and there is at least one in every state) is prepared to assist the fledgling exporter or exporting group.

By enlisting the aid of the DOC, you also tap the reservoir of commercial intelligence and business contacts generated by more than 150 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. The U.S. embassy or consulate in your destination will be a vital source of guidance and information.

Most states have export development agencies, and if your business or industry is identified with a particular geographic area, valuable support may be found on the local level as well. The National Association of State Development Agencies (NASDA), headquartered in Washington, D.C., can point you in the right direction for state assistance.

Sister associations abroad can offer valuable guidance in evaluating trade fairs in their regions. They may even organize an event as well. Likewise, your foreign members will no doubt be familiar with trade show marketing opportunities in their part of the world.

Other secondary sources of information include the embassy of the country you have targeted for your debut, the airlines serving that country or city, banks, freight forwarders, and the local tourist office. If you have determined that you will join an existing trade show, the organizer, his project manager, and above all, the U.S. representative of the show, should quickly become your new best friends.

There are many people who want you and your members to succeed in the international arena. Your success can lead to repeat performances, as well as beneficial business relationships on both sides of the table--and both sides of the ocean.*