By Gary Ballew, CEcd, VP, Economic Development
First off, let me apologize to two excellent TV shows on FXX and IFC respectively, though it’s a pretty spot-on title for our next economic development introspective on our recent sales mission to Portland – our last sales mission in 2022. Anyone who has been to Portland knows that it is definitely not sunny all the time and our recent sales mission had its cloudy moments as well.
Maybe we should back up a bit. We use sales missions as part of our business recruitment efforts. To conduct a sales mission, we place digital ads targeted at key industries in a particular metro area. You can see our new videos promoting advanced manufacturing on our YouTube page. We also e-mail decision-makers and use follow-up phone calls to identify companies that meet two criteria- plans to physically expand in the next five years, and have an interest in locating in the Spokane region. We set up in-person meetings with those companies, and over a week we travel around the metro and meet with them. We provide information on our area relevant to their industry and identify follow-up questions and actions. The goal is to convince them to come to Spokane – what we call a site visit.
It’s a numbers game. We started on sales missions at the end of 2021 as travel began to normalize from COVID. The first couple of missions were impacted by COVID variant outbreaks as well as a break-in on my rental car. In all, we traveled to five metros, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland. By the numbers – we contacted 3,354 companies, developing 57 qualified leads, leading to 47 in-person meetings. We are currently at 22 self-generated leads likely to turn into site visits. We are targeting three sales missions for 2023.
Even with all the pre-screening, not every company visit is a winner, and I was initially concerned that Portland was not going to be fruitful. My first three meetings were not great. One company needed a mild climate. Spokane’s ‘next to Idaho and pretty darn close to Canada’ location was not going to meet that requirement. Another company was interested in low-cost housing for its workforce. Spokane would have fit that need six years ago but the recent housing spike took us out of consideration. The third company wanted us to ‘sweeten the pot’ with some cash incentives, which are very limited in Washington. While we normally weed these contacts out in the screening process, it does not always work.
Somewhat downtrodden, I buoyed myself by singing No Rain by Blind Melon in my rental car, repeated my Stewart Smiley mantra, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” and headed to my next meeting. The person I met with was friendly and his company was already doing some work in our region. They were looking to expand their operations in our area. We discussed some of the opportunities and some of their current efforts. The next meeting was even better and the trend of good meetings continued with five of the last seven meetings likely to lead to a site visit. In economic development, a conversion rate of 20%, in-person meeting to site visit is considered standard.
Over the course of my career, these efforts go beyond just the companies I meet with. This work builds momentum and interest in the community, not only from new businesses but for new investments and new talent. I am not really sure why it works this way but after seeing it repeat in every jurisdiction I have worked in leads me to believe there is a connection and causality. 2023 is going to be a very busy year. We now have a person 100% dedicated to working with local businesses to keep their doors open and to help them expand. You can connect with him here. We have the one-year anniversary of our economic development strategic plan, THRIVE Spokane. We are launching a new business accelerator. Our PTAC program that helps companies get federal and state contracts is getting a name change. The Evergreen Biosciences Innovation Cluster will continue to expand the life science industry in our region. In addition to the three planned sales missions, we will be attending seven trade shows. We also want to let people know about the work we’re doing. We appreciate you reading this blog and there will be more to come!