By: Chris Mead, Senior Vice President of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, an organization of 1,200 chambers of commerce, headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia.
From the earliest days, international trade has been a major concern for local chambers of commerce. The first U.S. chamber was born in 1768 in New York out of struggles with the Stamp Act. Shortly afterward, in 1773, the Charleston Chamber of Commerce was formed to help land British tea safely on shore. In 1819, the Savannah Chamber’s leading members sent the first steamship across the Atlantic. Other chambers lobbied for a railroad and a canal across Panama, helped lay the first transatlantic telegraph cables, and even named and financed Lindbergh’s plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis, for its world-shrinking trip across the ocean in 1927. Commerce – not surprisingly – is in the institutional bones of chambers of commerce.
In recent years, however, much of the attention of these business associations has focused more on domestic matters. With a vast internal U.S. market to develop, and relatively limited resources to go abroad, most local chambers have tended to stay close to home. Getting the local highway completed or keeping an eye on the city council have taken precedence over learning about markets in Austria or Australia.
One person, more than any other, led a change in this attitude. Around 2000, Leo Liu, president of an international business promotion company, began to organize chambers to take tourists to China. It turned out that chambers were pretty good at getting groups of people together for trips, as many of them had been doing so for years within the United States. The company quickly became the largest tour group operator to China and now takes thousands of people there every year, working almost exclusively with chambers. Meanwhile, other travel companies caught on to the idea and began leading chamber tours to dozens of other countries. Today close to 1,000 U.S. chambers of commerce have either taken overseas trips or are planning to do so.
Thus chambers are returning to their international beginnings. While most of these trips have a strong tourism component, there is nevertheless a business flavor to many of the overseas visits. Often business professionals have taken part in one of these trips, for example, visiting the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou.
Having gained experience in handling these trips, more and more chambers are sending actual trade missions abroad. Indeed, the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE) is creating its own missions, taking chamber CEOs to such places as China, Dubai, Turkey, and Israel – and helping chamber CEOs plan subsequent trips of their own.
It’s not just trips. A traditional chamber activity connected with international trade, the handling of certificates of origin, is receiving a facelift. Additionally chambers are listening to their members, who, like President Obama, know that in the long run, overseas markets offer the greatest growth potential for American businesses. For the first time this year, ACCE will offer a Going International Award (sponsored by the Dubai Chamber), for the chamber doing the most to promote international trade and investment. The award will be handed out at the ACCE convention in Los Angeles on August 4, 2011.
So be prepared for more international trade activity by local chambers of commerce in the United States. Chambers and their association, the ACCE, are looking for foreign opportunities.
It’s a new game in international trade. And the rewards are significant. May the best chamber win!