COVID-19 has left global business dealings without traditional, vital tool — face-to-face meetings

In his work advising clients on taking business abroad, Roger Cohen has long supported business owners strapping in for daylong flights to meet with would-be customers or suppliers.

Cohen, president of consulting firm Cohen International, says face-to-face meetings with business leaders in foreign markets have remained a gold standard, even with digital interfaces overlaying most aspects of conducting business today.

“It’s just easier sometimes to sit across from someone for whom English isn’t their native language,” Cohen said. “But the bottom line is that you can’t go out for a drink with a customer after a Zoom meeting. You can’t say, ‘Let’s have a bite to eat,’ and go get sushi in Tokyo.”

Whether it’s karaoke in Korea or bar-hopping in Brussels, those breaking into foreign markets have relied on breaking the ice with international business leaders through crash-courses in local customs, nightlife and everything else. Meeting someone where they are makes a difference, Cohen said.

But, with COVID-19 precautions taking precedence over everything else, that rapport-building approach is not one anyone can advocate for — perhaps for a long time.

As early as February’s start, flights to one of the world’s hotspots for global business, China, were restricted. Following that, the United States barred most flights to Europe and officials asked for the postponement of all other non-essential travel.

With nearly all international travel coming to a standstill by March, business owners hoping to make connections with businesses in other countries had to rely on communicating through videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom.

“And you can do a certain amount with those tools,” Cohen said. “But, when you want to talk specifications and prices, market conditions … you have to be hand-in-glove with the person you’re working with. And I believe it’s more difficult to build those personal relationships online.”

Even as travel commences in coming months, the prospect of a business trip, or any other international travel, isn’t appealing to many. According to a survey by Red Bank-based Azurite Consulting, about a third of those who flew internationally last year said they’ll wait until a vaccine is available to do so again.

And there’s some question of whether a newfound awareness in how travel can spread disease will change thinking about international business trips even after a vaccine is introduced.

At the same time, business owners are acclimating to the videoconferencing option when trying to establish communications with something more personal than a phone call. With that as an accepted alternative to head-pounding jet lag, less may brave the travel experience in the future.

It’s not solely because business owners can’t meet people on their home turf, but Cohen said there are fewer businesses rushing into new relationships with international partners right now.

“That activity has taken a pause for the moment,” he said. “And part of it is that the things you’d do to globalize your business and plant seeds for market development, you can’t do now.”

New entrants into global markets are taking it slow. Slower, that is, than they already were.

Cohen said the country’s various still trade wars hang over any talk of businesses going global.

“And, when the COVID-19 disaster does pass, we’re still going to be left with that,” he said. “So, I’m not seeing a bright side here, even if I’m looking for it.”

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