After a few shaky starts last week, some members of a Greater Washington Board of Trade economic development delegation to London probably wondered whether making the trip was a mistake.
For starters, fog and rain forced the pilot of the plane carrying some Board of Trade officials to circle London's Heathrow Airport for several minutes before the flight was diverted to another airport several miles away. Harried and exhausted passengers finally arrived in London by train about four hours later.
Then at a seminar on D.C.-area investment opportunities, chagrined members of the delegation discovered much too late that American and British technology aren't always compatible. An elaborate slide presentation highlighting commerce and life styles in metropolitan Washington had to be canceled when operators were unable to synchronize U.S. and British equipment.
As it turned out, the absence of the slide show -- which figured to be the highlight of the board's planned presentation -- didn't detract significantly from the mission's aim. Indeed, officials of the host London Chamber of Commerce and Industry declared the all-day seminar on business and investment opportunities in Washington a success.
And while there were some shaky beginnings to the board's expanded international-business-attraction program, the decision to make the trip certainly can't be considered a mistake. In fact, it may be one of the more positive actions the organization has taken in recent years.
To be sure, the mission was approved in response to an invitation from the London chamber. But by agreeing to send a delegation from the private sector, the Board of Trade accomplished two things to its credit.
In the first place, it underwrote a fairly ambitious economic development marketing program for the region, saving individual jurisdictions thousands of dollars in public funds that would have been required for similar missions.
Secondly, by spending well over $100,000 -- a substantial portion picked up by individual members of the delegation--the board put the region's interests above more selfish business interests for which it frequently is criticized.
Both Maryland and Virginia have economic development representatives in the United Kingdom, but their priorities understandably aren't tied to the Washington region.
At the same time, although economic development agencies at the county level frequently send representatives abroad in search of new business, their marketing strategies are necessarily parochial.
A conference and two or three days of one-on-one meetings in London aren't likely to spawn a sudden wave of new foreign investments in the Washington area. Nevertheless, the board's mission to London last week established an important communications link between U.K. companies and metropolitan Washington business interests and governments.
In effect, the London seminar served as a calling card from the District and surrounding jurisdictions.
With the board clearly identified as an initial contact for further information about the area, the groundwork has been laid for follow-up discussions between investors and city and county officials.
Prince George's, Montgomery or Fairfax County officials might have been successful to some degree in marketing any one of those areas to the London chamber. But selling the strengths of the entire Washington area could pose a problem for any one of those jurisdictions because, after all, they are competing against one another for new investments.
In the final analysis, however, participants in last week's seminar left a clear impression that they were eager to hear an unbiased assessment of the region's strengths from other business people and not from politicians or bureaucrats with limited objectives.
T. Ian Weatherhead, director of the LCCI's North American section, alluded to that in an interview last week.
"Our members want to learn more about the Greater Washington area, and we have not had the opportunity to learn about it," Weatherhead said. "And the best way of promoting is to bring a delegation consisting of the bankers, of the real estate people, etc., of the Washington Board of Trade to explain exactly what there is" to consider as investment opportunities.
Marketing an area to potential investors is a highly competitive and painstaking process, and the first tangible results of the board's initial business development trip abroad could take years to develop. But if initial reaction is any indication, the London venture should lead to some gains for the local economy.