Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg to host deal-making fest again next week

It's speed-dating for entrepreneurs

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When it comes to growing the Winnipeg economy, positive momentum can never be taken for granted.

The city is arguably on a pretty good roll these days, but it's not like this is Silicon Valley, where business and investment will keep flooding into the region without the need for promotion.

There's a solid core of business activity in Winnipeg, but to maintain it and see it grow, a little effort is required.

In Winnipeg, you have to work it. That is partly what Centrallia is all about.

Next week, starting Tuesday, Centrallia, the international small-business networking event, will be held here for the second time. The first was in 2010. It's a lot of work to organize -- ask Mariette Mulaire and her team at ANIM, Manitoba's bilingual trade agency, who put the event together. It's a year-long undertaking.

But the scale of the event and its emphasis on small- and medium-sized business suits the Winnipeg economy. About 700 registrations are expected, about 100 more than in 2010. More than half are from the local market. Wednesday night's keynote address with Malcolm Gladwell has sold out all 1,500 tickets.

The benefits of drawing a couple of hundred business people from elsewhere in Canada, the United States and around the world -- most of whom have never been here before and likely wouldn't come otherwise -- is generally seen as worth the effort for the community.

This is not a natural hub for international trade, but there is enough activity in a breadth of sectors to make it worthwhile for all sorts of potential trading partners from around the world to take a peek at what's happening here.

And the infrastructure is sufficient to put on a proper event. For instance, Isabelle Dery, project manager with ANIM, said she had no problem recruiting the 125 volunteers needed.

Leslie Wilder, an instructor at Red River College's business and applied arts department, is one of them, along with several of her students.

Manning the registration desk or showing people around is not the same as engaging in business negotiations. But it's not hard to imagine that a little exposure to business people from Iceland, China or South Dakota is probably good experience for the student volunteers, especially those interested in international business, as Wilder's students are.

"It brings relevancy and currency back to the classroom the more you talk to people," Wilder said.

Getting delegates to come is no easy task. The Centrallia model includes paying delegate leaders a fee for every registration they bring in. Aggressive delegation leaders from Brazil and Argentina have good-size groups attending this year.

The event is designed as a way for small and medium-sized businesses to dabble in international trade in a cost-effective way.

The business people attending are assured of at least 14 meetings, but they do not necessarily know who they will meet when they get here. Centrallia is often referred to as speed-dating for businesses.

Though the format can be a great way for small companies to establish leads in export markets, the nature of international travel and trade today can make it a little dicey for organizers to actually confirm the attendance of the people who want to come.

This year, as was the case in 2010, Canadian visa refusals are winnowing out the number of delegates at the last minute.

For instance, Mulaire said most of the dozen-plus would-be delegates from India had their visa applications refused.

Many interested parties from various countries of Africa, where Mulaire noted per capita incomes are going up and business opportunities are on the increase, also could not secure visas.

Unfortunately, it seems the nature of the event probably throws up some red flags for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada officials in embassies and consulates around the world.

Companies attending cannot point to a lengthy track record of communication with a potential Canadian trade partner and are not even able to say exactly who they will be meeting at Centrallia.

Canadian officials have plenty of discretionary control over who gets a travel visa. For various reasons, there is a clamp-down these days and many potential Centrallia participants have had visa applications refused.

"It's frustrating, but we understand Canadian officials are working for the security of the country," Mulaire said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2012 B5

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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