de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Touchy, Feely Business! LMD. July 2007. Page 158. Volume 13, Issue 12. ISSN 1991-135X.
Companies exploring new business prospects must investigate such markets tangibly.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne on the search for new markets
About seven years ago at a meeting at Nations Trust Bank, Ajit Gunawardene representing John Keells, one of the bank’s majority shareholders, used an expression which stuck in my mind. He once asked whether we could ‘touch and feel it’. He was referring to the ‘pulse of the market’. I thought I understood him then, but after a recent business visit to Italy I began to wonder how many of us in business really do. Attending the fourth Italian Bird Fair was not one which I looked forward to in eager anticipation. In fact, myself and my colleague who attended it had serious concerns whether we would get our money back. In a fragile economy, every Euro matters. Nevertheless, with tourism taking a severe beating at every turn, there was pressure to go in search of new markets.
The Italian Bird Fair as it turned out had a number of business lessons. Lesson number one was that there was no substitute to going and looking yourself. A well worn adage in business, but sometimes we don’t take the risk of looking for new business because of the risk of having to spend money on a few blind alleys. I had been to Italy before on holidays, but that’s always a different story. Holiday makers chose a circuit which is not always the best means of assessing a country’s potential for business.
Language would be difficult everyone had warned us. There is a fair amount of truth to this. We had paid attention and had ensured that some of our promotional literature did carry translations in Italian. However it’s worth examining whether language is such a problem. About half the people who came to the fair could not speak English. However there still was a half who did. That still is enough potential business for someone selling direct to the consumer. It also largely true that the more affluent Italians speak enough English to get by. In cities such as Milan, a fair cross section of Italians do. Well, at least a fair proportion of those who would be a client of a specialist seller. This is probably true of most of Europe where English is increasing in importance as an international language. Even in Asian countries like Japan, where language is an issue, at the high end it will become increasingly less of an issue. So although language is a problem, it should not be a deterrent to Sri Lankan companies in search of new markets, especially in the stronger economies.
The next lesson to be reinforced was that no buyer is the same. It is widely known that the British and the North Americans enjoy wildlife and will pay serious money to travel for it. But there is little to an English reading audience to gauge the appetite of the Italians or the French or the Germans. Despite the volume of information on the web, no google search is going to produce a magic answer. As it turned out, the Italians have a tremendous appetite for nature. In fact, we were surprised to find that they seemed to be spending even more than the Britons in promoting nature. National parks vied with each other to attract visitors. Regional tourist boards vied with each other. Everyone was in competition with the other to gain market share. No less than five glossy nature and outdoor magazines were exhibitors dishing out free copies or discounted copies to woo subscribers and catering to what was clearly an appetite for nature.
There really is no substitute for going out and seeing for yourself. Each country has cultural traits. At the British Birdwatching Fair, the event is dominated by birdwatchers and birding related activities. In Italy, the events were focussed around photography and half the visitors were more interested in photography. Perhaps this is not surprising. Countries such as France and Italy have a strong emotional connection with the arts. Photography would have greater resonance in a nation which has arts embedded in its psyche. This was clear even in the way the exhibition organisers had invited photographers to set up a gallery and the way in which the images were displayed. Whilst the British would show an animal in its natural state, the Italians would frame it for example as a thin rectangular crop. The form and shape of the animal was irrelevant to an emotional expression of a time and place. Next to our stall was Olli Lamminsalo from Kuusamo Bird Touring Ltd from Finland. He was a familiar face from the British Birdwatching Fair. ‘After my first year I realised this market was different’ he said. “This year I did not have too much emphasis on the birdwatching and instead focused on catering to photographers’. He whipped out his PDA and showed me his notes reinforcing the point that next year he should enhance his offering to photographers.
The point is the seller must be driven by the cultural characteristics of different countries. There is no straight formula. Sri Lankan companies must learn to adapt to different markets as we go in search of more Euros to prop up a Rupee which is sliding faster than a teenager on a water chute in Waterworld.

Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for progress. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.