Virtual Trade Missions: From fantasy to reality… and back again?

When Insurtech UK signed a Statement of Intent with the Department for International Trade in June 2019, developing a virtual trade mission series was listed as one of our shared objectives. Back then, virtual trade missions were a long-term ambition. But fast forward nearly 18 months, and virtual trade missions have become the new normal. It’s fair to say we never thought a pandemic would be the trigger for the delivery of a virtual trade mission series, but every cloud, right?

Despite restrictions on global travel, insurtech businesses are still interested in international expansion. Therefore, it is vital that these businesses still have the same opportunities to learn about new markets and meet key stakeholders on the ground.

Industries around the world have learnt to adapt to the new reality of conducting all business remotely. Given the format of trade missions – focused around pitches, presentations and networking – it seemed clear this format could be translated into a virtual series. Insurtech UK was delighted to see that the Department for International Trade shared our ambition to deliver these same opportunities to our members, and plans were made to deliver a virtual trade mission roadshow in the West and East Coast of the USA – the most appealing global market for UK insurtechs.

So, now that this virtual roadshow has been completed both in the West and East Coasts, the two main questions are, how effective were they and how do they compare to physical trade missions? We spoke to some of our members who went on the series to get their feedback. 

The Good

Feedback was almost universally positive, both about the quality of the missions and the organisation by the DIT teams in the USA. Gavin Sewell from Honcho called it “a really great initiative”, with “fantastic insight and exposure”. Similarly, Jim Campbell from Covernet called it a “valuable experience”, stressing he would be signing up for similar opportunities in the future.

Jonathan Jackson was “pleasantly surprised” at the range and “top notch” quality of speakers, ranging from investors and tier 1 insurers to experts in the regulatory, marketing and professional services industries. One of the benefits of virtual events is that it’s a less burdensome time and geographical commitment, which meant the attendees could hear from panellists from across the US. Jim from Covernet valued the opportunity to “engage with more geographically diverse organisations in one event”.

Another benefit was the reduced costs and time commitments presented by a virtual mission. The reality is that a visit to the USA for an insurtech business can cost thousands of pounds in flights, accommodation etc. Virtual trade missions meant that there was almost 0 expenditure, which was seen by all as a big positive.

Finally, members agreed that the series presented networking opportunities that they simply would not have been able to have otherwise. David George from Bikmo said he had “already connected” with a couple of potential underwriting partners and networks. 

The Bad

However, attendees unanimously believed that the virtual series could not replace the value of networking face to face with stakeholders. Jonathan Jackson said that virtual networking was very much “second best”, while Jim Campbell said there was a “less natural atmosphere” online. Sergej Tolz from KASKO said that it is harder to build up as close a connection as you might do face to face. However, he also said “time will tell if this is an obstacle or not.” It will be interesting to see if any of these virtual networks result in physical partnerships in future.

The (slightly!) Ugly

Finally, it’s worth saying that a virtual series that is the first of its kind would always come with its challenges. Some of the issues that attendees faced included “technical hitches”, occasional “repetition” because you heard the same pitches being given several times by other attendees, and far too many times hearing “I think you’re on mute”!

However, credit should go to DIT as this was the first time this team had done a virtual series and all attendees said that the positives vastly outweighed the negatives. 

DIT’s verdict

Hayden Boilini, Trade and Investment Associate at DIT New York, who organised the East Coast virtual trade mission series, had this to say about the roadshow:

“This was our first attempt at delivering our normal trade activity in a virtual setting and we’re very pleased with the overall result. While it’s clear you can’t fully recreate the in-person experience, what stood out to us the most was how much we gained in flexibility which allowed us to engage with more partners and stakeholders than on any previous trade mission.

We were fortunate to work with an amazing group of innovation leaders from firms like Liberty Mutual, Prudential, Chubb, Travelers, AIG, Guy Carpenter and many others to develop this program in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without the flexibility of going virtual. We view this kind of activity as a great way to deepen those relationships while continuing to provide value for UK companies interested in expanding overseas. DIT are already planning more virtual activity for the New Year and will likely continue to incorporate some of these elements long after we return to in-person.”


Our verdict:

Overall, we think that the virtual trade mission series was a huge success, as it provided invaluable opportunities to our members, offered potentially an even greater quality of speakers than a physical trade mission and saved insurtech businesses thousands of pounds in costs.

However, the value of networking and those physical connections means that we don’t think virtual trade missions will ever supplant physical missions completely.

Our prediction is: trade missions will start to incorporate virtual content into the session, so that some of the mission can take place beforehand virtually and then the physical mission can focus even more on the networking side to build relationships and partnerships. Some form of hybrid model will certainly be of value going forward. 

This is our prediction, but what do you think?