Massachusettss overseas sales force

Gov. Paul Cellucci and other state officials have caught flak over the years for their frequent trips and trade missions to foreign countries. But some state workers who promote Massachusetts businesses overseas never have to pack their bags for exotic locales. They’re already there.

In March, Gov. Cellucci personally opened the new Massachusetts Trade Office in Guangzhou, China, which had been operating out of different quarters since 1994. The Bay State also has representatives in trade offices in Berlin; Jerusalem; London; Mexico City; Rio de Janeiro; Singapore; and Derry, Ireland. Apart from the offices in Guangzhou and in Singapore, where one employee has been hired to work in each office, the state contracts with a local marketing or public relations firm that details someone to sell Massachusetts. But these contracted representatives are considered “special state employees” and are subject to state ethics regulations.

The Massachusetts Port Authority is the primary funder of this overseas salesmanship, which cost just over $1 million in the last year. Massport alone funds these contractors in London, Brazil, and Singapore–to the tune of $401,100 last year. To keep special state employees in the five other foreign offices, Massport shared a tab of $688,010 last year with the Massachusetts Trade Office. (MassTrade kicks in 20 percent of the total costs for the China office and for consultants in Germany and Israel, as well as a flat $10,000 a year for the Mexico rep.) The total cost of the new contract in Ireland is still in flux.

The eight foreign outposts serve as more than a good excuse for the governor to take a trip, according to Charles Yelen, director of international marketing at Massport. The offices “are important to the authority, important to the Commonwealth,” he says. Massport uses them to generate international cargo and passenger business for the airlines at Logan Airport by connecting small- and medium-sized Massachusetts companies with markets abroad. “The more we can do to make the routes profitable,” Yelen says, “the better chance we have of retaining current service and attracting new carriers.”

In boosting its overseas presence, Massachusetts is also just keeping up with the Joneses. Connecticut has seven trade reps abroad, for example, while Maryland has a presence in nine foreign countries and Virginia in six, according to the states’ Web sites. If other states have foreign sales reps, the Bay State “almost can’t afford not to do it,” says John Portz, associate professor of political science at Northeastern University.

The use of overseas trade brokers by states and cities came into vogue during the 1980s and ’90s, according to Portz. Indeed, except for a longstanding envoy in London, the Bay State’s foreign trade reps have all been hired since 1992, according to Massport officials.

Does the investment pay off? Massport claims it does. Landing fees at Logan collected from European and Asian airlines, for instance, totaled $4.6 million in fiscal 1999, up 44 percent since fiscal 1995.

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But Portz says it’s hard to know what impact overseas trade offices have.

“It’s tough to put a solid number on the kind of sales and trade that they actually generate,” he says. “Some of that probably would have happened anyway.”