In March, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce (Commerce) received word that MRO Americas, a domestic aerospace trade show, had been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This single instance quickly became a trend with all trade shows and events Commerce was scheduled to participate in were delayed or cancelled.
“The past few months have brought plenty of challenges and opportunities for Commerce as we help to bring new jobs and investment to state,” said Brent Kisling, Commerce Executive Director. “I am proud of the way our team has responded and has remained steadfast in our efforts despite changing circumstances. The interest we continue to receive from site selectors and companies looking to expand or relocate proves that Oklahoma has a great business proposition – one that may even be better highlighted during times like this.”
With some of the traditional avenues for economic development at a halt, the Commerce team got to work on new ways to reach site selectors and company executives.
“Like many, we’ve moved to virtual meetings with our out-of-state clients and many of our local community and business partners,” said Jennifer Springer, Commerce Director of Business Development. “While we can’t be ‘out’ recruiting in a more traditional fashion, we continue to work projects, develop new leads and keep Oklahoma top-of-mind with our clients. We’ve also worked to increase our media pitching to get Oklahoma in front of more business decision makers when we can’t be out in the field.”
The team’s efforts appear to be paying off. Only one month into the new fiscal year (which began July 1, 2020), Commerce is working 116 active economic development projects and has already recorded four project wins. The wins are expected to bring more than 300 new jobs to the state as well as $6 million in new investment. The average annual wage for the new jobs is estimated at nearly $78,000.
As the pandemic has continued and rescheduled dates have come and gone, some trade shows are pivoting to virtual events. In July, Commerce participated in its first virtual trade show, the American Chamber of Commerce Brazil Virtual Trade Show of the Americas. For the event, Commerce hosted a digital booth and had an avatar that “walked around” the digitalized version of the expo hall. The Commerce booth was “visited” by other participants and the team was able to provide information to interested parties via digital fliers and virtual B2B meetings.
A key element of winning a project comes with showing company executives available properties and sites that would work for their operations. With travel halted, Commerce had to come up with a new solution.
“We still had companies that were ready to look at sites, but due to travel restrictions they were unable to come see them in person,” said Springer. “Quickly after travel stopped, we began to work with communities to create virtual site tours that we can share. It’s been an intensive process with a professional film crew going to 38 individual sites across the state, but we are scheduled to have the project completed and the tours available for clients in August.”
While the Commerce team has not seen a slow down in the number of projects being worked, they are using the extra time in the state to work with communities to ensure they’re ready when a project comes their way.
“With less time on the road, we’ve spent a great deal of energy reviewing our processes and the ways we disseminate information about doing business in the state,” said Kisling. “That’s not unique to Commerce. So we had to ask ourselves, ‘How can we help Oklahoma communities be better prepared?’ Not every city or town in our state has an extensive economic development operation. Sometimes the city planner or legislative representative is handling economic development requests on top of their other duties. With some training, we can make sure they know where to get the information necessary for completing a Request for Information and how to market their community, its assets and its workforce.”
Commerce originally planned to offer Request for Information (RFI) training alongside the annually Governor’s Economic Development Conference which was scheduled to take place in August, but was cancelled due to the pandemic. The training will now be offered virtually. Once dates have been scheduled, Commerce will open registration to Oklahoma communities.