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Finding the 'international' at IFA's convention


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Dateline:  Orlando.

What brings them here? By “here,” I mean the 52nd Annual Convention of the International Franchise Association.

By “them” I mean the interesting mix of attendees from outside the United States.

The turnout of the convention itself was impressive in its own right: The final number was 2,837—one of the largest in the history of the association, especially striking against the backdrop of a still anemic economic recovery. Among those throngs were nearly 200 from abroad representing 23 countries.

Why?

The Canadians are, of course, a special case.  For many of them the U.S. market is simply an extension of their own, and a flight due south during February has an appeal all its own.

But what about all the others? They came from virtually every continent, and their presence here is, at first glance, mystifying —there are 10 people from a single company in Togo (where?).

It is certainly not the appeal of the featured events. It’s hard to imagine they would spend the time and money—not inconsiderable expenditures—to hear such distinctively American speakers as conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly or to learn about such American concerns as the VetFran initiative, which helps returning veterans access franchise opportunities, or the U.S. credit crunch.

If they are franchisors, it’s probably not to sell franchises. After all, that’s what the International Franchise Expo and other franchise shows are for. The exhibitors’ space is well stocked, but it’s for goods and services being offered to the franchise industry by suppliers, almost entirely aimed at the U.S. market.

Could some of the foreign visitors be suppliers, assessing what U.S. suppliers are offering?  Sure, just as some are lawyers on the alert for opportunities, and some are executives of national franchise associations, here to catch up with what their counterparts from other countries are thinking about.

But the great bulk of them seem to be franchisors, some in the early stages of development and some much further along. It’s fair to conclude that they didn’t come to see Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.

From my discussions with them—some at meetings they sought out, more in casual talk in hallways or after programs—I believe they are drawn by one or the other (and sometimes both) of these two opportunities.

Some are attracted to the U.S. market itself.  They’ve heard all the reasons to stay away—it’s too big; it’s too expensive; the advertising demands alone will kill you; it’s too competitive; the U.S. economy is in the doldrums; the regulatory system will tie you up in knots; there are lawyers behind every bush. But the appeal of the largest market in the world is a powerful magnet. Many of them have lived, worked or studied here. Many seem to believe the systems they have developed in their own countries (or elsewhere) will find ready customers here. They’re aware that many of the entries into franchising from abroad have been by way of acquisition, and some of them have pockets deep enough to make that prospect realistic.  For most, though, it is simply the attraction of extending the geographic reach of their current system here through franchising which has drawn them to this gathering.

Some have no such grand plans, but are here to soak up the experiences, the trends and the atmosphere. Especially for those who have been to earlier conventions, they know there is no better place and time, no richer resource of people and subject matter.

If they were observant, they would have noticed a couple of recent developments that reflect the association’s mounting awareness of the significance of the international dimension of franchising.

The recently created “Blue Sky Group,” charged with the responsibility of thinking outside the box about the future of the association and franchising, identified international development as one of the small number of areas of activity which has the potential to change franchising in a dramatic fashion. Several initiatives will be pursued to convert that potential to reality.

Breaking precedent, the outgoing chair of the association, Jack Earle, will serve as chair of a standing committee—International, and the fact that Earle is a multi-unit franchisee of McDonald’s, the world’s largest franchisor, sends a pretty unmistakable message.

And many of the discussions, of course, are explicitly “international” in nature.   

The traditional Elements of Successful Franchising program focuses as never before in its 21-year history on the explosive growth of international franchising, and on an examination of the reasons and a prognosis for continued expansion.

An entire “International Summit” is devoted to three hours of discussion of aspects of international franchising.

A “track” was created for those with international interests, featuring 12 separate programs.

Intensive sessions were devoted to such subjects as “New Emerging Overseas Markets,” but their interests are not limited to cross-border topics. A broad range of the programs are of equal interest to a Mexican or Brazilian or Italian franchisor as to one from Texas or New Jersey. Consider the wide range of programs on such subjects as franchise sales; the franchise agreement itself; operations; finance; technology; support for franchisees; franchise relations; advertising; public relations and marketing; social media; succession planning; managing change; new concepts; and virtually every other facet of franchising the most fertile mind can imagine.

For 52 years the International Franchise Association has been moving, sometimes haltingly, toward a validation of the “international” in its name, not simply by providing vehicles for its U.S. members to sell more franchises in foreign countries but also by creating an environment for successful and responsible franchising, everywhere.

This building process has taken a half-century, and it is certainly not complete. But perhaps there is no better evidence of the progress it has made toward that goal than these franchisors who came here from all over the globe to listen, to learn and to exchange ideas.  

To borrow a phrase, build it and they will come.

Philip F. Zeidman is a senior partner in the Washington, D.C., office of DLA Piper U.S. He can be reached at Philip.Zeidman@dlapiper.com.

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