By Karen E. Thuermer, AJOT

Some 300 attendees crowded the conference rooms of the Williamsburg Marriott last week in Williamsburg, VA to attend the 57th annual Virginia Conference on World Trade. Topics of the event surrounded the theme: “Is America’s image costing us money?”

Paul H. Grossman, Jr., chairman of the event and director of International Trade Development at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, asked, “If so, what does it mean to your business’ bottom line and your success in the international trade arena?”

US perception abroad

Keith Reinhard, president, Business for Diplomatic Action and Chairman of New York advertising agency DDB Worldwide, provided a provocative discussion on the subject. He stressed how the perception of the United States has fallen significantly over the last several years and he warned that this trend could affect US business if not abated.

“The US business community can take the lead in altering this course,” he told attendees.

Reinhard warned that in the minds of many people outside the United States, American brands are often linked with US policy.

“Thirty-seven percent of British influentials claim the ‘cultural identity of the US’ makes them less likely to purchase an American product,” he said. “Almost one out of four people in the Asia Pacific region said they have avoided buying American brands.”

Also alarming, Reinhard pointed out that many international companies and groups are avoiding scheduling meetings and conferences in the United States—despite the favorable dollar exchange—because of visa and entry requirements for visitors. He called on US companies to help reverse this anti-Americanism perception trend by implementing policies and practices within their own companies to create better impressions of America and American brands.

Virginia logistics

Speakers from the Virginia Port Authority (VPA) as well as Norfolk Southern outlined cargo growth and how rail is accommodating cargoes and opening opportunities to expanding its outreach to markets farther afield.

VPA Senior Managing Director of Marketing Services Tom Capozzi commented on China and India’s economic growth, and how exports from those locations are benefiting the port. An important development for the port is the growing shift in ships coming to the US East Coast via the Suez Canal rather than the Panama Canal.

“The Panama Canal is congested,’ Capozzi said. “It is also incapable of handling post-Panamax ships.”

Using the Suez Canal guarantees these vessels will voyage to the US East Coast rather than the US West Coast.

Another important point: with the size of these ships on the increase, few US East Coast ports are capable of handling them due to their drafts.

Capozzi made the case as to why VPA is well positioned on the East Coast to capture this business: The Port of Houston is challenged by geography; the Port of New York/New Jersey is near capacity and suffers from road and rail congestion; Baltimore suffers by its location on the Chesapeake Bay; and the Port of Charleston is limited in its expansion abilities.

“Savannah has the ability to grow,” he said. “But ships must sail up the Savannah River, which has draft constraints.”

This leaves VPA, with its 50-foot deepwater. Already a $400 million expansion is underway at the Norfolk Marine Terminal to accommodate future growth. This includes 11 Super-Post Panamax cranes, the largest in the world capable of handling 18,000 teu ships.

“Ships that size are not even built yet,” Capozzi said.

Work is being done to renovate NIT’s backlands as well as the south rail yard, which will increase rail moves from 200,000 to 600,000 containers.

Maersk plans to also invest $450 million in its new APM Terminal, which, when completed in 2008, will encompass three berths on 170 acres. At build out it will cover 285 acres. J. Robert Bray, VPA executive director, later remarked to AJOT that the Maersk Terminal gives VPA a “gold seal of approval.”

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