Held April 11-13, the annual SEUS//CP conference gathers six states and seven Canadian provinces.

In Bhushan Mocherla‘s eight years operating a small business, he’s been to countless trade fairs, but very few of them have led to solid deals.

In fact, the whole process has become redundant for RiVi Consulting, the Alpharetta-based technology services company Mr. Mocherla owns with his wife, Omshanti, the CEO.

It often works like this: RiVi books a meeting with the procurement department of a large potential customer. After hearing his short pitch, the company refers Mr. Mocherla to a website where he enters his contact information and certifications. And then, silence.

“No one ever calls us back,” he told GlobalAtlanta.

But April 11-13, Mr. Mocherla had his faith in trade fairs renewed. In need of new clients, he attended the annual convention of the Southeast U.S.-Canadian Provinces Alliance, held this year in Biloxi, Miss. He signed up late, hoping only to meet with Northrop Grumman Corp., the large California-based security and aerospace firm.

Not only did he see Northrop, but he also landed meetings with about 19 other companies, about three-fourths of which showed promise for future deals. And Northrop’s representative has already scheduled a followup meeting at his office.

“I feel euphoric, I feel confident and I feel that I can close some business this year,” Mr. Mocherla told GlobalAtlanta.

Most beneficial was a format that provided access for small companies to top executives of larger firms, he said. Those who control their companies’ purse strings didn’t hide behind a gatekeeper; they were sitting across the table, Mr. Mocherla said.

RiVi’s example shows how an alliance that began as a partnership among the governments of six states and seven Canadian provinces has begun to foster real business ties in its third year, said Kathe Falls, international trade director at the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

“It has really taken off,” Ms. Falls said of the event, which alternates years in the U.S. and Canada.

Three Canadian premiers and four state governors attended, including Georgia’s Sonny Perdue, South Carolina‘s Mark Sanford, Tennessee‘s Phil Bredesen and Mississippi’s Haley Barbour. The leaders were clear that they were only there to support the conference’s true objective: business meetings, Ms. Falls said.

Overall, about 80 companies held 323 meetings at the event, said Diane Alleva Caceres, managing director of Atlanta-based Market Access International, a trade and market research consultancy that arranged the matchmaking program for the second straight year. Eleven Georgia companies held 60 meetings, Ms. Caceres said.

Matchmaking was open to companies in advanced manufacturing, energy and geographic information systems this year, expanded from the ocean-technologies sector at last year’s conference in St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador province.

The business meetings were juxtaposed with panel discussions and speeches by political leaders, allowing “high-level” access to policy makers even as one-on-one meetings handled the “nuts and bolts of business development,” Ms. Caceres said.

SEUS-Canada is just one mechanism by which the state is working to shore up ties with its largest trading partner, even as it responds with increasing enthusiasm to opportunities in emerging markets like China, Ms. Falls said.

Because the relationship is so well-established, “it’s a little more challenging to keep Canada top-of-mind than it is some of the other countries,” she said. Georgia’s exports to Canada stood at $4.1 billion in 2009, the top products being machinery, transportation equipment, textiles, aircraft and others. Imports were valued at $3.8 billion, including aircraft, machinery, and natural resources.

Georgia has a trade office in Toronto to promote exports and to help small- and medium-sized companies navigate the challenges of entering the market.

Maria Arbulu, who has directed the office for the past 10 years, attended the SEUS-Canada event in Mississippi and then visited Atlanta to meet with companies interested in participating in a Georgia trade mission to Toronto May 17-18.

Like the SEUS event, the mission will include business meetings to help companies build relationships, Ms. Arbulu told GlobalAtlanta.

That’s important with Canada, where citizens tend to know much more about the U.S. than Americans know about them, she said.

The Nafta member is rightly seen as an easier place to export than most, but companies shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming exporting there is just like shipping to California, Ms. Arbulu said.

At about 33 million, the population of Canada is 10 times smaller than that of the U.S. Its huge landmass makes distribution of products on a nationwide basis difficult. Each province has its own distinct flavor and cultural influence – French in Quebec, Irish in Newfoundland and English in Ontario – so strategies in one region may not work in another. Also, while the value of the Canadian dollar is practically at parity with the U.S. dollar for now, companies must consider currency fluctuation and customs duties when crafting their export plans, she said.

Even with the challenges, Georgia interest in the U.S.’s northern neighbor has grown over the past few years. The 2009 recession actually intensified this trend, as companies became less adventurous about export markets, Ms. Arbulu said.

“If they’re new to exporting, it’s challenging to go to an emerging market,” she said.

Brandon Pelissero, chief operating officer of EcoLink Inc., knows that from experience.

Based in metro Atlanta, EcoLink makes organic solvents and degreasers used for cleaning and tuning heavy machinery used by militaries and in power utilities, energy firms, factories and other applications. Exports mainly toTaiwan, South Korea and Canada make up about 10 to 20 percent of the company’s sales.

Working in Asia is sometimes like an “ongoing blind date” because the language barrier and cultural differences make it difficult for partners to understand each other, Mr. Pelissero said. That’s not the case in Canada, he said.

“They really know us in terms of growing up as neighbors,” said Mr. Pelissero, who grew up in Pennsylvania, just a few hours drive to the Canadian border.

Plus, Canada is a U.S.-friendly country with similar time zones and cultures and cost-effective travel access, he said.

Still, especially in the chemical industry, there are challenges with exporting: tariffs, distribution and a changing regulatory environment.

“I’m in the environmental sector but within that I deliver chemicals. There’s a fair amount or regulation when you’re going from Georgia to Alabama,” Mr. Pelissero said. “It gets a bit more sticky when you’re crossing country borders.”

Mr. Pelissero plans to go on the Toronto trade mission and said he generally pegs his trips to state trade missions or Georgia booths at industry trade shows like the Dubai Air Show.

Ms. Caceres, of Market Access International, which has a Canadian branch, said her company has helped facilitate more than 50 trade missions between the U.S. and Canada in the past 12 years.

“We can’t take Canada for granted. They’re a strong partners of ours. There’s so much more to be done, and we need to remember that,” she said.

United Parcel Service Inc. recently released a document aimed at teaching small businesses about Canada’s opportunities. The package delivery company recently spent $100 million to build a new air hub in Calgary and has invested tens of millions of dollars to double its package handling capacity in Toronto.

“The future looks bright; we see a strong and resilient Canadian economy, with continued growth opportunities,” Dan Brutto, president of UPS International, wrote in the document.

The more Georgia companies learn about Canada, the better, said Ms. Arbulu, the Georgia office director.

“That’s what exporting is all about, working with one company at a time, helping them enter the market,” she said.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...