Content with their margins at home, some companies might fail to see value in braving foreign currencies, unfamiliar cultures and strange languages to boost sales. But the potential reward is great for those who can keep the opportunity in perspective, Georgia State University Professor Jacobus Boers said at the annual Gwinnett Global Trade Summit. 

Mr. Boers admitted that exporting can be scary for the uninitiated, but the risk is relative, he said, putting up on the screen a map of trade routes across blisteringly hot areas of North Africa in the 14th century that merchant caravans had to cross on foot or on the backs of camels.

“If folks in the 14th century could figure out how to ship things across the Sahara Desert, then we can do it!” Mr. Boers said to laughs from the audience of economic developers, service providers and exporters.

The key is for companies is to sketch out their own customized export map, marked with the expertise and services they’ll need to face the unknown with confidence, he said.

“The question is what that map looks like,” he said.

Marking the guideposts is the goal of the Atlanta Metro Export Plan, or MEP, which is consolidating resources and organizations centered on exporting into a web portal that is being showcased during roadshows around the 29-country metropolitan area led by Jen Yun, the point person on the plan at the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

The trade summit, held at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce for the fourth straight year, highlighted the abundance of free and affordable help Atlanta companies can tap into as they contemplate global expansion.

They learned about the Small Business Development Center at the University of Georgia, which offers the ExportGA trade training curriculum, along with the Gold Key matching service from the U.S. Department of Commerce, through which commercial officers based at U.S. embassies abroad set up meetings with vetted prospective customers for just $700.

Mike Waters, a trade specialist focused on health care at the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Atlanta, said private consultants can charge in the tens of thousands of dollars for the same service. He noted he has a client who just set up her 14th Gold Key meeting as she prepares to enter her next market.

Attendees also heard about the importance of trade shows, giant international conventions where buyers gather, usually around specific industries like food, aerospace or energy.

They’re a great entrepôt into the world of global commerce, offering a chance to affordably reach active buyers in one place, said Julie Nickel, an Atlanta-based representative for Messe Frankfurt, a German firm that organizes trade shows all over the world.

In September, the Georgia Department of Economic Development is leading a delegation from the state to Trade Winds – Africa, a business conference in South Africa put on by the U.S. Commercial Service during which side trips to other African countries and one-on-one meetings are available. The state is also leading a defense-sector trip to the U.K. in September and a food mission to India in November. [See more trade shows here]

Mary Waters, head of the state’s international trade department, said it’s part of the Georgia’s effort to a multiplier for companies’ export efforts.

“You’ve got people,” Ms. Waters said, pointing out that they have access to the state’s offices in 11 markets overseas and that they can list their wares in the Georgia Export Directory.

Leaders are aiming to give Atlanta and export boost, since companies that sell outside the U.S. tend to be more resilient and pay higher wages.

The metro area ranks 14th in the country in the value of its exports, but international sales make up less of a proportion of its economy than most other U.S. cities. Atlanta was No. 64 out of the top 100 metros for “export intensity,” a number that proponents said could be somewhat skewed because Atlanta is strong in hard-to-quantify trade in services and lacks a major seaport to boost its goods totals.

Still, Atlanta has the right assets to continue strengthening its export base: namely the connectivity brought by Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, they said.

“There is no reason we should lag in what we do from an export perspective,” said David Balos, JPMorgan’s managing director for Georgia and Alabama.

The Global Cities Initiative, which gave rise to the export plan, is aiming to help metro Atlanta change that. It’s backed by Brookings Institution, the research muscle behind the effort, and JPMorgan Chase, which has committed the funding to see it through.

Two-thirds of the $300,000 donated is allocated to grants that will help existing or prospective exporters “get over the edge,” though details of that Export Challenge have not been laid out.

Gwinnett was the site of one of the first MEP roadshows.

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...