WTCA holds annual meeting in New York.

Though the intention of the World Trade Centers Association Member Forum, held in New York from October 15 to 17, was to have a meeting of its members, many international delegates also showed keen interest in developments taking place internationally in regard to trade, logistics, transportation, supply chains, etc.

The WTCA was founded in 1969 by Port Authority of New York New Jersey executive Guy F. Tozzoli but the origins of its name date back to the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. The WTCA was established as a non-profit, non-political association dedicated to the establishment of and operation of World Trade Centers as instruments for international trade expansion.

The three-day WTCA event was held under the theme “Drivers of Progress”, focusing on ways to drive progress within their local communities, highlighting the Association’s plans to modernize and revitalize for the future not only by identifying in brand narrative and expanding its global membership base to 500 WTCA members within the next decade.

John E. Drew, chair, board of directors of the WTCA, emphasized in an interview with this correspondent that WTCA was concentrating on actively expanding. “We want to grow, build up our contacts and cooperate with each other. We are putting emphasis not just on regional or state association … we are going to grow and progress,” he said, giving the example of small and medium-sized companies which started as locals and then expanded to become international companies.

John E. Drew, chair, board of directors of the WTCA

Drew said that his association was putting greater emphasis on the association side as opposed to the individual member side of it. “That’s a 180 degree change for us because the concentration historically has been for us on each member … I have talked to the board, and we feel that the one way to strengthen the individual member is to strengthen the association,” he said, adding that each state WTC has the responsibility “to stand up on its own feet”. Once the license is given to the member, it is the latter’s responsibility on how to run the programs, etc. That model has to evolve “… and the way it is going to change is that we are going to grow the membership to 500.”

Drew recalled that some years back in 1986, when he first received the license in Boston, he saw how companies started out as local, then they became statewide and, later, national before they thought of becoming international. “Today, there is no newly-started company that does not think of going international … there is a world market out there today. One of the things we can do is to help them get into that world market. We can help them get there by defining trade broadly, not just selling products and buying products … trade is also investment and next to investment is education and knowledge-sharing. We are approaching all those fronts,” he said.

Drew said that the current trade situation in the U.S., which has set up tariffs, is going to change. “Recent tariffs are, quite frankly, part of politics in global ambitions … they use much more sticks than carrots, obviously. The problem is that you are pointing your finger at the other country and say we will restrict your products. They play that game, but the real weakness, to my mind, is it ignores some domestic as well as international policy.”

Asked how he saw the escalating Israel-Hamas conflict and its impact on shipping, possibly with the Suez Canal even closing down, Drew said that shipping would continue though the vessels will take longer route, and this will result in more costs. “But they will emphasize on the safety factor,” he added.

Some foreign delegates were privately expressing concern that tariffs imposed by the Trump administration and continued by President Joe Biden, were impeding international trade from realizing its full potential. Asked what he thought about the tariffs, Drew used the carrot-and-stick metaphor to describe the situation “Tariffs are part of the carrot-and-stick approach though in some cases they become the sticks part,” he said.

Melissa Miller, director of World Trade Center in Kansas City, covering 14 counties across the states of Kansas and Missouri, with some 2000 members, highlighted that her organization leveraged its relations with other WTC counterparts in other countries during the critical supply-chain disruptions. “When supply chain was disrupted, it was caused by the tariffs against China, as well as COVID and other supply chain disruptors, including the Suez Canal, etc. Lot of the business community from whom we were handling these requests were looking at near shore … they were not looking to come back to the United States but looking at Mexico and Canada. They also looked at Southeast Asia but did not necessarily want to abandon their supply chain in Asia but, instead, shut those a little bit to other countries. So, we connected them with our WTC counterparts in those areas,” she explained.

Melissa Miller, director of World Trade Center in Kansas City

Canada and Mexico, because of Kansas’ geographic location, are two major trading partners for its business community. Kansas City’s main exports are agricultural products, commodities, livestock, finished goods, animal feed, health products, food, and beverages, etc. “Kansas City has also emerged as a hub for the designing and construction industry. A lot of engineering and architecture companies are based in Kansas City; they sell their services overseas. We have two large auto manufacturers (Ford and General Motors) … auto manufacturing is a hub for us.”

Miller said that engineering and construction companies from Kansas were looking for opportunities in infrastructure in overseas markets. “… there are also those that are looking to set up satellite offices and other distribution centers overseas.” Kansas City, she said, was also “well-positioned” for new investments in sectors such as semi-conductor manufacturing. Panasonic is now building a new electric vehicle battery-manufacturing facility. She pointed out that Kansas City has the longest, contiguous rail line passing through it with the merger of Kansas City Southern and Canada Pacific railway. Besides its inland port connectivity, Kansas City has a new airport facilitating airfreight traffic. It is evolving into a logistics and manufacturing center. Miller said: “We can thus reach 85% of the U.S. population within two days.” All the major air-cargo service providers such as UPS, FedEx, Amazon, USPS, operate from the new airport.

Craig Turner, who heads the WTC Buffalo, explained his focus was binational: besides the U.S. he also looked after Canada, thanks to his organization’s proximity to the northern neighbor. Indeed, Turner said that his territory extends all the way from Syracuse, New York to Hamilton, Ontario.

“We work with companies on both sides of the border … to trade globally but also, across the border. Our biggest trading partner is a mile across the river. We do education, networking advance, we run global business academy, which is the long-term education course, then we do work in economic development just to make sure we are plugged in to all the economic players on both sides of the border … we train everybody that if you get an international trade question, don’t waste time, just call us. Let’s take care of it … that’s the chambers, the elected officials, development agencies … it’s all about relationships which have taken a long time to build, but we believe it’s working.”

Craig Turner, WTC Buffalo

Although Buffalo’s trade is heavily tilted towards Canada – and vice versa - necessitated by geographical proximity, part of the WTCA mission is to trade with the world but when traders are asked, their first choice is, naturally, to “trade 10 minutes away in Canada”.

On the transition from NAFTA to USMCA – the free trade pact between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada – overhauled under President Donald Trump, and making changes in labor issues, etc. Turner said one key element was alignment and standardization in manufacturing. Small differences – like, for example, in the thread of a tire – had led to setting up trade barriers. These were addressed. Though some would say that the changes instituted were cosmetic, there were also those who recognized that the three USMCA members were inextricably tied together.

“We market ourselves as one region two nations … logistics is important for us … we depend on our cross-border trade … our main market is the U.S. and are helped with well-developed infrastructure …” he said.

There were also a number of important foreign delegates recently elected as WTCA Board Members, who were keen to extend the horizons beyond their native countries. Irmohizam Ibrahim, the group managing director of the World Trade Center Kuala Lumpur (WTCKL), was elated at being the first Malaysian to be elected as the WTCA’s board director.

Speaking to the American Journal of Transportation at the forum, Irmohizam Ibrahim said that “he was deeply touched by the honor” of being elected as a board member of the WTCA. “The WTCKL’s focus is not just on real estate but is also involved in the Business Event Economy, a term now in vogue in place of what is known as MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions).” The WTCKL address has also acquired national significance since the country’s political leaders have set up offices in that building complex; he is a board member of the Kuala Lumpur Convention and Exhibition Bureau. He revealed that he was trying to get the world exhibition EXPO to be staged in Kuala Lumpur, possibly, within the next 10 years. He had been talking to various government offices in his country.

The Malaysian delegate highlighted the fact that Malaysia’s major port, Port Klang, which is located near Kuala Lumpur and whose significance is growing in Southeast Asia, is projected to post impressive growth rates in cargo traffic in the future. “In fact, we had made a proposal to expand the port’s infrastructure, by providing additional land … we have proposed a private-public partnership for Port Klang,” he said.

He said that Malaysia, being a trading nation, would welcome U.S. companies to set up operations in Malaysia which offered “excellent investment opportunities”.

Under the Prime Minister’s National Investment Plan, Malaysia has liberalized policies to attract greater foreign direct investment (FDI) into Malaysia, he pointed out, adding that technology is equally important, and TESLA was also coming to Malaysia.

“If TESLA wants to come to Malaysia, other industrial companies can also come.”

Vineet Verma, the managing director of the WTC Bengaluru, India, said that he was “delighted and honored” that Bengaluru was chosen as the next venue for the much- anticipated 54th annual WTCA Global Business Forum to be hosted March 3-6, 2024.

“Logistics and warehousing are expanding … air traffic has doubled from Bengaluru, and we notice that the automobile, textile, pharma sectors are growing,” he noted.

The WTC Metz/Saarbruecken looks after France and Germany. “We deal with the hinterland ports and are also linked to major ports. We want to develop port activities for our companies that engage in import=export trade.

The WTC Metz works with transportation clusters. “We have a regional observatory for transportation that monitors efficiency, costs, pollution, etc. This is part of the economic development,” Patricia Moinard, the directorice/manager of the WTC Metz said in an interview. The French government, she observed, was paying greater attention to transportation issues.

With its location at four intersection points in France and Germany, there were also four airports located close to each other – Luxembourg, Metz, Saarbruecken and Strasbourg. Through Luxembourg, Metz and Saarbruecken had access to a well-developed air-cargo international connectivity.

The Metz industry park is attracting foreign companies. Amazon is setting up a new plant in Metz; the company, which is investing 250 million euros, is the biggest employer with some 4000 workers.

The WTC Marseilles will hold in April 2025 the Global Business Form in Marseilles, focusing on transportation and logistics.

Freerk Faber, the CEO of WTC Twente, Netherlands, who was also re-elected as a WTCA Board Member, outlined his organization’s activities, based on what he called “four pillars” – business group and logistics; trade mission and services; expatriate centers; and business services in the form of aiding foreign companies interested in starting business.

Faber said that the Port of Rotterdam, a leading European port, served as an important trading conduit; 75 % of exports of Netherlands stays in Europe, where 25% goes to Germany.