A referendum was held back in 2007 in Costa Rica in order to approve or reject DR-CAFTA. 52% of the citizens voted “yes”. This free trade agreement between the United States, Central American countries and Dominican Republic was negotiated between 2003 and 2004, and most of those countries ratified it in 2005; only Costa Rica did not join it until that year.

While current president Guillermo Solis is traveling the world in search of foreign investment, others have launched their own trade missions with Costa Rica and the U.S..

Such is the case of Beth Sterchi-Skotzke who describes her experience some years back dealing with business owners from Florida and Costa Rica.

While one businessman from Costa Rica sniffed food flavorings, another listened intently to a sales pitch for high-tech computers.

It was all about business as the Economic Development Council of Collier County hosted its first inbound trade mission.

Nine companies from Costa Rica went to Naples, Florida meeting one on one with executives from local companies who hope to expand their business overseas.

More than 60 companies from Marco Island to Tampa participated.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done this. So I think it exceeded my expectations,” said Beth Sterchi-Skotzke, the EDC’s events and communications manager.

The event was held in a first-floor meeting room at the Naples Grande Resort off Seagate Drive.

For some, new partnerships quickly formed. Through a translator, one Costa Rican businessman said he was “blown away” after hearing a presentation by the owner of Naples Technology Inc., a leader in multi-display computer work stations. At the work stations, several monitors can be hooked up to one computer, increasing efficiency.

Juan Carlos Araya Solorzano, general manager for SCN S.A. in Naranjo, Costa Rica, was looking to buy computers and projectors. He said he’d never found any products like the ones sold by Naples Technology. He was overwhelmed.

“I have given him a lot of information,” said Leonard Osborne, president and founder of Naples Technology.

Osborne shared information on eight product lines. The two men huddled at a table for more than an hour discussing opportunities to do business together. It was Solorzano’s final appointment of the day. He said he “saved the best for last.”

“I’ve been to Las Vegas trade shows. I’ve been to Miami 12 times. Nothing compares,” he said.

“You’re search is over,” Osborne said.

The Costa Rican business executives first met with companies in Miami. For many, it was their first visit to Florida.

Two of the Costa Rican companies that participated in the mission are in the closeout business. As a result of their visit in Miami, one of those businesses loaded up a container full of clothing Wednesday destined for Costa Rica, said Gabriela Lucke, a commercial specialist for the U.S. Embassy in San Jose.

She said many companies in her country have been purchasing products made in China and they’re wanting to buy American instead because they think the quality will be better.

“In Latin America, if it comes from the U.S. it’s good,” said Ralph Puga, president of the Florida Trade Association, which helped organize the mission.

The Costa Rican companies came with a long shopping list of merchandise they wanted to buy including cleaning supplies, evening gowns, purses, furniture, hardware, coffee, paper bags, popcorn and solar water heaters.

The Florida Trade Association, with the help of several partners, has brought nine missions from 13 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to Florida this year, Puga said.

“The impact on the market is over $70 million in projected sales,” Puga said. “We create new opportunities for companies.” Most of the local companies that participated in the one-day mission in Naples are headquartered in Collier County. At least one business, Flayco Products Inc., came from as far away as Tampa. The company sells flavor extracts, food colors, juices and sauce seasonings.

Dental Tourism

The owner brought a bag of samples, opening up bottles filled with a rainbow of flavorings and getting them under the nose of a Costa Rican businessman he hoped to partner with in the future. The meeting appeared to be going well, but it was one of the last ones of the day. It was broken up when the visitors left to go on a quick tour of downtown Naples before heading back to Miami, where they would catch a flight back home.

“It has been all business,” Sterchi-Skotzke said before taking the group quickly around town.

Several food-related businesses from Costa Rica participated in the mission.

Guy Ewing, a food processing consultant for Food Plans International in Naples, brought key lime pies and fish spreads made by Randy Essig, the owner of Randy’s Fish Market Restaurant in North Naples and Randy’s Paradise Shrimp Co. in Bonita Springs, in hopes of winning new business for his client.

Ewing met with representatives from three food-related companies in Costa Rica in hopes that at least one would decide to buy from Essig.

“He’s investigating the possibilities of exporting his products to Costa Rica,” Ewing said. “He doesn’t export at the moment. So this is kind of a new thing.”

He said maybe only one of the food companies would be a good fit for Essig’s products, but that he expects to get many more leads after talking with a representative with the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica.

He’s learned there is an agriculture specialist at the embassy who might be able to connect him with other Costa Rican companies that want to buy the pies or seafood dips.

“You don’t write contracts at these meetings,” Ewing said. “You make contacts and present your products and then you follow up and see where it goes. We definitely will be following up with the U.S. Embassy down there.”

“I suspect if we can connect up with the right companies, then we will send some samples and go from there,” he said.

Scott Sharon, owner of Vertigo Group USA in Naples, made connections during the mission that led to immediate work for his company. He’s been hired to find hand-held voting machines that can be used for elections in Costa Rica. “They are interested in having 10 selections, for up to 10 candidates,” Sharon said.

His company specializes in digital signs and electronic displays. But the business also resells computers for such companies as Samsung, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

“It seems that the people in Costa Rica are interested in computers and laptops always,” Sharon said.

“There they don’t have the thousands of dollars to pay for a large screen TV, but they will rent it for $20 a month,” he said. “That market is very strong in Costa Rica.”

As a result of the mission, he’s also been hired to do consulting work for a company that’s looking for new products it can rent in Costa Rica.

He’d like to see more companies involved in missions like this one — from both sides.

“This is great,” Sharon said. “It’s a real worthwhile project.”

The concern is what will happen now that President Trump is seeking to renegotiate past trade deals. What will be the effect it will have in Costa Rica and future business?