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The planned revisions by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. of its foreign trade mission program for 1998 should benefit more companies and increase member participation.

Only 50 firms have gone on the five trips sponsored by the industry group in cooperation with the Department of Commerce since 1994. That number is even less expressive of active SPI membership interest than what might be assumed, since many of the participants have been repeat travelers.

After a review of the program, SPI's International Trade Advisory Committee decided April 3 that the missions should continue, but with some policy differences.

The changes include less-expensive versions of the trade trips, which have carried a $4,000-$5,000 tour fee per country visited, plus travel expenses. Another critical difference, according to SPI, is that the trade association will have much more say in where the missions go. The Commerce Department previously chose the countries to visit, nations typically selected to reflect the political agenda of the U.S. government abroad.

The policy changes adopted by SPI serve to make the trade missions economically more accessible and responsive to members. Smaller companies certainly will applaud the philosophical change. Many would like to explore business opportunities in the global marketplace, but can ill-afford to spend $10,000-$15,000 for a 10- or 12-day trip that may not really serve their interests.

One of the options SPI came up with that is likely to prove popular is the catalog show concept. For $200-$500 a company can troll for business prospects by exhibiting products or materials at trade show booths staffed by U.S. government representatives.

Next year, SPI officials say China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and Vietnam are under consideration as target trade mission countries. Given that the association previously has organized three trips to China and one to India, some lobbying is warranted for a mission to Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia or South Africa.