By Ellen McKoy

Middle EastWith the books closed on 2019 overseas trips, SEMA is gearing up for a 2020 Middle East trip to the UAE, which will also include a first-time visit to Saudi Arabia.

Helping SEMA-member companies expand their businesses domestically and internationally is a key tenet of SEMA’s mission. On the domestic front, the most well known and well established is, of course, the annual SEMA Show, which just completed its 53rd year as the premier trade venue to buy, sell and market the products and services that drive the industry.

But SEMA has long looked beyond U.S. borders for opportunities to help member companies explore and tap into international markets. In years past, for example, SEMA had a presence at Automechanika Frankfurt, the trade fair held in Germany. To learn about opportunities south of the border, SEMA encouraged member companies to participate in the PAACE Automechanika Show in Mexico City. The association also organized occasional familiarization trips to Japan and Australia, and SEMA even maintained offices in Japan, China, Australia and Brazil at various times.

More recently, SEMA has focused its sights on four key initiatives to help member companies expand worldwide. For instance, under a special partnership with the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), SEMA imports globally popular, accessory-friendly vehicles not available in the United States to assist member manufacturers in developing export-ready products.

Other outreach efforts include the International Happy Hour—an annual networking event at the SEMA Show that connects exhibitors with international buyers and media—and the SEMA Export Fair, which is cosponsored by the DOC and brings together member manufacturers and overseas buyers. The fourth edition of that two-day networking event was held in July 2019 at the SEMA Garage.

The SEMA International Business Development Program affords members yet another opportunity, a chance to participate in low-cost, high-value turnkey trips to explore promising overseas markets. Over the course of nearly a decade, more than 200 member manufacturers have participated in one or more trips, and the overseas program has generated an impressive $152.7 million in export sales.

Exploring New Markets

In 2019, SEMA partnered with the DOC to orchestrate overseas trips to Australia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Both of these countries boast vibrant enthusiast markets and offer potential growth opportunities for U.S.-based companies.

“The overseas program is beneficial to members in several ways,” said Linda Spencer, SEMA’s senior director of international and government affairs. She noted that qualified member manufacturers may receive up to $1,250 per company to help offset costs, thanks to a grant from the DOC. An additional grant of $1,500 is available to California-based companies.

“At these events, members meet with pre-vetted trade buyers in a very cost-efficient, very effective means,” said Spencer. “It’s low cost because qualified U.S. businesses can get government grants that help defray the cost. And it’s effective because members come to one place, and all of the buyers are there. Before the program even begins, the members get lists of the buyers, including email addresses, so they can reach out beforehand. Members also have a chance to spend a day visiting specialty-equipment shops, so they get to see how the products get to market.”

Just as important is the opportunity for members to interact, share knowledge and help newcomers learn the ropes.

“There’s usually a good mix of new-to-market companies as well as experienced exporters, and those experienced exporters are an amazing resource and very generous with their advice and time,” Spencer said.

Rick Fung is co-owner and CEO of MotoShield Pro, a California-based manufacturer of auto enhancement products for aftermarket and race applications. He first learned of the overseas program from SEMA Director of Membership Gary Vigil during the 2018 CAN Connect Conference in Texas, and he was motivated to join SEMA. As a first-time participant at the Custom Emirates Show in Abu Dhabi, he was impressed with the help and insights he gained from fellow exhibitors as well as SEMA staff and government officials.

“Going in new, we didn’t know what to expect, how things worked or how it operated, so I was a little lost,” Fung said. “I think Linda was surprised by how proactive my team and I were in asking questions. But talking to Linda and Liz Couch of the [DOC] trade department was an eye-opener. Linda is very resourceful and very well respected, and so is Liz. I was really surprised by how promptly they got back to me about questions. They were very responsive, very professional—they did a great job. That in itself really uplifted the program.

“We also learned the ropes from veterans on how to be more prepared. I asked a lot of questions about sales and what obstacles [other exhibitors] have faced. It’s easier for me to learn from someone who’s done it than to try to figure it out.

“The group was very helpful, very forthcoming with advice and how to proceed in the market. There was a good blend of different companies. It’s like a huge family, and everyone helps each other. The program itself was amazing—the tours, the people I met, the follow-up after the show. You can tell if a program is successful by the number of people who return every year. For me, it was really worth it.”

Looking Ahead

With the books closed on 2019 overseas trips, SEMA is gearing up for a 2020 Middle East trip to the UAE, which will also include a first-time visit to Saudi Arabia. The two vibrant markets have high disposable income coupled with a passion for personalization and strong racing and off-road scenes. The trip is slated for March 31–April 7, 2020.

Participating companies will exhibit at the Abu Dhabi-based Custom Show Emirates, tour specialty-equipment shops in the UAE and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and participate in an embassy networking reception as well as briefings and shop tours. U.S. government grants are available to any qualifying member company that self-certifies that it is a U.S. business with majority U.S. product content. An additional grant is available for qualified California-based companies. The combined grants cover nearly 75% of the costs.

According to Spencer, a second overseas trip is also on tap—most likely to Scandinavia in late summer or fall.

“I always research markets beforehand,” she said. “We’ve identified Scandinavia as a region that really values classic American cars and that’s big into performance. It’s something we’re exploring, but it’s looking very promising for those two particular markets.”

For more information on the 2020 SEMA International Business Development Program, email Linda Spencer at To inquire about grants that may be available to U.S. companies in states other than California, contact

Latest Related News

Member News
SEMA Member News
April 2023
View Article
Member News
SEMA Member News
January 2023
View Article
Member News
SEMA Member News
October 2022
View Article