When Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings heads to Tokyo on Monday, he’ll be carrying a North Texas token he knows will delight his Japanese hosts.
“I’ve got a Yu Darvish baseball signed, so I’ll be giving that away,” Rawlings said with a chuckle.
The Texas Rangers ace is likely one of the region’s most recognizable figures to Japanese officials who might have a tough time pointing out Dallas on a map (or separating its image from that inescapable TV show.)
But Rawlings — along with a delegation of regional civic and business leaders — hopes to change that during what will be an almost week-long trip to Tokyo and Hong Kong aimed at putting North Texas on Asia’s economic radar.
“We’re the fourth largest market in the U.S. … and if you go around the world, our saliency is not high. We don’t break through, because we’re not talked about,” Rawlings said. “What we have found is that by taking one or two trips a year, we can get nonstop flights, more cargo, businesses moving here. We become a legitimate option.”
Next week’s trade mission comes as local economic development agencies shift their sights from the U.S. to foreign countries, where there are millions of potential new consumers for Texas products and services and where companies looking to tap into American markets are scoping out the best places to start.
Sarah Carabias-Rush, vice president for economic development at the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce, said those foreign companies should be thinking of North Texas — not California or New York.
“Our international program is really just getting started again,” she said. “It’s been dormant for the last five years, but we’re excited to get this off the ground and running.”
Recruiting corporate investment, in the form of jobs and all those sparkling new office campuses, has been a linchpin of North Texas’ economic growth strategy. In recent years, most of the high-profile moves have been from other states.
But among foreign companies, Japan has been a steady top source. And Toyota’s blockbuster announcement in April 2014 that it would move its North American headquarters from Southern California to Plano added a major jolt.
About 170 Japanese companies have offices or headquarters in D-FW. That’s an increase of more than 20 since last summer and up from 112 in 2012.
Carabias-Rush said as Japan’s population (and consumer base) shrinks, its major companies are exploring ways to grow, which makes it fertile for D-FW’s pitch.
“If you’re a company looking to grow, you look at the U.S. and you see Texas and Dallas-Fort Worth in particular as one of the key fastest growing markets in the country, so you really start to consider your options,” she said. “And there’s a nice base of companies that have come before you. We like to call it ‘the soft landing,’ so it’s an easy transition.”
At the same time, she said, Texas health companies see opportunities to expand into Japan, where aging residents will need more care.
“For addressing the aging population, I think would be a great opportunity for companies,” she said.
Shin Takahashi, CEO and president of Irving-based NEC Corporation of America, said the same used to woo employers from around the U.S. have caught the eyes of Japanese executives. NEC’s Japanese leaders will meet with the D-FW delegation.
A lower cost of living than the coasts, easy access to air travel at DFW International Airport and a market that’s adding residents by the thousands are D-FW’s key selling points.
Takahashi said the area’s growing Japanese population has also drawn interest from smaller restaurant chains and supermarkets eager to expand beyond what they describe as an oversaturated Southern California market.
“I’ve been receiving a lot of interest from restaurant owners in Japan, or who own kimono companies, retail — they’re introducing what they do to the state,” he said. “They all feel the West Coast market is saturated and there’s a big untouched market (in Texas.)”
He mentioned the revolving sushi bar chain, Kula, which opened its first U.S. outposts outside of California in Carrollton and Plano.
Texas’ rapid growth also puts it in line to capitalize on shifts in Japan’s technological focus. Changing markets mean Japanese companies are increasingly focused on infrastructure development rather than consumer electronics, Takahashi said.
He cited the example of a planned high-speed railway that will shuttle riders from Dallas to Houston in 90 minutes. Texas Central Partners, a private company, is developing the train with the help of Japanese Central Railway, which developed the bullet train technology.
The Dallas delegation is set to meet with Japanese Central Railway executives, who will update the group on the technology.
Proponents of the project have said it will boost economic ties between Houston and Dallas. A new ridership study funded by Texas Central Partners estimates 5 million passengers will use the train by 2026.
Takahashi said he thinks it’ll effectively erase the 240-mile distance between the two.
“The bullet train was originally built between Tokyo and Osaka,” he said, which were two distinct economic capitals in Japan.
“It became one economic zone sort of, and that’s what you have right now with Houston and Dallas,” he said. “It’s a completely different perspective once those two big cities are connected.”
The Hong Kong portion of the trip will be focused more on promoting the region as a tourist destination for Chinese travelers.
Phillip Jones, CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the agency has run up against “limited awareness” of the region as an option, particularly for Chinese tourists, whose surge in spending power has made for a tantalizing consumer pool for luxury brands.
“It’s all about shopping,” Jones said. “That’s our No. 1 sales pitch.”
International travelers in general tend to spend more money and stay longer in town.
The addition of direct flights has helped boost international travel through DFW Airport, according to CVB data. China accounted for 44,000 arrivals last year, while Japan sent 26,000 passengers through DFW.
But when compared with sheer volume of Chinese leisure travelers, that’s not much. Jones said he sees opportunity.
“When you look at the data, the sheer volume of potential travelers,” he said, “even if we get a small percentage of it, it’s going to be a huge market for us.”