Breaking the Language Barrier

Florida wants the edge when it comes to attracting Latin American business.

So when wired Latin American firms connect to the Florida State Department's World Wide Web site to search for incorporation forms, they can find them in their native tongue.

The rapid influx of technology companies from Latin America and the Caribbean into Florida prompted the state to launch a bilingual site, www.bienvenidosala florida.com, in mid-March.

"Everyday, Spanish-speaking businesses were coming to us with issues about incorporating, including work force concerns and start-up problems, and that showed a specific and immediate need for the bilingual site," said Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state.

The site provides government forms in Spanish and English from Florida's Division of Corporations for companies interested in incorporating in the state. Translations into Portuguese, the native language of Brazil, Florida's top trading partner, were added last month. The response from foreign-language companies has been excellent, Harris said.

The site generated more than 2,000 hits in its first full week of operation, according to a study conducted by WebTrends Corp. Of those hits, nearly 15 percent were international user sessions, and another 24 percent came from unknown origins.

"Florida is the No. 1 trading partner with all Latin American countries, except Mexico, and 10 of our top 15 trading partners are from Latin America and the Caribbean," Harris said.

Of the domestic hits, most were generated in Florida, but some of the 10 most active cities that signed onto the site included Reston, Va.; Stamford, Conn.; Fairfax, Va.; and Palo Alto, Calif.

Nearly 200 visitors logged on to the site more than once. Besides the site's home page, the page for learning how to incorporate in the state received the most traffic.

Harris said Florida has been rated the No. 1 state in the nation to start a business or grow an existing one, outpacing entire regions of the country in the number of businesses filing for incorporation. Florida also leads the nation in the amount of incorporation material available to companies online.

A History of Online Efforts

Dave Mann, acting assistant secretary of state and the Division of Corporations' director, said the bilingual site is part of his department's longstanding modernization efforts.

"We've made a concerted effort to provide all of our services over the Internet, as opposed to normal mail processes," Mann said.

"We're the No. 1 state nationwide in the number of [filings] for domestic profit corporations, and within the last year six states have called me to look at how Florida is doing it."

Mann said part of the reason for the state's online success is that it posts not only data on the Web but records and necessary forms, too. "We've been well ahead of other states for some time in businesses filing registrations online, and the secretary is trying to expand that to Latin America through the bilingual site," he said. "The availability of a portal to draw people in from Latin American [and Caribbean] countries is crucial to that effort."

The creation of the bilingual site is part of Harris' Digital Hemisphere initiative, launched last year with the formation of the Internet Taskforce for Florida and Latin America. ITFLA was launched to develop e-business and high-technology trade among Florida, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Connecting Latin American and Caribbean technology firms to the rest of the world, while securing Florida as the "epicenter of the new digital hemisphere," is the long-term goal for the state's online initiatives, bilingual and otherwise, Harris said.

Another driving force behind Florida's bilingual site is to provide an additional resource for the secretariat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas while it chooses a site for its permanent location, Harris said.

The FTAA is a U.S.-sponsored organization seeking to loosen trade barriers among 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere. The combined gross domestic product of those nations is $14 trillion. The FTAA, which rotates its headquarters for two-year terms in the United States, Panama and Mexico, is currently in Miami until February of 2001 and is looking for a permanent home.

And Florida wants to serve as the FTAA's permanent headquarters, Harris said. "We're doing everything we can to help expedite where the headquarters will be, and we're doing it through technology," she said.

"The goal is to facilitate [Spanish-speaking] technology businesses in this hemisphere," Harris said. "Florida offers the best service, staff, support, technology and hospitality and is committed to that kind of competitive advantage for Latin American and Caribbean companies. And in their push to conduct business in the U.S., we hope they choose Florida first."

Cities Hablan Espanol, Too

Though Florida is the first state to launch an online bilingual initiative to attract businesses, a number of cities have undertaken similar projects on a smaller scale.

Tucson, Ariz., has the Tucson-Mexico Project, a multimedia campaign to promote tourism and business-to-business interaction between the city and Mexico. That effort involves maintaining parts of the city's Web site in English and Spanish.

Bill Bourland, manager of the project's Maquila Supplier Development Program, said he was impressed with Florida's bilingual site and said that it will likely benefit the state and Spanish-speaking businesses.

"I think it's very effective because you're giving those folks a site in their own language," Bourland said. "Anytime you make literature or a Web site more investor-friendly, people will feel more comfortable and a little more at home doing business with you."

The maquila program links large manufacturing businesses in Mexico with suppliers in Tucson. Typically, Mexican industries get their supplies from the U.S. East Coast, Canada or Europe but are unaware that there are suppliers as close as Tucson, just 60 miles from the Mexican border, Bourland said.

"We're doing some of this already with our project, but that's at the city level," Bourland said. "At the state level, we could stand to have something like this, and I would recommend it to folks [here] in Arizona."

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