There is, no doubt, something glamorous about international trade missions.
When Governor Deval Patrick visited Israel in 2011, he posed for photographs with then-President Shimon Peres and dined at the US ambassador’s mansion overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
But the days are long, and the blowback can be intense. The big question posed by government watchdogs and often sharp-tongued media: Does all that public spending on glitzy hotels and fashionable dinners really pay off?
A Boston Globe review of Patrick’s 10 missions, which spanned 15 countries and four continents, suggests there is no firm answer. With Patrick now out of office for six months, it’s easy to highlight examples of deals that fizzled and difficult to point to clear game-changers for the Massachusetts economy.
But proponents say the trips planted seeds for long-term growth. And the more immediate victories, they insist, were real: the British biopharmaceutical firm that moved its headquarters to Lexington, the Boston lawyer who drummed up new business in Israel.
“I think the economic benefit that I’ve created is well in excess of the [$1.5 million taxpayer] cost of all of those trips . . . and I’m just one guy,” said Michael Greeley, a venture capitalist who went on several of Patrick’s trade missions and won a “substantial amount” of foreign investment that he’s poured into Massachusetts firms.
A spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker said he “has no plans to travel abroad at this time” but declined to expound on whether he might head to Paris or Mexico City at some point in the future.
If he does, he will join a host of other governors — including presidential hopefuls Chris Christie and Scott Walker — who have traveled abroad of late, often to mixed reviews.
Massachusetts governors have faced similar scrutiny — William Weld for his dozen trade missions, Paul Cellucci for his own overseas trips. Mitt Romney, who once deemed trade missions “boondoggles,” planned a trip to Israel, only to cancel it amid criticism that he was burnishing his foreign policy credentials for a presidential bid.
Patrick’s first trade mission, in 2007, was to China, where he lobbied Hainan Airlines to launch a nonstop flight between Boston and Beijing.
One key meeting, he said in an e-mail, unfolded in the Forbidden City, where he dined with Hainan executives on a rare fish that required a special chef to remove a deadly venom sac.
“When you ate the serving,” Patrick wrote, “your lips tingled.”
Drawing a straight line between the dinner and the advent of the flight is difficult.
Talks had been underway for a couple of years before Patrick’s 2007 trip. And it would be another seven before the announcement came; there were delays in production of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner required for the route.
But Joel Chusid, the executive director of Hainan’s US operation, said face-to-face meetings with high-ranking officials are important in Chinese culture.
“It’s a matter of respect,” he said.
Whatever its origins, the Beijing-to-Boston flight has an annual economic impact of $255 million, according to a recent report commissioned by Massport, which owns and operates Logan Airport.
Other wins claimed by the Patrick administration do not hold up as well. Officials, for instance, pointed to $15 million in direct investments by Chinese companies in Massachusetts after the trip — including tech firm Hengtian’s establishment of a local office.
But Karyn Murphy, a managing director with Hengtian, said the decision was really driven by a desire to be closer to Boston-based State Street Corp., a partner in the venture, and the company’s North American and European customers.
A spokeswoman for Canton-based Organogenesis, which focuses on soft tissue regeneration and wound healing, said an oft-touted partnership with the National Tissue Engineering Research Center of China fizzled after the center failed to raise promised funds.
But supporters argue the China trip, and a subsequent Asian sojourn, will yield long-term benefits for the Massachusetts economy. Greeley, the venture capitalist, met one of China’s highest-ranking health care officials in Hong Kong during a 2013 trade mission and hosted him at his vacation home in Maine last summer.
“It’s their senior-most policy maker in health care, I run a health care tech fund, I see the guy in Asia on this trip, and then he comes to the States and he stays with me for four days,” he said. “That’s great access. It’s great insight into how that country is going to evolve.”
China was Massachusetts’ fourth-largest export market last year.
Andrew J. Cassey, an economist at Washington State University who has studied gubernatorial trade missions, said targeting that sort of established partner — rather than emerging markets — makes sense.
“You go to your best customers,” he said. “You don’t really cold call.”
But while Patrick visited many of the state’s biggest partners on his trade missions — Canada, England, and Japan among them — there were also trips to Denmark, Chile, and Brazil, where the returns were generally meager.
Still, Greg Bialecki, who served as Patrick’s housing and economic development secretary, said two trips to Massachusetts’ 27th largest export market, Israel, were quite fruitful.
He recalled sitting in a meeting in 2011 with Patrick and top executives at El Al Israel Airlines, who thanked the governor for his visit but said a couple other American cities were at the top of their list for new nonstop flights from Tel Aviv.
“I’m not here to ask you to commit to come to Boston,” Bialecki recalled the governor saying. “But I am here to ask you . . . to put us on that list of two or three that you’re considering.”
Danny Saadon, a vice president at El Al, said there were other factors that bumped Boston to the top of the list. Plans for a Chicago flight, for instance, fell through.
But “we were very impressed that the governor came in person,” Saadon added. And he got the sense, he said, that the governor’s high-profile push galvanized other Massachusetts officials to make the flight, which launched last week , a reality.
The Israel trips yielded other more direct outcomes.
Bill Schnoor, a partner at the law firm of Goodwin Procter, said he made some good contacts during the 2014 mission and has returned several times since, landing “real work with real clients.”
And Nadav Efraty, chief executive of Desalitech, a company that specializes in water purification and reuse, said the missions “really were instrumental” in the company’s decision to move its headquarters from Israel to Newton.
Ultimately, Desalitech is just one piece of a burgeoning water technology industry in Massachusetts. And the sum total of the gains from Patrick’s trade missions is small when measured against the larger Massachusetts economy.
But Cassey, the economist, says for all the attention the trips get, their cost is small, too; just a tiny fraction of a state’s multibillion-dollar budget.
If trade missions are mistakes, he suggested — and his research draws no definitive conclusions about their value — “there are bigger mistakes in the state budget than that.”