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Tech tours as good 'business intelligence'

By Steve Mollman
For CNN
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(CNN) -- To glimpse the future, go to where the future is already happening.

That seems to be the general spirit behind a new crop of tour operators that offer business intelligence tours in advanced Asian technology markets such as Japan and South Korea.

Business tours in these markets traditionally have been taken with another aim in mind: market entry. Now, "it is more understood as 'business intelligence' to predict possible futures and prepare for them by looking at markets more advanced in certain fields," says Benjamin Joffe, CEO of Plus Eight Star, a mobile and Internet business consultancy.

Joffe has taken tours around Tokyo showing him the latest from Japan's wireless industry, which is far ahead of most other markets.

Whereas the more traditional tours are organized by chambers of commerce and the like, these news tours tend to be put on by smaller, more independent operators for whom the Internet and word-of-mouth are key marketing tools.

One that Joffe took, called Mobile Intelligence Japan (www.mobileintelligence.jp), was organized by a small outfit called Mobikyo.

Daniel Scuka, a director at Mobikyo, acknowledges that there's already an abundance of information about Japan's wireless market available online and elsewhere. That just makes his tour all the more valuable, he believes.

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"There's a plethora of coverage immediately available online on almost any company, any industry or any technology," he says. "But all that means [is] there's even more of a need to cut through the hype, the PR BS, and the nattering of the blogosphere."

Scuka's tour -- one is being held this week -- keeps things informal, he says, but participants "see mobile up close and personal ... (like) people using their phones while sweating on a crowded Tokyo train."

Meanwhile, long meetings are arranged with industry insiders, and none of it, says Scuka, is scripted. In fact the most valuable insights of the tour might come while in casual settings such as a karaoke bar with in-the-know types.

"One time a mobile game designer proceeded to offer a 2 a.m. lesson in why DoCoMo are a bunch of idiots and how KDDI really know what they're doing," he notes.

The tours aren't just for wireless-related industries. A group of foreign publishers recently spent two days in Tokyo checking out the latest in e-reading technology, which likely will eventually shake up their industries back home. The tour was managed by media publishing association IFRA.

Another group, this one interested in broadband, headed to Seoul to glimpse their own future markets. The weeklong Korea Technology Tour, as its called, is put on by Vectis (www.vectis-intl.com), a consultancy.

"In Korea, a lot of Internet services are much, much more sophisticated and mature in terms of usage and business models than what you can see in the West," notes Joffe.

Meanwhile, a Japanese client of Plus Eight Star (www.plus8star.com), which provides tours in China, Japan and South Korea, recently went to China to learn about the latest in mobile industries and the Internet there.

The tours can be exhausting, as participants are relentlessly exposed to new sights, concepts and people.

At the end, says Scuka, "everyone's pooped."

On the upside, he adds, "they've made some fantastic contacts on which they can legitimately follow-up. They have really discovered why mobile works in Japan, and they can take back multiple lessons learned." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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