Tucked away in a three-office suite of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration is a small bureaucracy playing an unsung role in Los Angeles County’s booming foreign trade sector.
It’s the county Office of Protocol, a $365,000-a-year operation that sees to the needs of foreign delegations during their visits here. And while the office has traditionally catered to government officials, it is increasingly serving delegations of business people.
“People think that we only plan hospitality for visiting foreign dignitaries such as chiefs of states, heads of government and royalty,” said Ginger Barnard, the deputy chief of protocol. “But in reality, the office acts as concierges of the county for an international clientele at the highest levels of government and business.”
For example, the office was recently given 24 hours to find a bakery willing to share the latest U.S. baking technology with visiting bakers from Colombia. Barnard succeeded on that mission, but in another case was unable to find a museum willing to stage a foreign country’s historical art exhibit on one week’s notice.
Currently, the office is trying to find a place in the Los Angeles area for the 12-year-old son of a European consul general to kayak.
“We never know what kind of request we will have to deal with,” Barnard said.
The office also performs more traditional protocol functions, such as setting up a meeting this month between South African government officials and county chief administrative officer David Janssen to study the working relationship between levels of government.
The protocol office is led by a volunteer, Sandra Ausman, who long has been active in cultural affairs and was involved in handling some of the hosting duties for county for the 1984 Olympics. She was appointed to her present post by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 1985.
Barnard is the ranking member of the four-person paid staff that coordinates receptions, meetings and other events for foreign delegations usually at the request of the Board of Supervisors, trade groups or one of the 85 foreign consulates based in Los Angeles County.
The receptions themselves are paid for privately typically, by the foreign country or a major corporation with ties to that country.
The City of Los Angeles long has had a chief of protocol to help ensure proper respect for visiting dignitaries. That post is headed by Lourdes Saab, a member of the mayor’s staff who has one assistant and a $150,000 annual budget.
The county office was formed in 1984 at the urging of Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who has frequently headed county delegations abroad. Antonovich said he proposed the office in response to confusion among foreign business interests.
“The foreign business community didn’t know if they were dealing with city or county agencies so I thought we needed this office to clarify the process,” Antonovich said.
Typically, foreign business delegations come to Los Angeles to develop investment opportunities in real estate or set up U.S. distribution networks for their products, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles.
“These foreign business delegations are a very vital thing for Los Angeles as we’ve always been so laid back (in aggressively marketing the county in foreign markets). We need to have foreign businesses here,” he said.
The Office of Protocol plays a vital role, Kyser said, in projecting Los Angeles County as a hospitable place to conduct business.
Barnard said many foreign cultures, particularly those in Asia, put a premium on ceremonial functions and official hospitality. According them the proper respect, she said, can make the difference between closing a business deal, or losing one.
One of the more embarrassing moments for the office occurred when they presented a clock to the consul general of China, Barnard said not knowing that a clock symbolizes death in China and most other Asian countries.
“Had we done our homework, we never would have made this faux pas,” Barnard said.
In the early stages following the creation of the office, it was “rough sledding” trying to get people to understand the role that protocol can play, according to Ausman. “Outside of diplomatic circles, the idea of protocol is relatively unknown. In fact, every other country in the world is aware of protocol but the United States,” she said.
Los Angeles has become one of the most important diplomatic posts in the world outside major cities like London and Paris, according to Evan Press, the regional director of the State Department’s office of foreign missions. It has 85 foreign consuls the most of any city outside New York.
“With a population of about 2,000, the consul corps is quite a force within Los Angeles,” Press said.
Catering to this segment of the county’s foreign population can only help to increase business opportunities in Los Angeles, according to Barnard.
“Our primary goal is to showcase Los Angeles as a friendly place to do business. We do this by setting up meetings within the business community for the visitors and when a new country locates here, we work with them to acclimate them to the area and put them in touch with business and community leaders,” she said.