Going to a trade show in China, Part 1 : Getting there

The economics of “the China Price” have hit you too, huh?  You realize that to stay competitive you better at least check out what you can do in China.  Or, better yet, what China can do for you!  And the most logical place to start is a trade show, right?  Lots of suppliers, all in one location.  Quick, convenient, and hopefully not too “foreign.”

So, you’re planning the trip and you’re thinking, best case scenario, a nice hotel, a comfortable flight, a good trade-show, maybe even have time to see a couple of sites in China and at least one supplier that you think you can work with and ultimately save you a lot of money.  But before we get ahead of ourselves, how do you know how to get to the right show?  And what do you do when you get there?  Sure you know your own business, but do you know how it’s done in China?  Pre-trip preparation is going to be the key to success.  So polish your black leather shoes, order extra business cards, get your pocket dictionary and chopsticks ready, recharge your laptop battery and get ready for an adventure!

Travel Arrangements

The first priority should be your travel arrangements simply because this could mess up the whole trip if it’s not done correctly.  To get into China you must have a valid passport from you home country and a visa from The People’s Republic of China (not from the Republic of China, i.e. Taiwan).  Your passport must have at least 6 months left on it from the time you plan to enter China.  If you are from the US you will have to get a visa from a Chinese embassy (in the US or in Hong Kong for example) prior to coming to China.  EU and Australian citizens can get a visa at the airport or boarder crossings (in Hong Kong, for example).

Visitors from both the US and the EU can get a visa at the Chinese Consulate in Hong Kong if you can go in person during regular business hours.  You need to be there before noon to turn in your passport, application and two 2” x 2” photos (photo booth available in the 6th floor lobby).  You can then pick up your passport and new visa anytime three to 76 hours later, depending on what you pay for ($100-$150USD).  The address is: 5/F, Lower Block, China Resources Building, 26 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong. Phone: 25851794.  This is next door to the Hong Kong Convention Center that sits on the bay (not the new one by the airport).

You can also get your visa through a broker on line (like: www.passportsandvisas.com).  This requires you to mail your passport and a credit card number to the broker.  The broker will act as your proxy and will get the Chinese visa from the embassy and mail it back to you.  They can get the visa for you in as little as two or three days.  If you are a US citizen and flying directly to China (not Hong Kong) this is really the only option that you have unless you live in a city with a Chinese Embassy.  A broker can also get you a new or renewed passport if you need one.

Once you’ve got the passport and visa next are your flight arrangements.  The trip from Europe or the States to China is long—12 to 20 plus hours depending on layovers and departure point.  There is no getting around it, so prepare yourself well.  Some suggestions to make it more comfortable include:

  • If you want to afford it, business class is totally worth it.  Unless you are on a tight budget, even at double the price, it may be worth the extra cost to have enough space and comfort to arrive rested and ready to work.
  • Before you leave, understand what the weather will be like where you arrive.  Check out Yahoo or MSN or Google for regional weather forecasts all over the world.  Check seasons and weather trends (in a guide book, for example) and pack accordingly.  Even in the summer, bring an extra sweater or jacket for the plane too.
  • Get some melatonin, a good travel pillow, a couple of good books, extra batteries for your laptop and some snacks.  In addition to the international flight, domestic transportation in China can also be uncomfortably long and with thousands of people going to the same show as you, plan on waiting in lines and waiting rooms.
  • Stay awake or take short naps if you are going to land in the evening and sleep as much as possible if you are going to be arriving in the morning.  Adjust to your new time zone as soon as possible to avoid jet lag.
  • Arrange your schedule so that you are up early and working or out of your hotel room until bedtime for the first week of your trip—this will force you to adjust to the time zone you are working in.
  • Direct flights are shorter and won’t leave you stuck in an airport in Taiwan, Japan or Korea for hours of extra wasted time and expensive airport food.
  • If you do get stuck, find a comfortable spot, try out the local treats, grab a good book or, if you’re an email addict, get on line and catch up with what happened at home in the last 12 hours.  Most of the international airports in Asia have wireless access points—some for free.
  • If you’re tall make sure the airline you are flying on has enough leg room for you to be comfortable for 12 plus hours.  Most airlines have about 32 inches in coach.  Thai Airlines has the most with 34.  Consider requesting an isle or a bulkhead seat if you need more.  Isles are nice to stretch out in, but know that you’ll be woken up by the cart running over your foot or people stepping on you on their way to the bathroom.  Bulkhead seats have more leg room but the armrests are fixed so you can’t spread out if the seat next to you is empty.
  • Don’t let the lure of free miles blind you to higher prices or bad service.  If you have a miles program that you like, see if you can use it.  On some programs a single round trip ticket to Asia can get you almost enough points for a free domestic ticket.  But a free domestic ticket ($2-300) is not worth the days of pain and frustration resulting from a bad international flight.

After you make your flight arrangements and before you get there, to make sure you are going to be comfortable in China.  Book your flight and hotel with a travel agent that specifically knows about where you are going.  Be warned: Chinese “4 Star” and international “4 Star” standards are not the same!  We’ve known a lot of people who were booked in “4 star” hotels only to wind up in real dives—especially in Asia where the hotel may have given itself its star rating.  A knowledgeable travel agent will make sure that the hotel you are going to stay in isn’t 4 stars on paper only.  A name brand hotel, while more expensive, will be more of what you are used to.  Even if you think that you want to get a “real cultural experience” in China, your hotel is not the place to start.

While there are certainly vast differences in the levels of development of various cities in China the tradeshows that attract international participants are typically based in Hong Kong, the modern cities on the East Coast, other Special Economic Zones and in provincial capitols (like Chongqing and Kunming).  Chances are you are going to attend a show in a well-developed city of at least 5 to 18 million people.  So if you’ve booked a nice hotel, don’t worry, there will be all the comforts of home—McDonalds, Subway, Papa Johns, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Jusco, Carrefour, Sushi restaurants, Western toilets, cable TV, the internet, etc.  In addition, there may also be more people than you have probably ever seen in one place before, lots of bones in the Chinese food and unfamiliar names on the menus of the Chinese restaurants (this isn’t your neighborhood Chinese take-out).  There will also be some scary bathrooms and horrible traffic, great photo opportunities, a fascinating culture and some wonderful people!  So plan some time to get out and see the sites and time to hole up in your hotel and recharge your batteries for another outing.

And while you are booking your hotel and shocked at the sticker prices (“Hey, I thought China was cheap?!”), just remember, during a major trade show, no matter where you stay, your hotel isn’t going to be cheap in China.  The biggest shows in China attract hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors, in addition to the thousands manning the booths and other show services.  This isn’t your father’s Communist China—the whole world is here now and supply and demand is the rule of the hospitality industry. Expect that the three to four weeks surrounding most trade shows hotel prices will double, at least.  Adam Smith would be proud.

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