Going to a trade show in China, Part 2: Selecting the Right Show for Your Needs

Now you’re ready to go. You’ve got your visa and passport and know how to make comfortable arrangements. So, which show are you attending?

Picking the Correct Show

Probably the most important decision that you will make prior to coming to China is what tradeshow you will attend while here. In China alone there are thousands of shows every year. There are hundreds of lists of shows on the Internet separated by country, industry and date. A nice searchable example for worldwide shows is Global Sources Tradeshow Center.

From the huge bi-annual fairs in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong to smaller regional and industry specific fairs that are held all over the country, the options are almost endless. How to choose between so many? Base your decision on a few key factors. First what vendors are going to be showing at the fair; and second, who attends the fair (who is the target audience).

Which vendors will you be able to meet when you get there? This is the most important question because if you wind up at the wrong fair it doesn’t matter how well prepared you are. Going to the wrong show in your own country can cost you hundreds of dollars and a few days of wasted time. But going to the wrong show in China can cost you thousands of dollars and more than a week of wasted time. You need to be sure that the people you want to meet are exhibiting—manufacturers, factory reps, traders, distributors, professionals. Who are you looking for?

When you register for the show (usually online) you should be able get some participant information. To find out more about who will be there you can talk with the fair organizers either on line or on the phone. Many China shows are sponsored by either the Ministry of Foreign Trade, large sourcing companies, industry groups or even trading companies and will (should) have an English information line or service. Get a list of current fair exhibitors—last year’s participants list may work for your needs. More information is always better—so do your homework.

One of the most difficult things about selecting the right show and supplier is delineating between trading companies and actual factories. Many Chinese trading companies are not up-front about their actual role in the production process and may not have a factory at all. We’ve had clients who have contacted or worked with the “factory” directly only to have us find out later (when we were asked to step in and solve problems) that the “factory” isn’t a factory but an office in Hong Kong, Shanghai or elsewhere. Other times the factory will farm production out to subcontractors and have little or no control over quality. There is no substitute for on the ground research and QC—if you can go to the factory and arrange a constant presence during production, do it! If you can’t physically visit the factory personally, get as much information about your chosen factory as you can before, during and after the show.

Another resource that can help you decided if the exhibitors are right for you is the crowd that the show draws. Are the attendees in your same industry? Are they the same level in the production/distribution chain? Are the folks attending the show your suppliers, customers, competitors or none of the above? If you can, read reviews from past attendees online or in trade magazines. Use your personal network in your home country to talk with others in your industry about the shows they attend or talk with people who have been to the specific fair you would like to attend. Did it work for them? Was it helpful? What do they wish they had done/hadn’t done when they went to the show? Would they go again?

Maybe just as important as who is exhibiting and attending is how well the exhibitors speak your language—or how well you can adapt to new situations. If you are going as a stock-item buyer, you’ll probably be fine with minimal language skills—go in, see a series of current products, get a price, bargain with a calculator and discuss dates with a calendar. But if you are going to need more conversation than that, know ahead of time that your options can often be very limited.

If you already speak Mandarin or Cantonese then you are ready to go! For the rest, you have a few options. You can hire a professional translator for your entire trip or hire English majors off the street outside the tradeshow venues. There are almost always a number of entrepreneurial students wanting experience and some extra cash at the front doors of each large show. These kids will be cheaper than a professional translator but will not have the depth of vocabulary or business experience. With either a professional or student you’ll have to pay to get them in. And be warned, fairs are not fair. In an attempt to limit the numbers of non-buyers in the halls (and force you to use their own high-priced translation services) many fairs limit whom you can bring in to those individuals with foreign passports. You may even have to print business cards for a translator to get them in. No matter what other hoops you have to jump through in the very least, know that you’ll pay $50 or more to get them in.

If you want more personal attention or you would like to have an extra set of eyes at the fair you can hire a US company like SRI to go for you. Or you can just jump in head first and go it alone. In Hong Kong you should have no problem communicating alone—although more and more Mainland factories are going to shows in Hong Kong and the level of English is dropping fast. At many of the larger booths at fairs in Shanghai and Guangzhou you will be fine too. But for at least 50% of most shows you will be limited in what you can talk about outside of dates and numbers.

Once you decide what fair your company is going to attend, you need to choose your company’s representatives that have the best chance of success. Your buyer and/or product designer are usually the first logical choices. They are the ones most intimately involved in the purchase and development needs of your current product. The complexity of your purchase requirements may determine the necessity of sending another specific person, e.g. an engineer.

But be forewarned, China is not the US or Western Europe. Buying at a show may be no problem for anyone, but if one of the people you would like to send is a woman, you may encounter social difficulties that you don’t expect. While many women can and do indeed find great success in Asia, (and much of Asia is quickly moving into the more-equal rights era like the West) women and even young men will not get as much attention and respect as an older man will. For example, if you are doing an OEM project and are expecting to establish a long term relationship and do quite a bit of negotiating you need to understand that a senior male executive will most likely lead the negotiations on behalf of your Chinese factory and will probably feel most comfortable with another male executive—it’s what he’s used to, for sure. Socially it will be more acceptable and probably more comfortable for all involved too. Negotiations often involve dinners, drinking, smoking, karaoke, late evenings, etc. Not that women won’t and don’t enjoy time out on the town, but in Asia it is far often more like a “night out with the boys” than a working dinner in the US.

Next, does anyone in your company speak Mandarin? While most exhibitors will have at least one person that speaks intermediate level English some Chinese skills will do wonders for you and your ability to both stand out and get the personal attention that you want. You may even consider hiring a friend or relative just for the trip. Now, basic Chinese will not be of much help since basic English is readily available. If you do bring an additional Chinese speaker make sure that they have at least intermediate level skills and can negotiate comfortably, if not fluently. While you certainly want to maximize your chances for success hundreds of companies do go on their own to China each year have varied degrees of success. Success depends more on what you communicate and how well you manage your project and relationships than the language you communicate in. But speaking the same language and culture doesn’t hurt either.

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