Expert tips for attending China's Canton Fair trade expo

By Chris Chamberlin, September 29 2016
Expert tips for attending China's Canton Fair trade expo

The twice-yearly Canton Fair is a goldmine for buyers seeking Chinese suppliers and products for import and sale in Australia, but the sheer size and scope of the Guangzhou mega-expo can also make it an overwhelming experience.

The forthcoming Autumn 2016 Canton Fair, for example, is divided into three phases, each focussing on different products and industries:

  • Phase 1 (October 15-19): Electronics, household appliances, lighting equipment, vehicle and spare parts, machinery, hardware and tools, energy resources, chemical products and building materials.
  • Phase 2 (October 23-27): Consumer goods, home decorations and gifts.
  • Phase 3 (October 31-November 4): Office supplies, cases and bags, recreational products, food, medicines and other medical and health products, textiles, garments and shoes.

Here are ten tips from the trenches for attending Canton Fair and making the most of the opportunities it provides.

1. Getting there, getting about and bookings

Two words: book early! The longer you leave it to lock in your flights, hotels and other travel arrangements, the more expensive these get.

China Southern Airlines flies non-stop from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Guangzhou, China – plus Adelaide from December – while you could also fly with Qantas or Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong and fly onwards to China with Dragonair, or connect by train.

Hotels near the venue, especially those within walking distance, are always considerably more expensive than those further out... but choosing something close can save up to an hour of travel time in each direction and avoids waiting in a long taxi queue too.

Top tip: Most hotels will also over-book during the Canton Fair to ensure they don’t have empty rooms, and if guests must be bumped from one hotel to another, it's usually the guests who haven’t yet paid for their room as opposed to those who have pre-paid their hotel bill.

Even if your room rate doesn't require it, this is one time when paying in advance can make things easier.

2. Event registration, Chinese visas

Foreign visitors can attend the Canton Fair at no admission charge, provided you pre-register online.

That online registration also comes with a visa invitation letter, assisting in your application for a Chinese business visa, although APEC cardholders with an endorsement for China are exempt from the usual visa requirements.

Have one of these with a China endorsement? You're good to go!

Once arrived in Guangzhou, you’ll need to complete your registration in person before you can enter the fair – and for this, you’ll need a printed face photograph of 5cm x 4cm.

You’ll present that, along with your passport and online registration documents at the fair’s registration desks before you enter to obtain your badge, but if you’re smart, you’ll complete that registration at one of 30 participating hotels to avoid the queues.

3. What to bring

Business cards, business cards and more business cards!

Most vendors won’t even give you a catalogue without receiving your business card, so pack a spare box or two.

You’ll also receive plenty of business cards which can get jumbled up, so consider bringing along a small pocket stapler and a notepad – you (or your assistant) can then staple one card to each page as you write notes during your discussions, or to a catalogue to help reconcile your thoughts later.

Each day can be long, usually from 8:30am until 6pm if you maximise your attendance, so a mobile phone charging case or a portable USB power supply will help avoid a flat smartphone battery.

4. Pack cold hard cash

Most suppliers are reluctant to give away too many product samples, but offering to buy these for a modest price (in cash) can achieve good results.

Credit cards are also seldom accepted at the food and beverage outlets here or by taxis and other public transport systems, so you’ll need plenty of it to get by.

Consider obtaining that cash in Australia before you leave or from ATMs from reputable Chinese banks, rather than unbranded or unknown-brand exchange outlets in China which are known for frequently distributing counterfeit cash.

You can still use your credit card in China, but more so at your hotel, at some tourist attractions and selected restaurants, rather than almost universally as is becoming the case in Australia.

5. Wheel your cabin bag to the event

Remember those flyers and catalogues you’ll be making notes about? You’ll receive plenty of them and they can get incredibly heavy – especially when hauling them around for up to nine hours, plus the journey back to the hotel.

This is where your trusty airline cabin bag comes in handy! Empty it out at your hotel in the morning and wheel it along. Four-wheeled bags are best here as you can push them about, but if you only have a two-wheeler, it’s still better than a briefcase.

Top tip: The bag is also a great place to stash a spare bottle of water or two. Most higher-end hotels in China give these out like candy, so grab them from your room or the hotel staff before stepping out each morning.

6. Dress for comfort, not the office

Although this is a ‘business’ event, ditch your usual business attire for something more casual and comfortable, remembering that you’ll be walking around all day long.

That includes your shoes, too – so while your black Italian leather loafers might look the part, your feet will thank you for wearing sneakers or something more appropriate after a long day’s walking.

Vendors will likely suit-up, but take a glance around and you’ll notice your polo shirt isn’t the least bit out of place.

7. Have a buying strategy

Let’s face it: the sheer size of this event means there’s absolutely no way you’ll have time to visit each and every vendor’s stall and talk about their products.

Instead, obtain a map of the venues online, learn where the key areas are and look through a list of the exhibitors to work up a shortlist and a strategy for visiting them.

When you find vendors that might be a good fit, arrange a time to visit their offices and factories outside of the fair for a closer look at how their products are made and to negotiate in a more relaxed setting.

Also be mindful that some vendors may leave the fair before closing time on the last day, so plan to get most of your meetings and visits done earlier.

Keep your eyes peeled for 'trading companies' rather than actual suppliers, too – order from these and you'll likely pay more for your product, but may be able to get started much quicker and easier than when dealing with one manufacturer at a time.

8. Consider using a translator

Most Canton Fair exhibitors these days speak English well enough for general purposes, but complex questions may come across more smoothly if you have a translator at-hand to assist.

There’s an official stall from which translators can be hired at the event – you'll find it nearby the entrance, but consider also bringing your own translator to the event.

That allows you to thoroughly explain what you're seeking well in advance, and helps to make sure your translator is conveying the right message.

9. Know which questions to ask

Before investing too much time with a particular vendor, ask about their MOQs (minimum order quantities) and whether they vary from product to product.

That’s because some businesses here are quite large and are accustomed to dealing with sizeable orders, so you may need to rove around until you find a supplier willing to manufacturer goods in the quantities you require.

Also ask about their shipping arrangements, when an item changes ownership during that process, any certifications, how long they’re been in business, their largest clients, their biggest markets, lead time, product safety and return rates, and write your questions down so you don’t skip one.

10. Be patient!

When planning your schedule, allow plenty of wiggle-room – it takes time to get around, to get to and from the venue, to buy refreshments and visit the bathrooms, so this isn’t a place to have your diary planned down to the minute.

In fact, allow up to an hour to get here each day from further-out hotels, an hour to get back and a further hour waiting at the taxi queue to begin that journey, which starts to make the higher prices charged by nearby hotels more justifiable.

If organising a specific meeting during the event itself, also allow considerable time to get from one part of the fair to another – you don’t want foot traffic to soil your next business opportunity!

Also read: Five common travel scams in China and how to avoid them

Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin is the Associate Editor of Executive Traveller, and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins not just with a single step, but also a strong latte, a theatre ticket, and later in the day, a good gin and tonic.


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