Apr 04, 2018 11:52 AM

Exhibitions Show Aging Signs, Conferences Gain Chatter on China Business Scene

Beijing may be making up its mind over what season it is, based on our weather over the past two weeks that at times feels more like summer, followed plunging temperatures that feel more like winter and then occasionally some spring-like breaks in between. But such erratic swings are irrelevant for an industry that makes its bread-and-butter from organizing big trade shows and conferences, with April kicking off the annual springtime season for such events.

King of those events is the biannual Canton Fair, formally known as the China Import and Export Fair, whose spring edition will open on April 15. The event is the country’s oldest continuous major trade show dating back to 1957. Some of my earliest memories of China in the late 1980s and early 1990s come from the floors of such shows, from my brief tenure working at an importer of medical equipment and also in one of my first journalism jobs reporting on the nation’s electronics industry.

Such shows have come a long way since then, which raises the bigger question of how their role has evolved as part of the local business landscape over the last three decades. I talked with quite a few foreigners who attend such shows for work, and the responses varied quite widely from general praise to downright contempt for such events.

But the broader consensus seemed to be that trade shows like the Canton Fair are far less important to doing business in China today than they were in the past, even though some people still find them useful. At the same time, conferences have become a more valuable resource, since they tend to bring together lots of higher-level officials and executives who can become valuable business contacts and also talk knowledgeably about the latest trends and industry gossip.

In this case, readers will need to indulge me briefly as I sidetrack with my own short trip down memory lane with my own experience at such trade shows and conferences over the last 30 years. Such shows were quite important for the trading company where I worked back in 1987, and we put big resources into attending these events. Back then telecommunications were quite crude and travel was costly and difficult for most local Chinese, meaning these shows were one of the few places for making new contacts and finding customers for our specialized medical equipment and devices.

That reality continued into the early 1990s, when I was a Hong Kong-based reporter and traveled each spring and fall to the Canton Fair in nearby Guangzhou to get a pulse on the latest Chinese manufacturing and exporting trends. The fair was China’s main export window to the rest of the world for most of its first three decades starting in the 1950s, and it was always fun to see the wide array of goods being peddled there, from electronics, to housewares and handicrafts.

One of my contacts, who has attended the fair regularly over the last decade, says it still remains a vibrant place where it’s easy for China neophytes to get some basic knowledge on a wide range of industries in a single place. It’s also a good place to get a broader pulse on the nation’s exports, he added.

Past their prime

But most of the others I talked to were relatively downbeat on the usefulness of such big trade shows. One of the big complaints was such shows tend to be filled with low-level sales people whose industry and product knowledge might be limited, and who are also famous for job-hopping. One longtime China hand who was quite downbeat on these shows said he avoids them, even though they were quite common for one of his recent jobs in the local liquor industry. He described such shows as largely a waste of time, and said his employees treated them more like a big party where they could meet with rivals, go out together for meals and exchange company gossip and trade secrets.

Another contact at a major machinery seller was less cynical, but also noted that such shows are losing their importance in a world where it’s quite easy to make and maintain contacts using other channels. He noted: “These events used to be very important — now, not so much.”

Yet another contact who is quite active in the solar industry noted that conferences are more useful, especially when they are organized by well-connected industry people. Here I should add my own cautionary words that some of these conferences bill themselves by saying that big-name executives will attend, only to often have those people be no-shows. But I do get the sense that practice, which used to be common in high-tech industries, may be gradually improving in recent years.

More broadly speaking, several sources pointed out that the quality of such trade shows and conferences tends to vary widely, and veteran organizers, especially foreign ones, tend to put on more worthwhile events. Even so, I’ve been to local Chinese editions of big-name events like the Consumer Electronics Show, World Economic Forum and Mobile World Congress, and have to say they often pale in comparison to the global originals due to a dearth of much foreign participation.

At the end of the day, the things happening in China are really part of a global trend that’s seeing modern communications slowly erode the relevance of big trade shows, sending them down a similar path followed by even older networking venues like supper clubs. But such shows still probably have a bit of life left, especially for China neophytes. Meantime, conferences remain a more useful venue for doing business in China, and should probably be around for the foreseeable future.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to

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