By Tim Lindeman and Michelle Zou
A trade show can be an effective platform for foreign technology vendors to enter the China market. Achieving success requires up-front planning, tireless execution during the show, and diligent follow up. Many of the details involved are different from other markets and require a unique approach. This article helps foreign technology leaders understand what is required to manage a successful Chinese trade show from beginning to end.
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About Guest: Michelle Zou is Founder and CEO at Pacific Technologies Consulting Group (PTCG), a strategic consulting firm that helps American companies expand their China operations. Prior to starting PTCG, Michelle spent many years in the tech industry, working for Microsoft, IDC, and EMC. Michelle is also Vice President of the Seattle US-China Business Council and host of the podcast In China with Michelle Zou.
A trade show is an immersive marketplace to jump start your China business
Trade shows bring together many key players in a particular technology or industry segment in the same place and time. With careful planning and execution, foreign technology vendors can make use of this immersive marketplace to gather intelligence and establish connections to lay the groundwork for a successful China entry.
There are many options to customize an event to your company’s requirements and budget
Chinese trade shows cater to the needs of foreign technology vendors at all stages of market development. Options include attending as a visitor, exhibiting in a simple booth or large floor exhibit, as well as sponsorship and speaking opportunities.
WeChat is an effective tool for capturing and nurturing trade show leads
WeChat has become the communication tool of choice for Chinese business professionals. Foreign vendors can use WeChat to connect with contacts they meet at the show and then engage with them on both a business and a personal level.
Gallery: How Dimensional Insight Uses Trade Shows to Market in China
Dimensional Insight, an American business intelligence software vendor, has been using trade shows to market its technology in China for over a decade. The following photos provide examples of what foreign vendors can expect when exhibiting in Chinese technology-focused trade shows.
Setting Objectives and Getting Advice
Before you begin preparing for a show, you should first identify your primary objective. What do you hope to get out of the show? Are you looking to understand the market, find partners, or get customer leads? While you probably will aim to do a little bit of each, choosing a top priority will help you to select the right show, choose the right options, and find the right people to collaborate with.
It can be helpful to involve someone who is knowledgable about Chinese trade shows at the very beginning of the project. This individual can answer general questions and provide feedback on your plans and content. Some consultants specialize in Chinese trade shows and can propose strategies that will help you get the most out of your investment in the show.
Visiting vs. Exhibiting
Attending a show as a visitor is a good starting point if you have never been to a Chinese trade show. By attending, you can gain market intelligence and get a first-hand impression of whether the show is worthwhile to exhibit at. However, as a visitor, you will have limited opportunities to engage attendees in conversations around your products or services.
Exhibiting gives you the opportunity to gain exposure for your business and feedback from potential customers and partners. You don’t have to invest a significant effort preparing for your first event and it is pretty inexpensive to get a standard nine square meter booth. Some companies show up with just a poster and business cards. However, if you are committed to the market and are interested in attracting more visitors, you can also consider signing up for floor space and constructing a custom exhibit.
At some shows, you may have the opportunity to participate in a group exhibit and benefit from increased exposure and potentially reduced prices. Chambers of commerce, foreign commercial services, and various industry associations periodically arrange pavilions at trade shows for their members. These organizations typically partner with event organizers and the media to attract publicity. Generally speaking, it is a good idea for firms who do not yet have a strong foothold in the market to participate in group exhibits. Not only will you gain more traffic to your booth, but you will also be surrounded by other exhibitors who share a common connection and who are a good resource for networking and learning about the market.
Most trade shows offer optional speaking and sponsorship opportunities. These add-ons cost extra and require more time and effort to achieve a return on investment. While many first-time exhibitors choose not to invest in add-ons, speaking in a forum can be a valuable opportunity to introduce your products to a large audience interested in your technology segment.
Mandarin Chinese is the predominant language used at trade shows in China. Furthermore, the general level of English language proficiency is fairly basic. China is still very much a domestic-focused market, and opportunities to use English are limited. Even well-educated professionals may have difficulty communicating with you fluently in English.
Consider the following tips for reducing the communication barrier at trade shows:
- Translate your marketing materials to Chinese: There are many inexpensive options for translation services online. Or if your company has an employee who speaks Chinese, you can do the translation in-house.
- Print two-sided business cards: Use English on one side and Chinese on the other. The company helping you with translation will likely be able to propose a Chinese name that sounds similar to your English name. Chinese business people also print their cards in both Chinese and English. To make it easy for Chinese contacts to reach you, include your WeChat ID on your business card (see more about WeChat below).
- Learn a few basic Chinese words: The words nihao (hello) and xiexie (thank you) go a long way. At one trade show, Michelle Zou saw a foreign businessman standing in front of his booth saying nihao to all of the passers-by and offering to hand them a flier. For those who accepted the flier, he said xiexie. Saying just one or two words in Chinese can be a great icebreaker to start a conversation with visitors who can speak English.
- Hire an interpreter: If you have a booth, it is generally a good idea to hire an interpreter. Some of the larger Chinese trade shows offer interpreters as a paid option for foreign visitors and exhibitors. Or if your company has a Chinese employee, bring that individual to the show with you.
- Include both English and Chinese in your PowerPoint slides: Conferences targeting international participants will typically offer simultaneous interpretation at speaking sessions. You can deliver your presentation in English, but it is good to include a Chinese translation directly under the English text. Doing so will help your audience follow the content much better.
Signage and Materials
If you are exhibiting in a basic 3m x 3m booth, the easiest approach is to bring a set of posters to hang on the walls. You can also bring a stand-up banner to place in front of the booth. The venue typically provides a sign above the booth with your company’s name as well as a desk and chairs. Prepare handouts in Chinese and communicate with the event organizers to understand the right quantity to bring. For most shows, a few hundred copies should be enough.
If you have a custom exhibit, you will need to work with a local Chinese company to design and construct the exhibit. Since large booths attract more visitors, you will need to prepare a larger quantity of printed materials. It may be cost-effective to work with a Chinese printing company to print the materials locally and deliver them to the show.
Setting up meetings prior to the show is a good way to attract relevant visitors to your booth. You will likely want to enlist outside help to identify targets and schedule the meetings. Reach out to your country’s commerce department to inquire about matchmaking services. Or work with a consultant who specializes in your technology sector or industry focus. A well-connected consultant can offer warm introductions to potential partners and customers that are a good match for your business.
Exchanging gifts is a common practice in China. You may meet people who give you a small gift and it is good to have a gift ready to give in return. Ideally, your gifts should be small so they are easy to pack in your suitcase. At the same time, they should be special with your company logo. Such gifts represent your friendship, respect, and the intention of building a relationship with the important contacts you meet.
WeChat is the primary communication tool used in China. (see endnote 1) Before you go, download WeChat on your phone and sign up for a free account. Also, get familiar with the app by adding the other members of your team as contacts, because you are going to want to be able to quickly add contacts at the show.
In addition to being a communication tool, WeChat can also help you translate. Just type what you want to say in English and the other person can tap on the translate button to see your text in Chinese.
Who Should Attend
You should bring at least one senior manager to the show so that person can get a first-hand sense of the market opportunity. Senior managers will also be able to effectively engage with potential partners, customers, and the media. In addition, consider bringing a technical specialist who can answer detailed questions about your technology.
The example budget below is for a comprehensive trade show including cost estimates for different levels of participation. We provide this as a ballpark estimate to give you an idea of the overall costs. Actual costs will vary.
Figure 1: Trade Show Budget Example
See endnote 2 for a detailed explanation of costs.
On the Ground in China
Pre-show Set Up
Exhibitors should plan on arriving two days before the show starts. This allows time to set up the booth and become accustomed to the new time zone. Setup typically begins two to three days in advance to give vendors enough time to construct custom exhibits. If you booked raw floor space, you should visit the site periodically to supervise the construction and deal with any last minute issues that arise. If you have a basic booth, you can begin your setup the day before the show. This should allow sufficient time to set up your signs and any basic equipment.
During the Show
During the show, you will be very busy. In addition to engaging with people at your booth, here are some other things you can do to make the most of your time:
- Walk the floor and gather intelligence: By walking the floor you will get a big picture of the market opportunity. Take notice of whether any foreign or Chinese competitors are exhibiting, the size of their exhibit, and who is manning the booth. Exhibitors often display logos of top customers, so pay attention to who is buying their technology. If you are a relatively small vendor that is new to the market, it is likely that competitors will not know who you are. Take advantage of this and have conversations with your competitors, watch demos, and ask many questions.
- Participate in forums: Take a look at the forum agenda and pick a few sessions that are most relevant to your business. Sit in on the sessions to understand the requirements and achievements of leaders in the space. It is likely that the room is filled with potential customers and partners as well as competitors. If you are good at networking, these sessions are a great environment to start up conversations.
- Participate in scheduled meetings: If you choose to work with a consultant who has connections in your industry, arrange meetings with prospective partners and customers ahead of the show. Keep a schedule of these meetings along with background notes and meeting objectives so you are prepared in advance.
- Talk with the media: Depending on the type of event, different types of media networks and publications often have their own exhibits to promote content and sign up advertisers. Visit their booths, introduce yourself, and learn about their coverage of your technology space. Ask to speak with one of their journalists so you can introduce yourself and learn more about their areas of focus.
- Add people to your WeChat account: When you meet a contact that you want to stay in touch with, be sure to add them to your WeChat. There are different ways to do this, but either having them scan your QR code or scanning theirs is usually the quickest. Adding people to WeChat is really important. If you rely only on business cards and email, you will find out that few people will respond to your communications.
- Schedule off-site meetings: If a meeting goes well, try to schedule a follow-up visit to their business location while you are still in China. Another option is to schedule a time to meet for dinner and drinks in the evening. This will give you the opportunity to get to know each other in a less formal setting and advance the relationship to a much deeper level. Some people will arrange back-to-back activities going late into the evening.
After the Show
Try to leave at least a few days after the show for follow-up visits with people you meet at the show. If you are serious about a potential partnership, visit their company and get to know other people in their business. It takes time to build trust, so it is good to spend as much time as possible laying the foundation for your future partnership while you are in China.
In addition to visiting potential partners and customers, you can also schedule meetings at the chamber of commerce, relevant industry associations, and your country’s local commercial services office. These meetings will help you gain some first-hand advice on local market conditions. You may also gain additional referrals to people that can help your business.
If time allows, you should also try to enjoy the environment, take in a little culture, and do some sightseeing. You will need time to relax after the busy trade show anyway. And spending a little time in China without scheduled meetings should provide you the opportunity to reflect on what you have learned.
Following Up With Chinese Leads
When you get home, use WeChat to follow up with your valuable contacts. Ask them questions about their business as a way to continue the conversation. Send attachments, videos, and schedule online meetings. If your leads send something to you, try to respond as quickly as possible. The speed of business in China is pretty fast and you have to keep up with the pace of your competitors.
It may take time to nurture your leads before you can secure a deal, so be persistent. Since WeChat is a social media platform, you can follow your contacts’ posts, like them and add comments. This will help you to make the relationship more personal and sustain communication during pauses between important action items.
Evaluating the Results and Planning Next Steps
Within the first couple of weeks after returning, you should have a debrief with other people on your leadership team. If you are working with a consultant, it might make sense to include that person in the discussion. Go over what you have learned and review your leads. Assess the opportunity and start to think about your next steps. Even if you think the show was a huge success, you are still only at the very beginning of your China journey. It will likely take considerable time and money to gain traction in the market. You may even need to go to multiple trade shows before you have enough information and connections to fully commit to entering the China market.
Invest adequate time preparing for the show
Start planning early so you have enough time to prepare quality content and arrange a full schedule of meetings for your brief time in China. We recommend beginning to plan at least six months in advance of your selected show.
Work with people who are experienced with Chinese tech-focused trade shows
There are many details involved in executing a successful trade show in China. If you lack the expertise within your own organization, get some expert assistance. An experienced consultant can help you choose the right show, set reasonable goals, localize your content, schedule meetings with prospects, and help plan next steps after the show is over.
Spend as much time outside of the booth as you spend in it
While having a booth is a great way to introduce others to your company and products, the majority of activity at a trade show in China happens outside of the booth. Participate in seminars, walk the floor, and entertain contacts after show hours. Also, leave time at the end of your trip to visit important contacts and to take in some of the beauty and culture that China has to offer.
Follow up. Follow up. Follow up.
With many b2b technologies, signing up new partners and customers can take months and sometimes years. China is no different in this regards. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that you will come back with a bunch of signed deals after spending just a week in China. Use WeChat as a tool to nurture your leads, continue the conversation, and build relationships. If you collected good leads and are diligent, you may be able to close some business before next year’s show.
- WeChat is primarily a communication tool (for texting, video chats, asynchronous audio chats, group chats, etc…), but is also used for mobile payments and a wide variety of everyday activities (such as ordering food at restaurants, unlocking a shared bicycle, or buying tickets). Find out more by searching for WeChat on your smartphone’s app store or visiting https://www.wechat.com/en/.
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- Notes on example trade show budget:
- Airfare: Costs for air tickets vary greatly depending on your point of origin, season, and class of ticket. For this budget, we assume you are traveling economy from the US during the peak travel season.
- Hotel: Moderate hotels in China cost ~$150 per night. We assume all participants will be staying five days. This will allow you enough time to set up, attend the show, and spend a day or two afterward visiting the offices of contact you meet.
- Meals, transportation, and other miscellaneous expenses: A basic budget is ~$50 per person per day. For exhibitors, you will want to budget at least $100 per person per day so you can entertain potential partners and customers.
- Trade show fee: Costs will vary. We estimated exhibition prices based on the China (Shanghai) International Technology Fair. The cost of exhibiting at the Canton Fair is almost twice the price.
- Booth design & setup: Cost for posters and stand-up sign for a basic booth are minimal. We estimate the cost of constructing a custom booth and renting furniture at two times the cost of the raw space.
- Speaking opportunity: Typical prices for speaking opportunities range from $10,000 – $30,000.
- Interpreter: We estimate $100 a day. Visitors only need to hire an interpreter during the show, while exhibitors should hire the interpreter one or two days in advance to assist in setup. The Canton Fair offers English interpreters for $60 – $120 a day. Other languages cost about 25% more. Although tipping is not mandatory, we advise giving a 20% tip to your interpreter if they provide quality service.
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