A First Timer’s Guide to the Canton Fair

One of the world’s biggest import and export trade fair is held bi-annually in Guangzhou, China. It was my first time at the Canton Fair, and I am impressed by how massive yet well-organised the event was! Masood had wanted to visit the Canton Fair for sometime. When he made the plan to visit in April, I happily tagged along. I did a lot of research prior to the trip so as not to be clueless once we’re there. I’m putting together a first timer’s guide to the Canton Fair based on my research and recent first-hand experience in Guangzhou.

The Canton Fair started in 1957 and it is held in April and October to showcase various products China has to offer. Exhibitors show their product samples to potential clients and aim to build relationships that can later develop into business partnerships.

Who Should Go to Canton Fair?

Both established businesses and budding startups looking for new product ideas would benefit from the Canton Fair.  Being at the Canton Fair gives you an advantage for your business. A lot of the products at the Fair are not on Alibaba (at least not for the next few months) because many companies release their products at the Canton Fair first, few of them do not sell through sites like Alibaba, and many of the suppliers at the fair aren’t even based in China!

So whether you import products, or have been considering importing products to sell on Amazon or your own commerce site, attending the Canton Fair will  give you an advantage on your competitors that don’t attend the Canton Fair.

Pre-Show Preparation To Maximise Your Trip.

Start your preparations before you hop on a plane to China. Here are the preparations we’ve done ourselves which saved us time and headache:

Pre-register online and print out confirmation page. 

This is extremely important. You can skip the endless serpentine registration lines at the Fair and walk in like a VIP, thus saving tons of precious time! I saw those queues myself; you do not want to spend your day there. Your first step should be to register online and apply for a buyer batch. There is no fee to attend the fair. Buyer badge is free. You’ll need your passport, a recent passport style photo, and a business card.

Don’t use your primary email address. You will be spammed. When doing my research, I found out that in addition to advertisements, you’ll regularly get greetings and wishes for almost all Chinese celebrations and festivities. Create a new email address to use on your application, and on the business card for the fair. Use this when contacting potential suppliers.

Many of the hotels in Guangzhou have authorized offices to print buyer badges, or you can always pick it up at the fair complex. We got ours from the hotel lobby without any hassle.

Research the exhibitor list and highlight the ones who make products that you’re looking for.

Canton Fair is massive. It’s impossible to see everything! The vast complex, with three main exhibit halls and added outdoor space, features about twenty-five thousand vendors from various industries. It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you don’t know what you’re looking for, or where your products of interest are located. Due to your limited time, focus on the exhibition halls that have what you’re looking for and prioritize the suppliers that are important for your business. It’s easy to get distracted at the fair, but you can visit the other exhibitions later for ideas and inspiration.

Signup for a VPN before leaving your home country.

Anything Google-related (search, Gmail, Maps, translator, etc) is difficult to access from China. Same goes for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, and certain news sites such as New York Times. Some 5-star hotels may enable their own VPNs, but you can not rely on this. Sign up for a VPN of your choice and use the 30-day trial while you’re in China. We were able access to Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp from our hotel. We also bought a sim card that allows access to Facebook, Instagram and Google. You can easily find such sim cards at any local store that sells them (they openly advertise about the Google and Facebook accessibility though the sim card).

You can download and install an application of your choice in your smart phone to translate English to Chinese and vice versa. Search for what works best for you. You can speak in English and the app will translate that in Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese). This proved very helpful for us when we went out shopping after the fair or when speaking to the taxi driver.

Transportation: We took a flight to Guangzhou from Hong Kong.

We took an overnight flight to Hong Kong via Cathay Pacific. They had the most affordable option, and we actually had a pleasant journey. Masood and I spent the day in Hong Kong, then left for Guangzhou in the evening.

Guangzhou is a 40-minute journey by plane and a 2-hour trip by train. Most of the visitors prefer flying to Hong Kong and then take taking the train to Guangzhou. However, there are so many flights going into Guangzhou from Hong Kong and they’re not too expensive, so you chose to fly instead. Or, you can fly directly to Guangzhou from your home country. But if you haven’t been to Hong Kong before, why miss this chance?

We had a scary Cathay Dragon experience in Hong Kong.

It was past ten in the evening and both Masood and I are exhausted from our overnight trip from Dubai and then from spending the entire day in Hong Kong whilst red-eyed and jet-lagged. We were in our seats in the aircraft, partly dozing off, waiting for take off for Guangzhou. Announcement was made by the pilot as they took the aircraft to the runway, and we began picking up speed. Moments before taking off the ground, a loud sound reverberated throughout the cabin. Metal banging against metal. We immediately turned to see outside the window. My first thought was that the cabin door has opened. Take off was immediately halted and the aircraft taken away from the runway. Upon the initial inspection by the ground staff, it turned out that the cargo door was open. The aircraft was then taken back to the gate, where we waited for almost two hours as they completed their thorough check. The pilot apologised, explained that all checks have been performed, and that we were ready to fly. Regardless, I was only able to breathe normally once we landed safely in Guangzhou.

Where to stay in Guangzhou for the Canton Fair. 

We stayed at the Asia International Hotel, which is a government certified 5-star hotel in Guangzhou. We booked a month before the Canton Fair was scheduled and got a good price. The bed was huge and comfortable, the amenities are excellent, everyone at the reception spoke English (the room service and housekeeping do not), and the view was so nice!

Where you choose to stay depends on your budget. Obviously, the nearer to the fair complex a hotel is, the higher the price. The Westin, for example, is directly connected to the exhibit halls, but it can cost over $500 per night, while a private room at a hostel in central Guangzhou can cost as little as $25.

Asia International Hotel provided daily shuttle bus service to and from the Canton Fair. This was very convenient and we did not need to take the train or taxi for the fair. After a tiring day at the Fair, it was such a welcome relief to step into an air-conditioned bus that’s waiting for us and then being handed a complimentary bottle of water with a smile.

It is important to consider the location of you hotel. You’ll be spending a long day walking around the fair complex and speaking with vendors. The last thing you’d want to do is ride a crowded subway for 45 minutes to get back to your hotel or wait hours for a taxi. Then there’s the traffic to consider.

The good thing about the location of Asia International Hotel is that it’s just a few minutes’ walk to so many amazing halal restaurants. For the first four days in China, all I had was Turkish and Yemeni food! I believe my first meal in China was dinner at midnight; we had delicious lentil soup, grilled chicken kebabs and rice with pine nuts.

Trade show tips for the buyer: How to spend a productive day at Canton Fair.

Wear comfortable shoes with a business-casual attire.

Dressed to walk while looking professional is preferred. I noticed that people mostly dressed casually. People from all over the world attend the fair so there is a broad spectrum of attire. I did, however, notice a couple of women in pencil skirts and sky-high stilettos at the fair (and wondered how their feet were at the end of the day). But really, a good pair of worn comfortable shoes is what you need the most.

Bring a roller suitcase to carry catalogs and product samples from vendors.

Many people at the Canton Fair brought a wheeled suitcase with them. We didn’t bring one on the first two days of the exhibition since we collected very few, selected catalogues. On the third day, with plans to purchase some sample products, we brought our cabin suitcase with us to the Fair. This is better than shoulder bags or bag packs.

Bring lots of business cards. 

Bring more than you think you’ll need! Vendors will always ask for your business card.

The system that we learned and used at the Fair.

  • Meet a supplier we’re interested in, then staple their card into our notebook.
  • Write a line about their product, reference pricing, minimum order requirement, booth number, and who we spoke to, or
  • take a catalog, mark the specific product we’re interested in, and write down their booth number (extremely helpful when we visited them again on the last day to buy the samples as it’s very easy to get lost!).
  • Take a selfie with the salesperson we spoke with so we remember who’s who. Sometimes, the vendor will ask themselves if we wanted a selfie taken.

First impressions – The 30 second elevator pitch.

Attending a trade fair means you need to make a good impression and to get a supplier to notice you. While almost all are respectful and polite, it’s obvious that suppliers would love to get a huge order from an established business. So how would you get them to pay much attention to small volume buyers? Here’s what I have observed at the fair:

Walk around and look at the booths and the products displayed within. Once you’ve spotted the supplier that may be the right fit for you, ascertain that they can supply the product you need. Simply ask them. If they don’t supply what you need, thank them and move on. If they can, start by introducing yourself and your company, which market you sell in, and products you’re interested in. I noticed that they are always interested about which market you sell in.

Now you need to demonstrate your experience, ability to buy, and potential without getting into too much detail.

Your 30-second elevator speech should  answer the following questions:

  • What type of products do you sell and what are you looking to buy?
  • How long have you been in business?
  • Which market do you sell in?
  • Have you imported from China before?
  • What is your purchasing plan? (Your ability to buy).
  • Are they a manufacturer or trading company? (You’d rather deal directly with a manufacturer).
  • Where do they export to? (If your marketplace is the US or Canada and the factory exports to Africa or the Middle East then beware. Their quality will be cheap. They will claim they can make better quality but this is risky).

Minimum Order Quantities (MOQ) are designed to filter out less qualified buyers. Therefore, don’t begin by just trying to negotiate down MOQ. Share a purchasing plan with them and this will get them interested. Also, don’t spend too much time talking about pricing at this point; just get a reference quotation first. You can always follow-up and negotiate later when you decide to make a deal with them.

The Muslim buyer at the Canton Fair: Halal food and masjid.

Imagine our delight and relief on finding out that there is a praying facility within the fair complex. I mean, we were spending the entire day here and needed a place to offer Dhuhr and Asr salah. The masjid is located in Area A: Hall 6 (lowest floor, where the food court is located).

While the food court is massive and has several food outlets, there is only one halal restaurant. They offer Chinese cuisine only, which made it a challenge for a lot of foreigners. Masood had some crepe with egg and a banana. I ordered rice with chicken and chill beef. Despite its poor presentation, I actually liked the food. The beef was good.

Halal Food within the 115th Canton Fair Complex
Outlet: LSG Sky Chefs
Area A: No.14, Hall 7 of Floor -1
Area B: No.3, yellow zone, fast food area of Floor A
Area C: No.4, Canteen of Floor A

Language: Canton Fair is well setup for English speakers, with most signs translated into English.

Almost all booths at Canton Fair have at least one staff member present who can speak basic English. I noticed that many of the booths were staffed with young folks who looked like students or fresh out of school.

If you speak English, then you shouldn’t have a problem. Obviously, you need to keep your speech as basic as possible and avoid colloquial expressions. If your accent is strong, however, or if English is not your primary language, then you can easily hire a translator (there are several available within the fair complex).

How do you like this golden one for your kitchen?

Canton Fair was fun and informative for me, and very useful for those who are in search of the right supplier for their business. Buyers who have found their ideal supplier then arrange to visit the factories directly after the fair. I believe this is a good opportunity to see how their factory looks, their warehouse, working conditions, and quality of the products (when manufactured in bulk, as opposed to the display samples at the fair).

The next phase of Canton Fair is going to begin on October 15. For those interested, you may check the China Import and Export Fair website directly for more details.



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