Have you thought about importing products and selling them on Amazon, Ebay or other platforms? Do you currently sell products, whether online or in a traditional brick and mortar store?
You may have heard about the Canton Fair- the biggest trade fair in the world. In this guide, I share information about the fair- what it is, whether you should go, how to prepare and what to expect when you get there.
I also answer some commonly asked questions about the Canton Fair- from whether you can buy coffee at the fair, to whether you can buy any of the samples at the fair, and everything in between!
Canton Fair Guide: Everything you need to know (and do!) before you go
In late April 2018 I attended the 123rd China Import Export Fair, which is held in Guangzhou in southern China.
What is the Canton Fair?
The Canton Fair is the biggest trade fair in the world, where Chinese manufacturers and suppliers show off their products, and business people (mainly retail buyers and business owners) from around the world come to see what products are available, what’s hot and to network.
The fair has been running since the late 1950s, and now runs twice a year in April and October, for four weeks.
Each week is known as a phase. We attended phase 2 (week 2), which is homewares, kitchenware, toys, gifts, toiletries, outdoor gardening and pet products.
Manufacturers and suppliers have a booth which showcases product samples. Attendees of the fair are known as “buyers” (like me!) and walk around looking at the product samples in the booths and talk to the manufacturers and suppliers.
Essentially, it’s like window shopping at Chadstone Shopping Centre- you can look, and touch, but not buy (damn! But great for the wallet!).
To give you an idea of the enormity of the fair- there are three main buildings known as zones, and within each building there are different rooms. I’ve been told the buildings are 1km long, so imagine how much ground you could cover walking up to 8 hours per day over the 5 days! We used a pedometer-type app on our phones- we walked about 16,000 steps on our first day at the fair!
There’s also a stage in the central meeting point, and carts that drive people around.
Once you are inside the buildings, there are booths as far as the eye can see. It isn’t possible to visit each booth, you would need at least a month to do so.
There is much to see and many people to speak to, that you really need to have a checklist with you, listing what you’re aiming to see, so that you don’t get distracted by that shiny new object you’ve just laid your eyes on.
I decided on which categories I was interested in, and made sure that I spent most of my time visiting the booths in these categories. I spent about 4 or 5 hours each day walking around, making notes, taking photos, exchanging business cards and asking questions.
At the end of each day, I and my two entrepreneurial friends got together on our hotel balcony and had a live mastermind. We exchanged information, talked about what we had seen and made plans for the next day.
Each day spent at the fair is overwhelming, so it’s great to spend some time processing what you’ve seen and learnt.
Things to organise before you go to Canton
Here’s a summary of what you need to organise:
-Decide which phase to visit
-Register for the Canton Fair
-Book your flights, hotel and travel insurance
-Book factory visits and supplier meetings (if you’re already in communication with suppliers)
-Organise China Visa
-Organise vaccines (at least 30 days before departure)
-Create new email address and print up some new business cards specifically for the fair
-Organise cash currency before departure
-Set up a VPN through Express VPN or Tunnel Bear
-Usual travel preparations- notify your bank; organise your luggage and what you will pack
Which phase will you visit?
Before you can register for the fair, book flights and your hotel, you need to decide which phase you will visit. Think about the types of products you currently sell or what you want to sell. Each phase starts on a Monday and finishes on a Friday.
You could arrive on a Tuesday night, and stay for a week so that you are there for half of one phase and then half of the next phase. Or you could arrive on a Sunday night and leave on a Saturday morning and just visit the one phase.
Plan which phase you want to visit. Think about the types of products you want to sell, then choose the phase that best suits these products.
Once you have chosen your dates, you are ready to register for the Canton Fair.
Register for the Canton Fair
Before you can do anything else, you need to register for the Canton Fair online. Registration is free.
Unfortunately, registration isn’t very clear-cut and it can take a few hours for you to navigate the website. You will also need to upload a photo of yourself (passport size). It can take a few weeks for your registration to be confirmed (especially if it’s Chinese New Year). Be patient.
Once your registration is complete, you’ll receive an invitation. This is very important- print off the invitation as you will need this when applying for a Chinese Visa.
Book your flights, hotel and travel insurance
View from a room at the Shangri La Hotel, Guangzhou
It’s now time to book your flights and hotel! This needs to be done before applying for a China Visa. When applying for a China Visa, you will need to list your itinerary including your flight and hotel details, which is why you must book your flight and hotel first.
Some tips when choosing a hotel:
Try and stay somewhere fairly close to Canton Fair. You’ll be tired from walking all day and will want to get back to your hotel quickly and easily. If you can’t be close to the fair, make sure your hotel is within walking distance to a metro station. Guangzhou has a safe, cheap and easy to use metro system. We took the metro every day between our hotel and the fair.
If you have the cash to splash, the Westin hotel connects to the Canton Fair building and is a lovely place. And if you have more cash than sense, the Shangri La hotel is beautiful!
If you’re flying in from Australia, China Southern Airlines flies you to Guangzhou. From Melbourne, there is a direct 9-hour flight, either an overnight flight or one that departs Melbourne early in the morning. We took the overnight flight however it meant we were very tired on our arrival in Guangzhou. We arrived the first day of the fair, but didn’t bother going to the fair until the afternoon (after we had a nap!).
Booking factory visits and supplier meetings
If you’ve already been in contact with suppliers, ask if they will be attending the Canton Fair. If they’ll be there when you are, it’s worth organising a meeting with them. It’s important to build a relationship with your suppliers. If you’re already in China, then make the most of the opportunity to meet your suppliers.
If your suppliers aren’t attending Canton Fair but you still want to visit them, you could arrange a factory visit.
If you’ve been wanting to order samples from suppliers, a good (and cost-effective) idea is to order your samples and have them delivered to your hotel while you’re at Canton Fair. This will save you on freight costs- you can take the samples home with you in your luggage.
Organise your China Visa
Once you have your official invitation for the Canton Fair, and you’ve booked your flights and hotel, you can proceed with applying for a Chinese Visa.
To apply for a Chinese Visa, if you’re Australian, head to the https://www.visaforchina.org/SYD_EN/
Print off an application form and fill it in- make sure you complete all of the relevant sections including your itinerary. This is why it’s important to book your flights, accommodation, supplier meetings and factory visits before organising your China Visa.
If this is your first visit to China, you will only be eligible for the Single Entry visa which entitles you to visit China on one occasion on this visa. If you go to Guangzhou for the Canton Fair and decide that while you’re there, you’ll visit Hong Kong (which is only one hour by train), note that if you have a Single Entry visa, you will not be allowed to leave Hong Kong and return to China. For visa purposes, China and Hong Kong are still considered separate territories. So don’t get caught out!
You will need a passport-type photo to take with you to the Chinese Visa Application Centre. Go to your local Post Office and explain that you need a passport photo for a Chinese Visa, and they will know the type and size of photo required.
You have your completed application forms, your passport photo- it’s time to visit the Chinese Visa Application Centre in your state. Make sure you bring all of the documents listed on the application form.
You’d be amazed at how many people forget to bring the right documents with them! This wastes a lot of time and is the reason why there’s a queue at the centre. My friend and I spent 30 seconds at the counter- we had everything we needed and the process was very smooth.
Your passport stays at the centre for processing because you aren’t granted a Visa right away. The average time for processing is four business days unless you have paid an extra fee to have it fast-tracked. The centre staff will let you know what day to come back and collect your passport with the Visa. It can’t be posted to you.
Other things to organise
-Visit your GP to check if you need any vaccinations. Usually, you’ll need typhoid and hepatitis vaccine and it will need to be done at least 30 days before departure.
-If you’re organising your Buyers Badge at the fair, don’t get there at 9.30am on the first day as the queues are long.
The Guangzhou Metro is an efficient and easy way to travel
-If you’re catching the Metro, buy a 1, 3 or 5 day pass as it’s cheaper. Avoid trains around 5pm-7pm due to the crowds.
-Take lots of business cards with you because every supplier you have a conversation with will ask you for your card. If you ask them for a catalogue, expect to give a business card in exchange. I suggest printing new business cards specifically for the fair. Create a new email account that you use only for the Canton Fair. You may be inundated with emails, and the Chinese are very persistent.
-Have an idea of what you’re looking for at the fair, but also come with an open mind. You may see products you didn’t expect to see. You may think you only want to see certain sections or themes, but when you visit other areas of the fair you may be surprised.
-Download a translating app so that you can communicate more easily with the Chinese- their English is very basic and limited. If you want to ask specific questions, it’s easier to use a translator app. But note that translator apps don’t always work well!
Packing for the Canton Fair and China
April is usually a warm time of year in Guangzhou. It can get humid, so light clothing is recommended. Since you’ll be walking around all day, make sure you wear something that’s comfortable. Layers are better than heavy clothing.
Comfortable shoes are vital! If you’re buying new shoes before you go, wear them at home to wear them in.
Sanitary products- make sure you pack tampons if you use them as they don’t sell tampons in China!
I packed dry food snacks and powdered milk, as my friend brought her coffee machine with her.
Your hotel will provide you with bottled water each day. It’s not recommended you drink tap water in China. Ask your GP or pharmacist about tablets to help with gastro in case you get sick while you’re in China.
Bring a toilet roll and tissues- these are handy to pack, no matter where you are travelling!
At the Canton Fair
The first thing you’ll need to do before attending the Canton Fair is organise your Buyer’s Badge.
This can either be done at your hotel (if you’re hotel offers Buyers Badge registration- usually the 4 star and 5 star hotels offer this) or at the Canton Fair itself. We did ours at the fair- since we arrived at the fair in the afternoon, there was no queue for the Buyer’s Badge. The process took a couple of minutes. Make sure you keep your Buyer’s Badge- it can be used at any future Canton Fair. If you lose it, you’ll need to pay for a replacement.
Once you have your Buyer’s Badge and you’ve entered the venue, it’s a good idea to get your bearings. A good central meeting point is in front of the stage, if you’re attending Canton Fair with other people.
Otherwise, look at the signs and work out which parts of the fair you’re interested in visiting. Go to these sections first.
Take regular breaks throughout the day, and make sure you stop for lunch to refuel your energy. You’ll need a few breaks just to clear your head. The experience of Canton Fair can be overwhelming! There’s so much to see, you’ll feel like a kid on Christmas morning!
Frequently Asked Questions About The Canton Fair
Can I buy any of the products on display?
The sample products aren’t for sale but sometimes, if you’re lucky enough, the exhibitor may give you a free sample.
Will I find a unique or new-to-market product?
Most of the products on display are off-the-shelf items, many of which are already big sellers on places like Amazon or even in your local bricks and mortar stores.
But if you look harder, you can find unique products and those that may not be available for sale yet in your home country. It’s worth keeping an open mind- you’re more likely to find something interesting!
Think about ways that you can modify an existing product to make it new or to improve it- talk to the suppliers about how to make this happen.
Do the exhibitors at the fair speak English?
Most exhibitors speak basic English, but many don’t speak English at all. This is not the place to negotiate a business contract or any other deal! Most will say the “Chinese yes” which is when they nod and smile and say yes to everything you ask them, but in reality they didn’t understand what you asked them!
Download a translator app however note- if your wi-fi access isn’t great, the app won’t work properly! You could also try arranging for a translator to work for you while you’re at the fair.
Can I take photos at the fair?
While there isn’t a ban on photos, many of the exhibitors don’t allow photos to be taken of their products. I’m guessing this is to protect their samples from copycats and product pirates who want to steal ideas and copy them? But if you have good rapport with the exhibitor and you are genuinely interested in their products, you could ask permission for a photo and they may agree.
Should I bring my business cards?
Business cards are a valuable asset to the Chinese! Your business card is like gold to them! Yes, you will need to bring business cards however please note- unless you love receiving spam and being hassled by Chinese suppliers, I would recommend using alternative contact details on your business card. Have cards made up especially for the Canton Fair, and create a new gmail account specifically for potential suppliers to contact you. Put this new gmail address on your Canton Fair business cards.
When you’re giving an exhibitor your business card, make sure you hold it with both hands when you are handing it to them. When they hand you their card, accept it with both hands, look at the card and then turn it over and look at the other side before looking at them and saying thank you. This is a Chinese business custom.
Should I bring a bag with me to the fair?
Yes, you should bring a comfortable bag with you to put your brochures, catalogues and business cards in. Many people bring a small, carry-on suitcase with them that they wheel around the fair. It’s easier than carrying a heavy bag on your shoulder or back.
How many days should I spend at the fair?
Depends! You won’t be able to see the whole fair even if you’re there for the whole 5-days of the phase. There’s just too much to see! I would say ideally try to be there for three days.
The first day, you will just be in shock and awe and trying to navigate your way around the buildings. The second day you will probably spend more time searching for products and asking suppliers questions. The third day, you may go back and revisit some of the things you saw the day before. You might have more supplier questions, or want to take a look at a different part of the fair. After the third day, I had enough.
Day 5 only operates for half a day in the morning so that the suppliers can pack up their booths before the weekend, so that the next phase can set up.
Are there quieter times at the fair or is it always busy?
We found the afternoons less busy than the mornings- it seems people like to get there early, walk around and then have lunch and then leave, perhaps for a siesta (lots of European buyers visit the fair)?
Note that on Friday, the fair is only open for half a day, because the exhibitors need to pack up their goods as the phase finishes up and prepares for the new exhibitors for the next phase.
Do they sell food and coffee at the fair?
Yes, there’s a large food court that has an Asian takeaway restaurant, a pizza takeaway restaurant, a Lavazza café and a Starbucks. In another section of the fair, there is an Overseas VIP Restaurant which always has a long line and I’ve been told the food is ridiculously expensive. Next door to the VIP restaurant is a McDonald’s- note that McDonald’s in China sell meals only, you can’t buy burgers alone. Near the Buyers Registration area is a McCafe that sells great coffee!
Are there ATMs at the fair?
Yes, there are Bank of China ATMs at the fair- there were a few in the hallway near the VIP restaurant. There is also a foreign exchange machine.
Is there wi-fi at the fair?
Yes there is free wi-fi at the fair but it’s not very reliable. If you’re planning on using the internet while in China, get a VPN set up before you go.
Is there public transport near the fair?
Yes, you can catch the Metro and get off at Pazhou train station which is on line 8. The train station is just outside the Canton Fair buildings. To get to the Buyers Registration building, get off via Exit C at Pazhou train station.
Trains are very hectic between 5pm and 7pm when people go home from work.
Can I get a taxi to and from the fair?
Yes you can get a taxi but when leaving the fair, you might find it difficult to find a taxi that will be willing to use the metre. Most drivers like to quote you a “cash in hand” fare which 9 times out of 10 is more than what it would cost you if you had the meter running.
Are there hotels near the Canton Fair and do they offer a shuttle service?
The closest hotel to the Canton Fair is the 5-star Westin Hotel, which is within walking distance but also has a shuttle service. This is a great hotel, and also has free wi-fi available. Lots of people come to the hotel to sit in its lobby or café and restaurant and hold business meetings with potential suppliers (or they’re cheapskates who just want to use the internet!).
There are lots of smaller hotels nearby too, and some a short train ride away. Most hotels offer a shuttle bus service to the fair.
Before visiting China, find out if there are other fairs in Guangzhou at the same time as Canton Fair. When I was at Canton Fair, there were a few other fairs across the road however I didn’t visit these (but wish I had!). I’ve been told some of these fairs are smaller and feature better products.
Don’t feel pressured to place a stock order while at the Canton Fair. Most people don’t place orders, they just ask for prices and MOQs (minimum order quantities). You can place an order after you’ve returned home and had time to think about it. Do your due diligence- find out as much as you can about the supplier/s you’re interested in working with.
One final word…
Visiting China can be a culture shock, but Guangzhou is a modern, westernized city that is easy to get around and is relatively safe. I’ve been to Guangzhou twice and both times I felt safer than I do in my home city.
The Canton Fair is truly a unique experience- something you should try at least once. Meeting Chinese manufacturers and suppliers and looking through products will open your eyes to new possibilities and opportunities for your business.
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