Every other year, my wife and I make a trip to Guangzhou, China to attend the Canton Fair. If you’ve never heard of the Canton Fair, it is the largest whole supplier tradeshow in the world where thousands of vendors and buyers attend.
Here are some statistics for this past year.
- Number of Exhibitors: 25,049 exhibitors
- Number of Overseas Buyers: 191,950 buyers
- Number of Booths: 60,466 standard booths
- Exhibition Space: 1,185,000 square meters or about .45 square miles in area
To give you an idea of the magnitude of the fair, a football field is 6400 sq yards which means that the Canton Fair is the equivalent of almost 218 football fields in area. Crazy right?
Not only that, but the fair is so large that it’s split into 3 phases.
- Phase 1: Electronics, household electrical appliances, machinery, lighting equipment, hardware and tools, vehicles and spare parts, building materials, chemical products.
- Phase 2: Consumer products,decorations goods, gifts.
- Phase 3: Textiles & garments, shoes, office supplies, cases & bags, recreation products, medicines, medical devices and health products
Because we sell handkerchiefs and linens, we typically attend phase 3 which I believe is the smallest of all the phases. But make sure you attend the appropriate phase depending on what you sell.
How Much Does It Cost And Is It Worth Going?
Attending the Canton Fair is free. However you do have to get a visa to visit China and you have to pay for airfare and hotel. All told, your expenses will probably not exceed $3-4K.
But is it worth going?
Absolutely! If you’ve been doing your product sourcing via Alibaba, you probably already know that going back forth between vendors is extremely time consuming.
First off, you can’t speak face to face so you are forced to use email and chat programs to communicate. Second of all, you have to wait to have samples made and shipped to you which can take several weeks.
However when you attend the Canton Fair, you can easily engage with hundreds of Chinese vendors in the span of just a few days. And the best part is that all of the vendors will have sample products in their booths that you can touch and feel for quality.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to place large bulk orders for products right at the fair and you can get pricing and availability in a matter of minutes.
In addition, the face to face communication with your vendor is priceless in terms of establishing trust and rapport which makes the whole sourcing process infinitely smoother and faster.
To provide you with some context, during our last trip to the Canton Fair, we came home with almost 15 new vendors. If we were to try to find 15 quality suppliers using Alibaba, it would take forever.
How Do I Attend?
In order to attend the fair, you first have to register on the Canton Fair website. After you register, you will receive an invitation which you must use to get a visa into China.
Technically, you should get a business visa but you can also buy a tourist visa which does not require that you show an invitation to the fair.
Overall, a Chinese visa doesn’t cost that much ($160 or so) and I recommend that you purchase the 10 year visa if you ever plan on going more than once.
Because there are only a handful of places around the country that can issue you a visa in person, I recommend that you use a China visa service in your area.
The visa process doesn’t take that long but please allow up to 3 weeks to get it. Then once you have your visa, you can buy a plane ticket to China and grab your name badge at the fair.
In terms of flights, you should book early and fly into the Guangzhou International Airport. This past year my wife and I booked too late and the airline tickets were ridiculously priced.
That is why we flew into Hong Kong instead and then took a train from Hung Hom Station To The East Guangzhou Railroad station. This saved us about $600 per person.
Recommended Hotels In Guangzhou
Here are the hotels that I’ve stayed at in Guangzhou that I highly recommend.
The hotel is located at 153 Tianhe Road. And in case you are curious, the street is pronounced, Tian huh like “sky river” in Chinese:)
What I like about this hotel is that it is right next to a high end shopping mall with an excellent food court and restaurants. So you can simply walk across the street and have access to shopping and good food. Plus, it’s very safe.
In addition, the hotel offers daily shuttles back and forth from the Canton Fair and it is very reasonably priced. The fairgrounds are 10 minutes away.
The Aloft hotel is a western style hotel that offers an excellent breakfast buffet and is located near 2 high end shopping malls as well.
Similar to the Good International Hotel, they offer free back and forth shuttle service to the fair. Highly recommended!
Is It Scary To Go If You Don’t Speak English?
This past year, I took my friend Toni Anderson with me to China and she doesn’t speak a lick of Chinese. However, she managed to navigate the fair by herself just fine.
In general, every booth at the Canton Fair will have at least one english speaking employee that you can communicate with. And if you stick with the standard lingo of ecommerce, you should be fine.
Taking taxis and getting around the city outside of the Canton Fair can be a different story however, which brings me to some funny stories to share with you.
My Love Hate RelationsHIp With China
First off, I have a love hate relationship with China. On one hand, the food is incredible and the prices are pretty inexpensive by American standards.
But what I hate about China is that every time I go, I feel like everyone is out to cheat me and make an extra buck at my expense. For a communist country, China is one of the most cutthroat and capitalistic places that I’ve ever visited.
And in just 4 short days, I got ripped off many times while I was there.
The Taxi Incident
On our first day out, we pretty much went straight to the Canton Fair after checking into our hotel. All was good. We took a taxi to the fair and visited a number of vendors that we had scheduled appointments with that day.
But on the way back home, I realized that I forgot to have the concierge write down the name and address of the hotel in Chinese for the taxi ride home.
No big deal, I thought. After all, I can speak a little Chinese and I had the name and address of the hotel written down in English.
I couldn’t have been more wrong! The taxi driver could not read a lick of English and he had no clue where the heck our hotel was.
So for the first 10 minutes, the taxi driver was literally driving aimlessly (even though we told him to pull over) as Jen and I frantically tried to look up our hotel on Google to get the Chinese address.
Bad idea! It turns out that Google doesn’t work that well in China! Even the most basic Google search takes like 15 minutes and I swear that each and every search query was being actively blocked by the great firewall of China. Google maps didn’t work either.
It also didn’t help that the taxi reminded me of the back seat of a police car, bars and all. (In case you are wondering, I’ve never been arrested before)
Meanwhile, I’m getting desperate so I start aimlessly yelling different versions of the street name in my poor mans Americanized Chinese. After a couple of iterations, I must have struck gold because the next thing I know the taxi driver stops the car right smack in the middle of the road in heavy traffic.
Because we’re essentially blocking the entire street, everyone starts honking at us from behind. Now the sound of 10 horns blasting all at once was loud and deafening but it did not bother the driver one bit.
Instead, as if there weren’t a dozen angry Chinese drivers behind us, the driver busts out his GPS and starts typing something in.
Seeing the GPS unit prompts me to start asking him in Chinese, “Do you know where to go? Do you know where the hotel is? Can you call the hotel?”
After a couple more minutes of horn blastage, the driver starts driving again with his eyes glued to the GPS and NOT ON THE ROAD!!! And for the remainder of the trip, he does not say a single word to me even though I keep asking him where the hell he’s going.
At this point, my wife and I contemplate getting out of the taxi, but we realize that we’d be stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Finally, after 30 minutes of driving (the fair is only 10 minutes away) he pulls up in front of our hotel. The meter is more than double the cost of what we paid to get to the fair but we didn’t care.
Clearly, he took a circuitous route home and scared the crap out of us at the same time.
Incidentally, this was not the only time we got jacked by a taxi driver. On a different occasion, we had a driver who started his meter at twice the amount it was supposed to be when he picked us up and we couldn’t really do anything about it.
The Counterfeit Money Scam
The last time we came to the Canton Fair, we exchanged US dollars for Chinese cash BEFORE we got there. But this time, we decided to wing it and use the ATM machine once we got into China.
Now normally there are plenty of ATMs at the train station. But for some reason our ATM cards would not work at the train station ATMs so we were forced to use a foreign money exchange booth. Now you would think that a money exchange place in the middle of a busy train station would be legit.
But it turns out that these punks gave us a bunch of counterfeit Chinese bills without our knowledge. So for the remainder of our trip, restaurants and taxis kept looking suspiciously at the money we gave them and quite a few of them would not accept our money and asked us to use different bills to pay.
Meanwhile, the entire time we had no idea that the money was counterfeit and we couldn’t understand why people weren’t accepting our bills. It was only after trying to exchange our money back to US dollars at the airport did they tell us that our money was fake.
Incidentally, did you know that trying to exchange counterfeit money is illegal? When we tried to exchange the money for US dollars, the foreign exchange had to call the cops and we had to fill out a police report. It’s a good thing that we got to the airport early for our flight because otherwise we would have missed it.
A Tour Of The Canton Fair
Outside of getting accused of printing fake Chinese money and getting ripped off by multiple taxis, we had a very successful trip. We met with all of our existing vendors and found many new ones to source new products for our online store.
Here are some photos that we took at the fair along with a nice collection of tips if you plan on attending yourself.
Before they let you enter the fair, a bunch of Chinese people in Hazmat suits make sure that you are not sick. If you are from certain designated countries, they force you to show them proof that you’ve had your immunizations of polio and other diseases done before you can enter.
Below is a picture of one of the Chinese soldiers manning the door. As much as I wanted to give the guy a hug and make him move, my wife didn’t want me to get arrested.
Below is a picture of the super long corridor that connects all of the buildings of the fair. This hallway is so long that they have golf carts shuttling people back and forth. They also have escalators in the middle if you don’t want to wait in line.
Here’s a map of the entire Canton Fair for phase 3. Each one of the boxes on that map is probably equivalent to half a football field. In other words, there’s no way that you’ll be able to get through the entire thing.
Here’s what one of the many buildings looks like on the inside.
Do Not Use Private Drivers
When you get off at the airport or the train station, you will be accosted by very nice Chinese people offering to get you a taxi. But in reality, they are leading you to private drivers that will cost you 10 times as much to reach your destination.
Do not trust these people!
Do Not Trust Any Non-Branded Foreign Exchange
Even though you might be at the airport or a major train station, a lot of times the business establishments that you first see will be out to make a quick buck.
This was the first time we used a random foreign exchange because we were exhausted and our atm cards didn’t work. Get money before you arrive!
I’ve been to China several times in the past decade and many people don’t have any manners. There is no real concept of lines and people will often butt in front of you at any time.
While at the front of the taxi line at the train station, some random Chinese dude walked up out of nowhere and tried to steal my taxi.
At this point I was fed up with getting counterfeit bills and getting ripped off by taxi drivers that I gave the guy a shove, pushed him aside and told him to get in the back of the line.
And I swear, the guy looked at me like I was crazy and that I was the one at fault.
Use Your Hotel Concierge
Always have your hotel concierge write down the address and the name of your hotel in Chinese on a card before you leave. Also have the concierge write down any nearby landmarks in case the taxi driver doesn’t know where to go.
Do You Need A Translator?
Various importing blogs often recommend going to the fair with a translator. But just for the record, my wife and I have never ever needed a translator and it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m Chinese.
In fact, I don’t even try to use my Chinese while I’m there for fear that people might actually try to respond to me in Chinese.
One time, I tried to speak Chinese to a vendor and my accent was so bad that he replied in English. Every booth has someone that speaks English and I don’t think that a translator is necessary.
Having a translator is helpful but not required and if you insist on having one, there’s a booth in the lobby where you can get one.
Universal Terms That All Vendors Understand
In the event that you happen to get a vendor who can’t speak a lick of English (this is very rare), almost all of them understand the universal language of business. Here are 3 terms you need to know.
MOQ – This stands for minimum order quantity. Everyone will understand these 3 letters.
Price – When asking for a price, make sure it’s in your home currency and not in RMB
Lead Time – Always ask for the lead times when you are discussing products. Sometimes a vendor will have certain goods in stock. Other times, they will have to make things from scratch.
In general, the minimum order quantities for most vendors at the fair will be very high if you need to have custom products made.
If you are just starting out, you might want to ask about their “stock items”. Stock items are goods that they have in stock or produce on a regular basis. The MOQ for stock items is usually much less.
Know Where You Are Going
The Canton Fair is enormous. Think of the largest trade show that you’ve ever been to and multiply that by 20X. It took my wife and I 3 full days to cover the textile portion of the fair alone. And there’s no way that we could have covered the entire show even if we wanted to.
If you do decide to attend, make sure you map out which areas that you want to hit ahead of time. Otherwise, you will wander aimlessly and become overwhelmed by the sheer size of the fairgrounds.
The great thing about attending the fair is that all of the vendors will have lots of samples for you to go through in their booth. And having all of the vendors congregated in a single location means that you can cover hundreds of vendors in a short period of time.
Compare that to going through Alibaba and having samples mailed internationally back and forth and you’ll soon realize that attending the Canton Fair will save you an enormous amount of time and headache.
I do have a couple of comments on samples that you should definitely be aware of. Sometimes, the samples that you see in the vendors booth may not be indicative of the final product you may receive. In fact, often times the samples are just surplus items from a prior run of orders.
For example, a student in my Create A Profitable Online Store Course asked me to visit a vendor at the fair to look at a product she was interested in selling. And when I sent her a picture, it was completely different than the product she was expecting.
The reason was because the vendor had a bunch of these products left over from a production run where his client passed away before delivery could be made. As a result, the vendor was selling these items for super cheap and in much lower quantities.
Some vendors have stock that is many years old and they just want to get rid of it. Just be aware.
What To Take Along
Make sure you carry business cards with you along with a digital camera and a notepad. Here’s how my wife and I keep track of the vendors we meet and the products we are interested in.
Often times, we’ll go to a booth and take pictures of the products we want to source along with the vendors business card. Then we staple the business card to a little notebook and write down all of the MOQ and pricing information.
Afterwards, we email the vendor with all the products that we are interested in and get a formal quote.
Should You Go?
If you value your time and you know that you want to source your goods from China, then going to the Canton Fair is a no brainer.
Now you might think that using Alibaba is good enough. But if you’ve ever done business via Alibaba before, you’ve probably noticed how time consuming and tedious the whole process can be.
First you’ve got to establish contact. Then you have to communicate. Then you have to have samples shipped across the world. Then you have to evaluate the samples and iterate. It’s a pain in the butt!
By going to the fair, you can bypass this stage altogether and have access to thousands of vendors who are all congregating at the same place.
Hopefully this post has dispelled some of the myths of traveling to China for the Canton Fair. Good luck with your product sourcing!
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