by Tom Isler | March 01, 2007

Opening day at CONEXPO Asia 2006
Show time: Opening day
at CONEXPO Asia 2006,
held in Beijing and produced
by the Milwaukee-based
Association of Equipment Managers

There used to be little guesswork in producing a trade show in China. In the early 1980s, Beijing barely had one adequate convention center; Shanghai had a second. Only the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT) could approve of a show proposal. If the council granted a show license, it would collect the rental fee and inform the organizer how many attendees to expect; thanks to the controlling hand of the Communist Party of China, attendance was guaranteed.

“The golden days, of course,” says a chuckling Cherif Moujabber, who was vice president of Asia-Pacific for Cahners Exhibitions Group in the late 1980s and now is president of Walpole, Mass.-based Creative Expos and Conferences. “In the old days,” he recalls, “it was very simple.”

While veterans of the trade show industry harbor little true nostalgia for that restrictive era, launching a show in China no longer can be described as “simple.” In fact, most who have successfully entered the Chinese market would describe the process as extremely difficult.

With a booming economy and a massive population, China is considered by many to represent the future of the trade show industry. “It is clear that the China focus of the global event market is unstoppable,” asserts Marcus Ewals, managing director of Thailand-based exhibition organizer AsiaCongress.

At the moment, however, the industry in China is small and relatively immature. “It’s not much different than it was here [in the United States] 50 years ago,” says Steven Hacker, president of the Dallas-based International Association of Exhibitions and Events.

Having strong relationships with the right government contacts still can make or break a trade show. In addition, facilities vary dramatically in quality, and even cities with first-rate centers may lack “the infrastructure, access and software to support the venues and provide the full spectrum of services required to ensure a successful event,” says Warren Buckley, CEO of Suntec Singapore and former board member of AIPC, the International Association of Congress Centres.

The industry still is a fraction of the size of North America’s. Lacking comprehensive data, experts believe the number of annual exhibitions in China is in excess of 4,000, with Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai cornering the market. (Compare that with 13,000 shows held in the United States.) But the market is growing up fast. Licenses are getting easier to obtain -- Moujabber says securing one today is not an issue -- and professionalism is on the rise, too. Of the 162 people who earned Certified Exhibition Management designations from IAEE in 2006, 80 were from China. Modern facilities are popping up all over: In January Hacker traveled to Kunshan, about an hour’s drive from Shanghai, to witness construction on the mammoth China International Purchasing Center, which will have 19 million square feet of exhibition space.

With the country spending billions on facilities and infrastructure for the 2008 Winter Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China undoubtedly is becoming an increasingly viable market for trade shows. But those rushing to tap into the lucrative Chinese economy beware: Success requires a long-term vision, often years of preparation and a commitment to help industries develop in the East.