The Chengdu fair: A truly Chinese exhibition

By

Demei's View - Wine Communication from a Chinese Winemaker

The 90th China Food and Drinks Fair (CFDF) was held in Chengdu Century City New Exhibition and Convention Centre recently, from 28 – 31 March. It’s the largest alcoholic beverage trade fair in China, and its organisational form has unique local characteristics. As more and more imported wines came into China, the unique Chinese-style CFDF has attracted more attention from overseas producers.

Image: A forum during the 90th CFDF © LI Demei

This year, the main exhibition pavilion was larger than it’s even been at over 30,000 m2, and the wine exhibition area was bigger than the Chinese baijiu (Chinese spirits) area for the first time.

Wine trade delegations from 15 countries and regions including Australia, New Zealand and California attended the fair. French wine accounts for the biggest part in the imported wine market in China, plus this year is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France, so a huge amount of events celebrating French wines were held during the fair.

Some of them were organised by the French embassy, some were arranged by the regional wine industry associations, and of course there were many press conferences, tastings and dinners hosted by individual producers, as well as some so-called ‘French concept’ events that didn’t seem to have much to do with France.

Image: Meeting area in the 90th CFDF © LI Demei

Because of the abundance of awards presentation ceremonies, forums and market report conferences (many of them not organised by the official organisers of the fair), it was very easy for people to completely miss the most valuable bits, even if they came to Chengdu in person.

The CFDF is a trade fair that was born in China’s planned economy era and has gradually developed and grown since then.

In Chinese history, the four decades from 1949 to 1987 were the planned economy period.

One of the most important governmental functions at the time was to gather the majority of goods from all over the country and allocate them with overall planning, in order to ensure the balance between supply and demand, and meet the basic social needs.

The central government divided commercial goods into different levels. The first level included sugar and flue-cured tobacco because of their important position in the society, and was directly managed by the State Council.

The second level comprised cigarettes, upscale alcohol, meat, eggs and milk, and was arranged by relevant government departments under the policies made by the State Council.

Other products such as ordinary alcoholic drinks, dairy products, candies and pastries were not suitable for planned management as there were so many categories and enterprises involved, thus their market supplies were adjusted and replenished by the commercial department.

Image: Exhibition in a hotel room © LI Demei

The predecessor of CFDF was a result of this economic system. In 1955, the first supply coordination meeting of candies and pasties was held in Beijing. Three years later, cigarette and alcohol were brought in. The first exhibition was organised in 1964 to display the products, but the essence of the ‘exhibition’ was still a supply coordination meeting among the government departments and the relevant state-owned enterprises. It was not until 1972 when the coordination meeting and the showcase separated, and a genuine fair started to appear.

Along with the reform and opening-up of the country, the production and sales of products like sugar, alcohol and beverages were becoming increasingly prosperous, so the fair was held twice a year in spring and autumn since 1984.

From 1987 onwards, the spring sessions were held in Chengdu – the capital of China’s largest alcohol producing province Sichuan – whilst other cities in Mainland China bid to host the autumn sessions in turn. The name ‘China Food and Drinks Fair’ was decided in 1990.

From its beginnings in the planned economy period of China, the China Food and Drinks Fair has a strong background of government management, and was a big party for planned product distribution led by the government in that specific period.

The organisational form of it is quite unique. The displays and trading points are dispersed in every hotel, tea house and restaurant in the city - even in hotel rooms - and the communication and trade between business parties is completed before the opening of the fair, which generates a unique phenomenon, the opening and closing of the CFDF happening at the same time.

It is very difficult to book a hotel in Chengdu during the fair – ever hotels located in good areas even only accept bookings longer than a week.

Image: Exhibition on the street © LI Demei

This kind of event is suitable for the trading parties that are not willing to have public communications, especially for products where transactions and cooperation are based on the packaging and price.

However, sales people who have new products with less recognition and lack of industrial contacts may feel very confused attending this exhibition, and it is not surprising to see people soliciting business with stalls on the street.

It’s no easy task, even if you have some industrial customer contacts, because you have to shuttle between hotels in order to see more clients. The traffic situation in Chengdu is already fairly poor, and is significantly worse during the CFDF. To make things worse, this year Michelle Obama visited Chengdu during the fair, and the inevitable controls on traffic made travelling in Chengdu a miserable thing to do.

With the gradual transformation from the planned economy to a market economy, producers and distributors have more need for the organisational form and service of the CFDF.

The participation of international business like Nestle and Coca-Cola also enhances the internationalisation of the fair.

From 2009, the organisers set up a main exhibition pavilion and announced a mandatory provision in 2010 that the exhibitors cannot dismantle the booths before the closing of the fair.

However, a trade habit formed over many years is hard to change in a short time. The exhibition halls are packed with visitors, but many of them are coming just seeking novelty, getting free souvenirs or seeing out others’ peculiar packaging.

It’s difficult for major business people to have real communication in that environment. As for those small businesses that have insufficient financial support or didn’t book a stand, all they can do is to find a public place around the exhibition centre, and make themselves exhibitions with whatever resource available.

For the time being, the China Food and Drinks Fair is still a gathering of local Chinese companies. It is far from being geared to international standards and, for now, overseas businesses should not expect an overnight share of the rewards.

Translated by Nina Fan Feng / 冯帆

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