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Trade fairs in Japan open doors

Trade fairs are an important tool for market development, and this is also true in Japan. But cultural differences should not be underestimated.

At trade fairs in Japan, brochures are collected and business cards are exchanged

“Many objectives can be achieved with a trade fair,” explains Bettina Thomas, Project Manager for Trade Fairs at Switzerland Global Enterprise, Switzerland’s official export promoter. “You can test a new product and get the reaction of the target group towards it. Trade fairs help to maintain contacts in an existing network, not just with customers but also with associations and the media. And of course trade fairs should also be used to gain new partners or customers.” These connectives can be also achieved in Japan by participating in one of the country’s many trade fairs. According to the report “Trade Fairs in Asia 2016” by the Global Association Exhibition Industry (UFI), with 2.05 million square meters of sold exhibition space, Japan is Asia’s second biggest trade fair market, after China with its 19.69 million square meters. However, unlike China, the Japanese market only grew by a meager 1.6 percent in 2015. Its existing exhibition halls are significantly smaller than those in China or Europe. Japan only has three trade fair locations larger than 70,000 square meters: Tokyo Big Sight in the capital, Tokyo, Makuhari Trade Fair in neighboring Chiba and INTEX Osaka in western Japan. According to the Japan Exhibition Association, between 600 and 700 trade fairs are held annually in Japan. However, these include only a small number of international trade fairs.

Careful choose of trade fair

The organizer plays an important role in the choice of the fair. According to figures from the Japan Exhibition Association, around 30 percent of all trade fairs were organized by private commercial providers in 2016, while 40 percent were organized by industrial sectors or associations. “Trade fairs organized by private commercial entires are more international. On the other hand, their greatest interest is commercial success. Trade fairs organized by associations are more association meetings than commercial fairs. But as the associations want to expand, they have a real interest in the exhibitors that come. When choosing the right trade fair, you have weigh up options and seek advice,” says Nik Kamke, Director of welkam Ltd. He speaks from 15 years of trade fair experience in Japan as a consultant and stand builder. Other factors such as visitor numbers are not one hundred percent reliable in Japan, as their certification by third parties is not yet widespread, as it is in Europe. Especially for smaller or even less well-known companies, it may be worthwhile to participate in a trade fair with a country pavilion. The advantages of this type of joint stand are not only less organizational work, but also often a better location, cost-efficiency and a strong umbrella brand that attracts visitors. Swiss Business Hub Japan provides information on Swiss country pavilions, while the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Japan (AHK Japan) does the same for Germany and Advantage Austria for Austria. Depending on requirements, these organizations also offer individual services such as consultation or identifying important contacts.

Differences in the design of stands

In order to be able to make high-quality contacts during a trade fair, companies should prepare themselves well. “It is ideal to identify potential partners and customers beforehand and invite them to the stand,” says Thomas. In order to attract further contacts, it is important to observe a few points before and during the fair. “In Japan, the product and its characteristics are important, not the brand,” says trade fair expert Kamke. In Europe, companies place greater emphasis on the presentation of their company image when designing their stands. By comparison, Japanese stands are often very simple. A large proportion of Japanese trade fair visitors want primarily to collect product information at a stand - conversations with the stand staff are comparatively rare. Detailed, high-quality product information, also in Japanese, is therefore essential, as well as bilingual business cards. “It is advisable to have a Japanese person at the front of the stand, and not to advertise it just in English,” says Kamke. An interpreter can facilitate communication and, in addition to simple translation, can also help to correctly interpret a counterpart’s body language and silences.

Long-standing trade fair presence builds trust

Despite some challenges, the Japanese trade fair landscape also offers opportunities: “People in Japan are still willing to pay for quality,” says Kamke. If you want to gain a foothold in the Japanese market, you need to be patient. “The break-even point is rarely achieved in two to three years. You have to attend a trade fair five times to build trust, because that is more important than the product,” he points out. “Our customers expect us to be here,” says David Chalk, Managing Director of M-Industry Japan, presented his company at Foodex Japan 2017. For many exhibitors, nurturing relationships is the main focus of a trade fair appearance. The Japan Exhibition Association calls this kind of trade fair, which represents the majority of Japanese fairs, “promotion-based exhibitions.” In contrast to Europe, where trade fairs are used for negotiations or contracts, most Japanese trade fairs serve to distribute business cards, collect catalogs and exchange opinions. Japanese trade fair visitors are usually not decision-makers, but collect material and discuss it with their supervisor. Real business negotiations do not take place until after the fair. “The most important thing is that you have a plan for what to do with the contacts you collect at the fair,” Kamke stresses. Timely follow-up, for example by sending thank-you letters, is therefore highly recommended. Companies should understand trade fair visits as just one tool for entering the Japanese market, and not neglect regular contact maintenance and company visits (in Japan or even in their home country). Then fairs can effectively contribute to business success in Japan.

If you have questions about trade fairs in Japan, contact our Swiss Business Hub in Tokyo

The article was published in the magazine Japan/Markt (no. 3, 2017 - May/June). 

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