I just got back from China and I am exhausted. My wife and I spent over three weeks visiting and mingling at the Hong Kong and Canton trade fairs. It was a great trip, but unfortunately Grant was unable to join us. New babies make international travel a tad bit difficult, but it was still one of the best trips I’ve ever taken for my career and my business.

I like to call this trip my Leap Frog Event. Going to these trade shows gives me the opportunity to see my manufacturing and buying process first-hand, and it’s much easier to break through the language barrier when you can talk face-to-face. Seeking out the higher quality manufacturers can be tricky because these trade shows are huge, bigger than any I’ve ever been to in the States. Working these events, I walked a minimum of 5 miles every day – surpassing 12 miles one day! So in today’s episode not only am I going to discuss all I saw and who I worked with, but I’m also going to offer up my own traveler’s advice. Tune in and hear all about:

  • Tips for international travel, including getting your Visa, finding a flight, dressing comfortably, and preparing for your trip
  • Hotels and accommodations in Asia, including internet connections in Hong Kong and mainland China
  • Mike’s insight on his experience at the Hong Kong and Canton trade shows
  • The major differences between these two fairs and how they compare to local trade fairs in the United States
  • How to look for the best manufacturers at these crowded trade shows
  • How to find middle-ground on quality when working with international manufacturers
  • Networking tips and how to navigate the international scene of manufacturers and buyers

Check out our blog at www.ecomcrew.com for photos from my trip and more about my favorite manufacturers and tips for navigating Mainland China without an internet connection. And if you’ve been to China (or are thinking of going) leave us a review on iTunes and let us know about your own experiences!

Full Audio Transcription

Mike:   Hey, everyone.  This is Mike Jackness.  Welcome to this episode of the EcomCrew podcast.  A very exhausted Mike Jackness actually.  Just getting back from China.  I’m recording this in early November, but they’ll probably go live sometime in December.  So, going to be a solocast because Grant wasn’t with me on the trip.  He, you know, just had a baby and wasn’t able to make it to China, understandably so.  So it was just my wife and I, Michelle, headed out there and, man, what a great trip, I’ve got to tell you.  Like I said, just absolutely exhausted.  Anyone that keeps on asking me how my vacation was, I wanted to smack them silly.  But basically, it was two and a half weeks of nonstop walking and talking and visiting various manufacturers, whether at the Canton Fair, the Mega Show, or going to do factory tours.

So yeah, I mean just a really great trip.  One of the best trips I’ve ever taken for, you know, my professional career and certainly the absolute best trip I’ve been on since I’ve been in ecommerce.  I mean this was what I consider to be a leapfrog event for our business and let me tell you why.  As we’re been doing ecommerce now, we kind of went through different phases.  I mean first we were doing drop shipping, or still are now, buying products from various other manufacturers, warehousing them, and then shipping them off ourselves.  And, you know, about a year ago or so now, we got into doing our own weight label products or branded products, whatever you want to call them.  And, you know, it’s been very difficult.  You know, it’s very difficult talking with China with the time change, language barrier, and then just understanding what “quality” means.  You know, I think that the other side of the world has a different understanding of what “quality” is compared to what we do.  And, you know, the process has been grueling.

You know, we basically will email someone that we find on Alibaba, wait a couple days until we get a response, you know, talk to them about the products we want, wait a couple more days to get a response, and go back and forth for a couple of weeks, eventually finally get a sample in the mail and then we get it and it’s typically junk.  You know, I’d say one out of 15, one out of 20 of the products that we’ve gotten are something that we’d consider buying and it’s really just, you know, trudging through it and never giving up and just being used to that process but it’s difficult it’s exhausting, it’s frustrating, you know, all these different things.  So, you know, the thing that was amazing about the Hong Kong fair and the Canton Fair is just how many vendors they pack into such a small space, you know.

I’ve been to lots of trade shows in the United States, whether it’s been for fitness or it’s been for the houseware show in Chicago, and these American-style tradeshows, you know, it’s basically whoever has the biggest booth is perceived to be the biggest and most powerful manufacturer or brand.  And each brand’s trying to one-up each other and trying to get a bigger booth and, you know, some of them are probably spending what they can’t even afford just trying to perceive to be bigger.

You know, at the Hong Kong fair and the Canton Fair, there was some of this, you know, there were some booths that were double-size or four-booth places, but, you know, they were legitimately the larger manufacturers in most cases and/or they just had more products that they wanted to display.  So that the point is it’s just like, I mean I almost felt like I was in The Matrix.  You know, at the end, they were like this human factory of harnessing energy out of people and it was like just packed in like sardines in the most efficient way possible, and that’s certainly how it was at these shows.  I mean these booths had may a six- to 10-foot wide space by, you know, five feet deep and that’s all the more space they had.  And as you’re walking down an aisle of one of these rows in Canton or a Mega Show, you’re seeing a lot of stuff.  You know, you’re just really seeing a lot of stuff.  And on top of that, the floor space that this thing covers, you know, 12 million square feet.  You know, I think it’s something like three times larger than the largest convention center in the United States.  I mean it’s just absolutely crazy.

And, you know, the Canton Fair is so large that it actually spans three different weeks, you know, and I’ll go over the different phases.  So the first thing I just want to kind of explain is the difference really between the Canton Fair and the Hong Kong Mega Show.  And so first off, the Hong Kong Mega Show, just as the name says, pretty obvious. You know, it’s in Hong Kong.  It’s actually in downtown Hong Kong in this amazing convention center right on the water.  Beautiful place.  Really, you know, pretty large place.  And it’s two phases, so like I said, I’ll mention later what the different phases are.  And what they basically have done is scheduled these two phases in between the weeks off of the Canton Fair.  So, you know, the Canton Fair is three weeks long, three different phases so basically it’s, you know, week one in Canton, which is actually in a town called Guangzhou in Mainland China.  And then you come out, back to Hong Kong, which is about a two-hour trip and do week one of the Mega Show, then go out and do week two of the Canton Fair and comeback and do week two of the Hong Kong show, and then go back and do week three of the Canton Fair.

So for us, we did all of that, which was exhausting, except for week one of the Canton Fair because of just the types of products that were in that phrase.  They weren’t really for us.  And like I said, I’m going to mention to you exactly what’s in each phase.  So the difference in the fairs – I mean, first off, the Mega Show, as large as it is, is still small.  It pales in comparison to the Canton complex.  But the one thing I really did notice is the quality of products was slightly higher overall at the Mega Show.  You know, the Mega Show is geared a little bit more towards Western buyers versus the Canton Fair is geared a little bit more towards Eastern buyers, and because of the scope and the size of the floor space there, there’s a lot more room at the Canton Fair for various types of manufacturers.  So, you know, in the Canton Fair, I felt like I had to look a little bit harder to find the higher quality manufacturers.

But, you know, before even getting started and actually going out there, the first thing you really need to do is be thinking about your VISA.  And I’m going to kind of talk about planning and what you need to expect and some tips before going out to China.  And I’ll have a blog post up on the site about this with pictures and a step-by-step account.  You know, just head over to Ecom Crew and search for Hong Kong or Canton Fair.  You’ll find it.  But first up, before you can even go over there is getting that VISA.  And one tip I really want to mention is they have a ten-year multi-entry VISA and this is to get into mainland China and this is something that, you know, I kind of knew about but it didn’t really make sense to me because, you know, I knew that Hong Kong is a part of China but it’s kind of separate and didn’t really understand exactly what that meant.  But, you know, basically if you’re going to Hong Kong as an America, US citizen or whatever, you don’t need a visa.  You can get right into Hong Kong, no problem, no questions asked.  They didn’t even ask me a single question going into Hong Kong.  But if you want to go into what’s known as mainland China, you cross the border and go, you know, to Beijing or Shanghai or Shenzhen or Guangzhou, you’re going to need a visa.  And getting a ten-year multi-entry visa only costs a couple extra bucks and then you’re allowed to come and go as you please.  You can stay for up to 60 days each trip.  So that’s the first tip is to get that multi-entry visa and plan ahead.  You know, it takes a couple weeks to get that visa.

The next thing is the flights.  You know, if you can possibly afford it or, in my case, I used miles, you know, I think flying business class or first class is an absolute must.  I’ve flown long flights before.  I mean I think the longest flight I flew before was either from L.A. to London direct or I think maybe Newark Airport up in New York out to Hawaii.  That was pretty darn long but this was longer.  The amount of time that it took to fly from L.A. to Seoul, which wasn’t even all the way (I still had three more hours to go after we connected through Seoul), you know, I could’ve flown from L.A. to New York, New York back to L.A. and L.A. almost all the way back out to New York again.  I mean it’s just absolutely brutal long.  You know, have lots of stuff on your iPad and things to watch or read and if you can, you know, it’s worth using those miles or paying the extra money to fly business if you can afford it.  I mean I think I would’ve needed a tranquilizer in coach.  It would’ve been just a grueling flight.

And the thing that worked out really well for us, I mean our flight, when we finally got to Hong Kong, I think, you know, we left L.A. in the middle of the day so we were able to get a good night’s sleep, wake up, and drive up to L.A. at a reasonable time and by the time we got to Hong Kong, you know, it was 11:00 at night, almost midnight and, you know, so we were obviously pretty exhausted by the time we got there and I went right to bed, slept like a rock and woke up the next morning at like 7:00AM and that basically became my schedule the rest of the trip.  So I mean if you can make that work, that works out great.

You know, the next planning step is really the hotels.  So in Hong Kong, you know, again the Mega Show was in downtown Hong Kong and there’s lots to do around there.  You can, you know, find plenty of hotel options without much of a problem.  Obviously the closer that you are to the convention center during the time of the convention, the more expensive it’s going to be, but I would look for a hotel that’s somewhere on the blue line.  I think they call it the island line.  You can take the subway and you can get off at, I think it’s like [Inaudible 09:57] Station I believe, if I remember correctly, and then you just kind of follow the crowds and can walk over to the convention center or you can take a taxi.  You know, there’s lots of options for hotels in Hong Kong that are close to the convention center.

Now, in Guangzhou, it’s a little bit different story.  It’s actually interesting.  The Canton Fair complex is in Guangzhou proper, but it’s not like in the middle of the city.  It isn’t like the Javits Center in New York where it’s right in Manhattan, and it’s certainly not like the one in Hong Kong where it’s right in the middle of the action.  I mean the Canton Fair complex is kind of off the beaten path.  You can see all the tall buildings in the distance, but it’s not really near much of anything.  So, you know, we actually booked a hotel – there’s about three or four hotels right around the complex, which is a good option and, you know, the nice thing was there was a place called the [Hefeng? 10:46] Apartment Hotel that was right within walking distance that had a washer and dryer, but I think that when we go back out there, we’re going to stay a little bit further away.  You know, my though process was by having a hotel that’s close after walking a long day, it would be nice to be able to go back and take a nap or come back over or, you know, drop things off, but the just sheer scale of the complex, I mean the walk from our hotel room back to the Canton Fair was well over a mile so like just, you know, “popping over” to the hotel is just not going to happen.  So I think we’d stay just a little bit further away so in the evening, you know, there’s just better food options and we were, you know, just a little bit more in the middle of the action.  So definitely want to plan your hotel accordingly.

So going over the different phases now of the Hong Kong Mega Show and the Canton Fair, I’ll review the Mega Show first just because that’s the first thing that we went to so I kind of have that in order of the way that our trip progressed.  The gifts and premiums, gift wrap and packaging, the festive Christmas and seasonal show, the housewares and home décor show, kitchen and dining, glassware trends, and toys and games.  So that’s kind of the first phase so I mean if your business has any of those types of products, that’s definitely a phase for you.  And then phase two was giftware (and I think, you know, the giftware seemed to be in both phases), home and décor, outdoor lighting, outdoor living, stationary, housewares and home textiles and that’s it.  So that was phase two.  Now, phase two of the Mega Show is about half the size of phase one.  They only use half the complex for the second phase.

Now, the Canton Fair, like I mentioned, it’s three phases.  It’s much larger.  The buildings are massive.  I mean just massive.  It’s crazy.  So phase one is the electronics and household appliances, then lighting equipment, vehicles and spare parts, machinery, houseware and tools, energy resources, chemical products, and building materials.  So, you know, our business model doesn’t really fit any of those things so we just skipped phase one because of that, but obviously if you have electronics and things of that nature, phase one is I think the biggest phase actually of the show.  So and then phase two is consumer goods, which obviously encompasses a lot of things.  It’s a pretty broad category and it takes up a massive amount of floor space at the show.  We went through all the consumer goods stuff.  Found a lot of really good ideas.  Then they also had home decorations, which included things like an eight-foot tall animatronic tyrannosaurus rex and I’m not kidding.  There were, you know, life-sized palm trees, you know, 15-foot tall palm trees and stuff for, you know, your home and things like this.  It was crazy.  And they also had the gift show, which we also walked through; a lot of interesting things there.  And then in phase three was office supplies, cases and bags, recreational products, food, medicine, medical devices, health products, textiles and garments, and shoes, which we also went through quite a bit of that stuff for phase three.

So, you know, real key things here are just if you’re in the thought process of, you know, buying things from China or you already are buying things from China, you know, this is something that will leapfrog your business.  I mean it’ll make a massive difference in your business.  You really can’t go wrong by going out there.  So definitely encourage it.  I mean if you have any questions, you know, feel free to hit me up on the blog or send an email.

But the thing I really want to do to end the show is just kind of go through maybe 10 to 15 random tips, things that I have learned that I kind of wish I knew ahead of time or thought of ahead of time.  So I’m going to bang those out real quick to end the episode here.  And the first thing was, you know, just to travel as light as you possibly can.  This is something that we got lucky that we did anyway.  We travel light typically anyway because I hate checking a bag but, you know, I would do everything that you can to fit everything into a carry-on luggage-sized bag, you know, plus maybe a backpack for your laptop.  You know, as you’re traveling back and forth between Hong Kong and Shenzhen and Guangzhou, these are old train stations, it’s kind of a pain in the butt, it’s hot there.  So having light luggage makes a huge difference.  It’s really important.

The next tip is to bring some sort of journal with you.  I mean I just have one of these journals you can get at Staples of something, like kind of leather top journal, fake leather, and paper inside.  Obviously, you know, bringing a notebook isn’t like the brainiest thing ever.  I’m sure most people bring a notebook with them but the way that we did is exactly the same way that these guys at these fairs do it, which it to take your business card and staple, you know, on a page and then write notes on it and we just used their staples and everybody in every booth had a staple gun.  We would staple the business card right to a page and right down notes right on that page.  And I only did that for people that I was interested in.  So, you know, I had like another bag of business cards for kind of the crappier manufacturers or people I never thought I would work with, but for people that I felt like I wanted to work with and I wanted to follow up with, I would just staple their card right into a book and start taking notes so I think that that’s a great tip.

Another important thing is to bring incredibly comfortable shoes.  I failed miserably at this.  I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.  I brought, you know, dressier shoes.  I mean they weren’t like super dressy shoes but they were dressier, like black type shoes, and after about the third day, my feet were just like on fire.  I mean it was brutal.  You know, you don’t really need that dressy of attire there.  I mean jeans and a polo shirt is fine, which is what I was basically wearing but, you know, I’d wear the funkiest looking clown shoes if I had to next year just to make sure I had comfortable shoes.  I mean it’s the most important thing.  You’re walking an incredible amount.  I mean I walked a minimum of five miles every single day of the fair.  I have an Apple watch that tracks my progress.  I think the most I walked in one day was 12 miles, which, you know, by itself isn’t that big of a deal.  I mean for me to get up right now and go walk five miles, I could do that with no problem.  It’s that you’re also standing like eight to 10 hours a day on concrete.  I mean the floor is just pure concrete and it’s hard, it hurts.  So, you know, after a while, it kicks the butt out of your feet and, you know, just the cumulative effect that by the end of the fair, I mean the first night, I always go get a foot massage.  It was amazing.

So the next thing is to bring a foldable duffel bag.  I mean it’s nice to travel light and pack light and everything but we found that we were accumulating a lot of samples and we kind of thought ahead about that, so we had a foldable duffel bag that we brought with us.  So we did have to check a bag on the way home, but we basically had a whole bag full of samples that we acquired while we were there, which actually is a great segue into the next tip, which is when to get samples.  You know, when you go into a booth, most of them are very reluctant to hand over samples to you because they don’t know if you’re serious and they also have other people that are coming through and they only have so many samples.  So what we did is we found that if we go back on the last day after lunch, that they’re willing to give you samples because that’s like one less thing they have to pack.  So that worked out really well.  So samples on the last day.

Another thing is a translator.  You know, I was actually shocked, especially with all these businesses that are doing business with the western world, that a lot of them just were not fluent in English.  I mean some of them weren’t even conversational fluent in English, and even a couple of them like could barely say more than “hello.”  For me, I was incredibly lucky.  You know, my wife is Chinese, she was born in China, came here at an early age, went through obviously a US school system but, you know, obviously her mother’s Chinese and they continue to speak Chinese to each other their whole life.  And so she’s fluent in Chinese and, man, what a difference that made.  I mean it was not only the fact that she could help communicate, but it just added a lot of clout.  You know, we didn’t necessarily tell people that we were a husband and wife team over there so it kind of looked like I brought my own translator with me and that really added a lot of clout and also just made communication a lot easier.

So my tip with that would be to basically survey the convention floor the first two days of a phase and then hire the translator in the last phase and have notes of what booth numbers you want to go back to.  They’re all like coded by the room that they’re in so it’s like Hall 11, Row A, you know, Booth 27 and it’s easy to get back to a booth.  So that’s what we did actually but for other reasons, like to go get samples, or to show our samples.  So what we basically did was we brought our own samples of things that we wanted to show manufacturers, you know, to replicate, either products we already have or that we’re looking to develop, and we’d made a list of the places that we would want to go back the second or third day and then show them samples without having to lug that around the entire day.  So that’s a pretty good tip.

So another thing to keep in mind: you know, I read a lot of things about how taxis were like a big rip-off, you know, and I didn’t quite get it.  I mean taxis to me were cheap, they were reliable.  We used taxis to get back and forth quite a bit.  The one time I could say that we got ripped off on taxis, which is just the way that it is, is when you’re leaving the Canton Fair complex, trying to get back to wherever it is you’re going to, they’ll rip you off.  I mean they will flat-out rip you off because they can.  I mean it’s a supply and demand thing and there’s just not a lot of taxis.  So if you want to go – you know, for us, we were just going to the train station.  We would leave the Canton Fair and head back to Hong Kong for the Mega Show and we way overpaid for a taxi compared to what we paid to get to that area on the way there.  So unfortunately, that’s just something that we had to kind of deal with.

So the next tip I have on this list is do not drink the water in mainland China. I mean luckily, someone told me about this, but it’s basically akin to, you know, drinking the water in Mexico.  It’s something you don’t want to do.  Another thing that I want to kind of mention is if you’re going to be going to both the Hong Kong Mega Show and the Canton Fair is the intercity through train.  It’s something you can just search on Google and look for: the intercity through train.  And it’s basically the best way to get back and forth between Hong Kong and Guangzhou.  Otherwise, you have to take a subway or a taxi to [Inaudible 21:04], which is on the border of Hong Kong and China, and to take another chain from Shenzhen, which is the town over the border, out to Guangzhou.  So look for the intercity through train.  Now, it only leaves about once every hour or two and you aren’t the only one leaving from Hong Kong going to Guangzhou during this time.  In fact, there’s like hundreds of thousands of people that come and go to these shows, so you’re going to want to book those train tickets in advance and that kind of sucked a couple times for us.  The one time that we actually booked the darn train ticker, we ended up having to change the time because we ended up going on a factory tour that wasn’t planned and had to change our ticket.  But regardless, it was a way better way to travel between the two cities.

So let me see if there’s anything else on my list here.  Yeah, probably the last thing I want to mention here before I sign off is the internet.  You know, no matter how much you’re prepared for this – and I thought I was prepared – you’re not going to be prepared enough.  The bottom line is that, you know, in Hong Kong, not a problem.  You know, they don’t block the internet.  The internet’s fast.  A lot of the hotel rooms there – actually any hotel that we stayed at (and we stayed in three different hotels), they all provided a free phone that had unlimited calling back to the United States or Canada – you know, it’s a cell phone.  Also it was a Wi-Fi hotspot.  You know, we had all the internet we could drink, you know, in Hong Kong and it was pretty fast, which was great.  But once we got into mainland China, you know, the situation changed completely.  You know, it requires a VPN, which you have to get in advance.  I used ExpressVPN.  It worked great for what it was.  I mean but they still throttle (“they” being the Chinese government) internet speeds of anything outside the country.

So, you know, it took forever to get email and communicate, do research.  I mean it was so frustrating.  So, you know, I think that in the future, I will be spending as little time at mainland China as possible.  You know, I’ll spend as many nights in Hong Kong as possible and as few in mainland China because of this, just because, you know, it’s tough to go away as a business owner for three weeks and not get anything done.  And then by the time I got back to Hong Kong every time, I had so much backed up that, you know, it was just frustrating.  It really was frustrating.  But certainly worth the trip.  You know, I don’t want to end on a bad note, but just something to plan for.  You know, the trip was amazing.  I had a great time.  You know, it was exhausted.  I mean you’re basically working every single day.  There was no time off.  I mean between, you know, the fairs themselves, the travel back and forth, the factory shows and everything, there just was never a day off.  There was never a second to pop up our feet and take a deep breath or do any touristy stuff.

In fact, the final story here at the end: we connected through Seoul on the way, you know, to Hong Kong, which was about a three-hour connection but on the way home, we had an 18-hour connection in Seoul and when we landed there, we obviously wanted to take advantage of the fact that we were going to be in Seoul and go see Seoul.  We saw way more of Seoul in those 18 hours, you know, just in our connection layover whatever, than we did of all of like China combined.  I mean it was crazy.  That’s how busy we were.  So be prepared to be busy while you’re out there.  I mean obviously, it’s a business trip.  You know, you want to take full advantage of it, but if you want to do touristy stuff, don’t think you’re going to do it during the days of the fairs.  I mean plan extra time beforehand or after, which is what we’re going to do next time.

I think that we’ll probably, you know, plan an extra week after our next trip just because we’re so tired after, you know, we can use kind of the vacation time over there and already be acclimated to the time and then, you know, enjoy ourselves and go to do some touristy stuff or maybe we do it the other way.  You know, you can advocate that when you first get there, you can acclimate a little bit more, which wasn’t that big of a deal for us, and then be on tourist time as you’re acclimating and seeing things and be somewhat relaxed going into the show.  I guess you can make an argument either way, but yeah, definitely don’t think that you’re going to get touristy stuff in while you’re there.

So that’s that.  You know, if you have any other questions, please feel free to reach out either on the blog, leave a comment on the podcast, give us a review on iTunes.  I’d be happy to answer any questions.  You know, I love this stuff, I’m passionate about it, I love helping out fellow ecommerce community members with this type of stuff.  I mean, you know, I wish I knew a lot of this stuff going into it and, you know, we are very well-traveled, my wife and I.  I mean we’ve been all over the world and basically planned this kind of at the last second and it wasn’t a big deal for us but there was still a lot that I was wondering about or curious about, and the unknown stuff was probably the biggest frustration: not knowing exactly what we were getting ourselves into.  So I hope that this really kind of lays the land and it’ll make your trip a lot easier if you do decide to go.

So with that, we’ll be back next week with another episode.  Grant and I will be cohosting again next week, so look forward to talking to you and until then, have a great week.