How can you take advantage of cultural differences at fairs abroad?

Culture, understood as the expression of all ways of life of a country, strongly influences a society’s general view of the world. This influence is also visible in the preparation and implementation of a trade fair.

Photo: Marco Spinger
Photo: Marco Spinger

Marco Spinger
Director Division
Global Markets
AUMA, Berlin

Respect values

Some of our western European values are not shared in other regions or are weighted differently there. These social norms may also impact on the corporate culture. Therefore you should observe and analyse them in yourself and others and take them into account in talks concerning your trade fair presence. Where possible, the exhibitor should try to clarify the role of the family or its social position for potential business partners. But topics that are (too) private, religious or political could be a no-no in other cultures and may unnecessarily dampen business relations. To find out what sensitivities exist in your destination you may want to consider intercultural training. Chambers of commerce and trade associations, for example, offer briefings as part of export advice sessions.

Honour achievements

Many younger nations take pride in their cultural heritage, technical achievements or modern architecture as part of their identity. An invitation to admire such “landmarks” should not be declined lightly. Foreigners are often seen as uninterested (short-time) visitors. A country’s cultural fabric subconsciously plays a role that is not to be underestimated for business relations of a long-term nature.

Musical accompaniment at a German fair abroad in Dubai: Bagpipes are a popular instrument in many cultures. (Photo: TFI)
Musical accompaniment at a German fair abroad in Dubai: Bagpipes are a popular instrument in many cultures. (Photo: TFI)

Master problems

It is also important to master problematic situations when communicating with local trade fair organisers, for example, or with stand builders. “No problem” is frequently a casual answer to a problem “bothering” an exhibitor when taking part in a fair abroad. To name a few examples: the stand is not where it ought to be according to the booking confirmation. Or instead of sticking to the construction plans, the stand builder has adapted them liberally. The catalogue entry is somewhere in the catalogue but not in the expected place of the alphabet. When you point out these mistakes and get a supposedly casual “no problem” as an answer, conflicts may easily arise. In some countries sudden emotional outbursts lead to a sometimes irreversible loss of face, making it difficult to suggest feasible solutions. The chances of solving the problem are then very much diminished.

Stay calm

Exhibitors should rather see arising problems as an opportunity to learn more about the people in the host country – and see how they deal with technical and administrative challenges. Sometimes, their solutions are very inventive and astoundingly simple. The exhibitor could then ask himself some questions. Is my problem really perceived as a problem? Why should one follow the architect’s plans if there are more “practical” solutions? In some countries a top-notch booth may even be a disadvantage: Visitors may believe that the exhibited products are unaffordable. You should be open to compromise. In the host country one cannot always expect orders to be carried out with the precision we are accustomed to in our own culture.

Social customs have an impact on booth encounters. (Photo: TFI)
Social customs have an impact on booth encounters. (Photo: TFI)

Learn ways of thinking

Most of the problems mentioned here are nevertheless solved in a timely and acceptable manner. This often helps the entrepreneur get to know his foreign partners and their way of thinking and acting better. A compromise that satisfies both parties allows mutual trust to grow, so that the partner commissioned to implement the presence may talk about his own problems: for example the payment behaviour of other local customers or unreliability of the authorities. The exhibitor may experience the same problems later on, when he has closer ties with the country as a business partner. Hence, the problems you master when preparing for a fair will teach you several lessons – how to solve difficulties when building business contacts, what precautions to take and what surprises may lie in store.


This article is based on a chapter in the 88-page AUMA brochure “Successful Participation in Trade Fairs”– Part 2: “Special: Fairs Abroad”. The publication can be downloaded on

This article was published in TFI issue 2/2015


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