What helps to bring success at Japanese trade fairs?

There is a trend towards B2B trade fairs in Japan, but it is only gradual. Despite the continuing absence of much of a trade fair culture, there are things exhibitors can do to win business from Japanese customers.

Photo: Heinz Kuhlmann
Photo: Heinz Kuhlmann

Heinz Kuhlmann
President of ABC Enterprises Inc.

Attracting visitors 
Depending on the size of the company, Japanese exhibitors may invest a lot of money in advertising, including print-media, online and transport advertising. They also make intensive use of their networks of customers and contacts and send out a lot of invitations. An important criterion for trade fair organisers and Japanese (less so international) exhibitors when measuring the success of a trade fair is the number of visitors it attracts – both trade visitors and consumers. These numbers are not controlled independently. In order to arrange meetings, international exhibitors should allow appointments to be booked through their websites. They can then send free tickets to customers and visitors.

Stand design
The stand should be open and inviting and have as few enclosed spaces as possible for meetings. There should be plenty of Japanese-language brochures available at the information counter. Some signs in Japanese such as “Importer/business partner wanted” or “Trade fair premiere” are good for catching the eye and facilitating initial contact with Japanese visitors. In addition to German/foreign staff at the stand (including Japanese-speaking staff if at all possible), it is essential to have Japanese hostesses/interpreters. They make it easier to make contact and communicate with Japanese visitors and can also help complete questionnaires and arrange any appointments to visit Japanese companies.

Jimtof: Japan International Machine Tool Fair (Photo: Big Sight)
Jimtof: Japan International Machine Tool Fair (Photo: Big Sight)

Visitor interests
What trade fair visitors want varies greatly from person to person. Trade visitors look for specific information and samples, while consumers are interested in new products. They want to taste or test them and perhaps even take them home as gifts or if they can get them for a good price. The Japanese love comics in the manga style and anime animations, and these are becoming increasingly popular with foreigners as well. Even if a trade fair has nothing to do with these directly, they go down well with most visitors and attract attention. Many visitors are also interested in foreign countries. Posters and typical products from an exhibitor’s home country will attract more visitors to a stand.

Decision-making processes
It is still true that it is generally new or junior employees who go to trade fairs in order to collect information and samples for their superiors. These employees have little experience of business or trade fairs, only have limited scope to talk business and do not have the authority to place orders. On the other hand, Japanese companies have learned that they need to take quicker decisions in order to hold their own against Asian and other competitors in global markets.

Japan International Aerospace Exhibition in Tokyo. (Photo: Big Sight)
Japan International Aerospace Exhibition in Tokyo. (Photo: Big Sight)

Avoiding clangers
It is advisable to avoid personal and business questions that the visitor is probably unable or unwilling to answer spontaneously. You should also never press them for clear answers! On the other hand, you should give satisfactory answers to any questions they may have. It is helpful to point out that the exhibitor would be happy to answer further questions at a later date and send in-depth information.

Following up after a trade fair
It is very important to follow up well after trade fairs, although for foreign companies without representation in Japan it is often a protracted, laborious process. Custom mailings in Japanese are helpful. It is even better when foreign exhibitors do not fly off again immediately after the fair. They should stay on in Japan for a few days to follow up on any initial contacts made (business cards received). It may also be possible to make further appointments with some companies. This can generally be arranged without problems by using interpreters. Most Japanese companies are happy to welcome business visitors from abroad. However, it is essential to use a competent interpreter for these visits. This is how foreign visitors can gain access to the middle managers of a Japanese company. And the more staff who take part, the more interest there is!

Heinz Kuhlmann has four decades of experience in the Japanese trade fair market and also advises foreign trade fair organisers and exhibitors.

This article was published in TFI issue 2/2016


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