Following the Beijing Olympics, the World Expo 2010 is the second major international event hosted by China within the space of two years, though this time in its bustling commercial hub, Shanghai. Hailed as the first Expo hosted by a developing country, the Shanghai Expo is a landmark event in more ways than one. It is one of the most expensive Expos hosted to date, costing the Chinese government twice as much as the Beijing Olympics. It boasts a site 20 times larger than the 2008 Expo held in Spain, with more than 200 exhibitors, 20,000 performances and 500,000 volunteers. An estimated 70 million visitors will attend the Expo, and they are forecasted to spend Rmb45bn ($6.7bn) during the six-month extravaganza.   

To many, the Shanghai Expo is a platform for China to showcase its growing affluence and power to the world. Yet, for businesses, the reverse is more true. The Shanghai Expo provides international firms and trading partners a one-stop platform to showcase new products and services, from soft drinks to building materials, search engines to tourist destinations, to a vast Chinese market. Of the 70 million visitors, it is estimated that only 5% are foreigners (a fact that few visitors to the event will miss). The state media’s relentless promotion of the event expands its virtual reach at home. The Shanghai Expo, in short, is like a huge marketing bazaar, and everyone, it seems, wants to be a part of it.

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Wow factor

At the Shanghai Expo, a plethora of new products is on display, and it includes innovative building materials. For example, the Italian Pavilion is constructed using a special 'transparent cement', produced by Italcementi Group. This cement allows light to pass through, creating a soft light inside the building and a luminous exterior. By making an aesthetic impression at the Expo, the producers are well-poised to market the new material globally. Mr Renato Brunetta, Italy’s public administration and innovation minister, said to the Chinese press: “China has the potential to turn a small innovation project into a great business opportunity."

The Japan Pavilion is the ultimate venue for futuristic devices. It is one of the most popular pavilions at the Expo, and visitors wait for as long as six hours to enter it. The Japanese section showcases innovations from its major sponsors, including Canon, Panasonic and Toyota. Canon unveiled its 'Wonder Camera Concept', which allows users to select static images from video frames. Although the product is still at a conceptual stage and not yet ready for the market, it powerfully illustrates Canon’s vision for future technologies.

New web technologies are also on display at the Shanghai Expo. Pingar, a technology company based in New Zealand, debuted the simplified and traditional Chinese versions of its advanced search platform in July. After demonstrating this new version inside the New Zealand Pavilion, the team from Pingar proceeded to Yantai, Shandong, in search of more deals. This example illustrates the strategy of firms to connect the Shanghai Expo to ongoing business projects in other Chinese locations.   

Meanwhile, universities and tertiary institutes have also found the Shanghai Expo to be an ideal marketing tool. The number of Chinese students studying abroad has surged over the years. In 2009, close to 180,000 Chinese students studied overseas, and 90% of them paid for their own schooling. Seeing this potential, a number of European business schools are preparing events at the Expo, including the China European International Business School and Spain’s IESE Business School.

The Shanghai Expo provides companies with an excellent opportunity for branding and several international and Chinese state-owned firms, including Cisco, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp and General Motors, have erected pavilions that match the scale of country pavilions. Among them is Coca-Cola, one of the 13 official global partners of the Shanghai Expo. Its bright red pavilion, dubbed the 'Coca-Cola Happiness Factory', takes visitors through an entertaining assortment of displays, videos and samples of new beverages and limited-edition bottles. Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola, believes that China will become the world’s largest soft drink market.

Meanwhile, international firms without a specialised pavilion have participated in the event by sponsoring country pavilions. The US pavilion, with its timely theme of 'rising from the challenge', is notable in this respect. Shackled by the financial crisis, the US almost did not participate in the Expo due to lack of funds. At the 11th hour, however, organisers pulled together sponsorships from Chevron, Citibank, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric and PepsiCo. In return, the US Pavilion devoted an entire hall to advertise them.

Closer ties

Besides displaying new products and brand names, the Shanghai Expo also helps to strengthen business ties between China and other countries. Helsinki seeks to market itself as the world design capital; the government of Brunei led a delegation of 110 businessmen to China to discuss a range of projects from retail to agriculture; the Australian government expressed a particular interest in low-carbon investment projects.

When asked how the Expo will bring UK and Chinese ties closer, the spokesperson of the UK Pavilion replied: “The Expo will bring together officials and decision-makers from Chinese government departments and businesses which will allow the UK to hold meetings and get to know trade and business counterparts in China. This means the Expo is a chance to encourage more investment in the UK, to promote growth, jobs and trade links.”

To maximise business opportunities, many exhibitors are working closely with the economic and investment boards of their respective countries. The UK Pavilion is one of the best examples. Since its opening, the UK Pavilion has conducted more than 150 business events. Beginning in May, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) launched a series of Going Global seminars aimed at helping Chinese companies to invest or expand in Britain. Impressively, in the first month of the Expo alone, the UK has already won 25 new inward investment leads.

In a press statement, David Percival, UKTI head of inward investment, China, wrote: “China is at an exciting stage in its growth and development, and the fact that it is hosting the World Expo is a testament to that. We are seeing more and more Chinese companies spreading their wings and pursuing ambitions to expand internationally. Many are choosing the UK to establish their base as a springboard for global growth.” 

The Shanghai Expo started on May 1 and runs until October 31. Even after the event concludes, the commercial impact of the event will likely be felt, especially for the city of Shanghai. The Shanghai government has spent $45bn on upgrading the city’s infrastructure. Shanghai has two new airport terminals and an extended metro system, as well as a refurbished promenade on the Bund, Shanghai's most famous district. This event shows China’s capacity and determination to ascend the global stage. And perhaps even more so, it shows the eagerness of businesses worldwide to have a foothold in China’s surging market. 

IN FOCUS: The UK Pavilion

The UK Pavilion was among the most spectacular at the Shanghai Expo. Organisers anticipate that more than 40,000 people a day will visit the UK Pavilion alone, which will amount to 5 million visitors who will form a view of the UK from their visit, perhaps many of them for the first time. It is a chance to make a first impression among Chinese consumers that the UK did not want to miss. “Expo is a unique opportunity for the UK to showcase the best of British business, innovation and creativity. We want to engage with the Chinese economy and promote areas of strength in the UK such as the creative industries sector and the financial services sector,” a spokesperson for the UK Pavilion told fDi Magazine.

The UK set-up is certainly one of the 'must see' pavilions at Expo. The inside of the spikey cube is the Seed Cathedral: thousands of seeds embedded in long plastic rods allow light into the pavilion and create a space of 'calmness and tranquility'. “The seeds are there to encourage visitors to think about biodiversity and the importance of plants in our lives,” the spokesperson explains. “Outside the UK Pavilion is the park which people have been flocking to in their hundreds of thousands. Visitors can sit and relax, watch the lights come on at night and enjoy the entertainment around the pavilion, which shows the best of UK performance, theatre, dance and music. Any time you stop by there is something new to see and we would say to all visitors: come to the UK Pavilion, you won't be disappointed.”