On the first day of the Canton Fair's second phase, a sales representative surnamed Wu stood in a daze beside coils of electrical wiring left on the ground next to the company's stand, while rain pelted down on stone decorations being displayed by the outdoor home decoration manufacturer from Xiamen, Fujian province. That day, Wu didn't sell anything or talk to many customers.
"We pay 40,000 yuan for this exhibition space, but there is no electricity, no landline and no internet. It's raining now, but the organisers don't even help put up a canopy.
"We simply cannot do business here," said Wu, who declined to give her full name for fear of being blacklisted.
Several stands away Rita Yang, who had a stack of brochures introducing her Jacuzzi company from Foshan, Guangdong province, came to the fair with high expectations.
"You'd think there would be a lot of people since this is the first time [to show outdoor spa equipment], but look around, you only see a few people," said Yang. "I am not sure if the organisers have done their job to promote this properly."
This year's Canton Fair, officially known as the 115th China Import and Export Fair, was organised by the China Foreign Trade Centre, and sponsored by the Commerce Ministry and the Guangdong provincial government.
As in past years, the fair runs in three phases that last for five days each. The second phase which opened on April 23 featured consumer goods, gifts and home decorations.
On the official website, no eye-catching promotion touted the new section. A small footnote simply noted that its name was changed from the Stone and Iron Products section to Stone/Iron Decoration Outdoor Spa Equipment section.
The outdoor exhibition space is located at the very back of the complex. Buyers have to walk on an uncovered path and take a slow escalator to reach the terrace. On a rainy day, many simply stayed away. Yet a fully furnished stand there still cost over 100,000 yuan (HK$125,500).
Exhibitors from Fujian and Guangdong said the price tag for an indoor stand can cost as high as 90,000 yuan, and a 20-square metre outdoor stand costs at least 40,000 yuan.
Staff members working at the exhibition centre explained the final price is decided by local foreign trade departments based on each province's economic level. This year, the organiser prepared 59,708 stands. At an average price of 60,000 yuan for each stand, sellers probably paid 10.8 billion yuan to participate in the 15-day trade fair. The event organisers declined to comment on how much they earned from the fair.
As the trading volume at the Canton Fair has declined for each of the last three years, many argue that enormous trade shows are losing their popularity. Professor Yao Xinchao at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing said the development of the internet "threatened traditional trade shows", but as a government-supported event, the Canton Fair is unlikely to be called off completely.
"The cost of participation is getting higher. Small-size companies … may no longer participate. The organisers should shrink the size of the stands to reduce the cost," said Yao.
A sales representative surnamed Zhou, from a bathroom fixtures company from Taizhou, Jiangsu province, was annoyed by the leaky canopy covering the aisle near her stall.
"The organisers only provide cover at the aisle space, and it's leaking," said Zhou, whose neighbour had to share a stand with someone else because he didn't build a cover of his own. Zhou said her company already took part in the fair's first phase as a hardware and tools company. But since the outdoor spa equipments show is new, they decided to come to the second phase expecting a big crowd.
"I don't know if I am still coming for this next year. Actually I don't know if I am staying here for all five days," said Zhou.