Life in a reopened China – a taste of the new normal

Simon Lomas, chief operating officer at Shenzhen World, offers an in-depth look as to how the venue took steps to ensure it could quickly get back on its feet while ensuring the safety of its visitors, and how it is preparing for the return of international visitors

Shenzhen World Exhibition and Convention Center (Shenzhen World), one of the world’s largest venues, officially opened in September 2019

Just a few weeks after China’s 2020 Lunar New Year celebrations, the city of Wuhan was placed on lockdown. Other cities around China soon followed suit, and Shenzhen was no exception.

After several months of nervous waiting, Shenzhen World Exhibition and Convention Center (Shenzhen World) reopened on July 20, 2020, with the spring edition of the Gift Show, which signalled the start of China getting back on its feet, and functioning “normally”.

Shenzhen World, one of the world’s largest event venues, officially opened in September 2019

But this “new normal” was almost entirely a domestic audience. And while China’s borders have remained open to many countries, the requirement for a two-week quarantine, coupled with limited flights, made it difficult for overseas exhibitors and visitors to attend events at Shenzhen World or elsewhere in the country.

Most overseas exhibits that took part in the show were via local distributors, while the overseas visitors we welcomed were those already living in China.

It is fortunate that for us, the local market is resilient, and both companies and individuals have shown their keenness to trade and conduct business.

Shenzhen has around 17.6 million residents, and over 126 million reside in the Guangdong Province, according to a 2020 census. So one shouldn’t underestimate the number of people that can turn up to an exhibition in China.

The robustness of Shenzhen’s exhibition industry can also be seen by the large growth in attendances for shows that were first held in Shenzhen World in 2020 and have now held their second event in 2021. These exhibitions show an average increase in visitor numbers of 47 per cent, without the benefit of overseas visitors and buyers.

The sheer scale of manufacturing here in south-east China, a large local population, and the continuing improvements made to transport links means that China can sustain itself when it comes to exhibitions.

However, what will be lacking in the short-term is the ability to sell to overseas markets, and gain exposure from technological advances from outside China.

Our recovery journey has not been easy. Being one of the first venues in China and the world to reopen in the midst of the pandemic, we had to rewrite the rule book, working closely with the government and organisers, in order to provide a safe environment for visitors, organisers, and staff.

By now in China, everyone was familiar with using mobile phone applications that allowed tracing. If the user had been in a high-risk area, they would not receive a green code, the first step for entry into Shenzhen World. Facial recognition was also deployed at the Gift Show to facilitate entry to registered attendees.

Infrared cameras were also used to monitor the body temperatures of everyone entering the venue. Partitions were installed on tables in F&B areas to minimise exposure while eating, and wearing face masks was mandatory. Contactless registration and payment systems were already commonplace in China via WeChat and Alipay mobile phone platforms, hence minimising contact through the use of QR codes and mobile phone technology was already in place.

Crucial to our success was keeping the Shenzhen World team focused on developing new initiatives that would support and maintain our growing markets. We also developed a smart service platform that provides efficient and convenient access for clients to systems such as indoor navigation and the booking of services.

In preparation for the return of the international market, we launched our Airport and Bonded Zone initiatives in November 2020. Shenzhen Airport now has a service desk situated in our South Lobby allowing for check-in for domestic and international flights departing from Shenzhen Bao’an Airport.

In addition, we now offer one-stop custom clearance services for international exhibits with our on-site customs office, allowing for fast and efficient movement of overseas goods in and out of Shenzhen World.

While there is still a level of unease regarding the pandemic, I believe that the scale of the local economy will continue to drive growth in face-to-face exhibitions and the most successful events will be the ones that adapt to changing market conditions. When borders re-open, that growth has the potential to be so much more.

Simon Lomas is the chief operating officer at Shenzhen World. Before his move to China in 2019, he was the general manager convention centre & theatre at Jakarta International Expo for two years. Other previous industry posts include deputy general manager at Kuala Lumpur COnvention Centre, and director of operations at Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre.

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