Trade Shows, Russian Style

Daniel Brooks

I took part in my first trade show in 1987 in the USSR. I worked with a company that took a bread packing machine to Moscow and set it up to offer our technology to the Soviet baking industry. The trade show took place just after Gorbachev had announced Glasnost, a period of openness when American manufacturers were allowed to attend trade shows and sell things. The show was visited in part by bread packing experts, but not in droves. The big volume of visitors was made up of normal citizens who came to the exhibition to get their hands on free stuff. We had nothing to give out except plastic bags. Every day, we’d give out bags for an hour in the morning and in the afternoon, for a second hour. We were mobbed and nothing we could say would convince people to stand in line. We had an excited and unruly pack of people pushing and shoving to get a handout. It was a madhouse.

These days, most trade shows in Moscow are like exhibitions anywhere in the world, especially at the newer exhibit centers such as Krokus City.  Nevertheless, one trade show venue, Sovintsentr, manages to retain some of the traditions of Soviet times.

When the show starts at Sovintsentr, people stand in a line outside the entrance to the fairgrounds in the freezing cold to get inside. These days, the show has a big x-ray machine at the entrance that eats up people’s bags, after which everyone goes through security.  The x-ray machine has a belt on it that spits out the bags on the other side, unseen by those going through security, leaving personal belongings available for others to help themselves. Some people try to cut in front of the line, causing arguments to break out. Exhibitors are treated the same as normal visitors and stand in the same line. Some foreign exhibitors who don’t speak Russian end up not knowing what to do next. These visitors are given unintelligible hand signals by the security guards. The foreigners need to either learn Russian, find a translator or stop complaining.  

After a good fight at the entrance, the visitor to Sovintsentr has to find the pavilion he wants to visit. Sovintsenter, in a time-honored Russian tradition, has set up a numbering system for its 20 or so exhibit halls that makes no sense. They are not arranged in numerical or any other order.  One hall isn’t numbered at all, instead it’s called ‘Forum’.  Anyone unfamiliar with the lay of the land ends up wandering through the meat, ice cream and snack pavilions at random.  Perhaps it’s set up this way on purpose, to compel visitors to visit the exhibits they would otherwise ignore.

Most visitors to Russian trade shows are made up of professionals; business people, looking to find partners and talk about producing, buying or selling all kinds of goods or, as in the case of the exhibit I manned this week, coffee. The business people are mixed at the show with a steady stream of ordinary folks who’ve come to the show in large numbers. The non-professionals try to make believe they are professionals. It’s clear that they have nothing to do with the coffee, cheese, meat or any other business. There is nothing wrong with the general public. All they want are a few samples or something to eat. Some of them say they are acting on behalf of an important commercial enterprise, perhaps in a faraway Republic. Several visitors at the show we attended this week would provide a critique of our product. One visitor, after getting his free cup of coffee, gave us a hard look and said that a German producer of coffee has no place in the Russian market, whatsoever. Another said our coffee was lacking aroma, body, flavor and was unbalanced. He said this with a squint in his eye. Not a single visitor told us they were visiting the show for fun and would simply like a few free handouts. Had they done so, we’d have gladly given them a sample or two, out of respect for their honesty.

Some of our visitors from the street were ancient. A few could hardly walk. I hope at their age, I’ll be making my way to trade shows with long eyebrows, claiming to be a buyer for a big supermarket in Pskov.  One was bent over almost double and dropped his cane when we gave him his cup of coffee. God bless him, he had a business card.

During most trade shows, a lot of noise comes with the territory. At US and European shows, some kind of music is usually playing full blast.  At most trade shows devoted to food someone is usually teaching a rapt audience how to prepare noodles, fast food or similar at full volume. At our trade show in Sovintsentr, we were barraged by a recording every 15 minutes or so, reminding people not to lose their badges to the show or give them away to unknown people. Heaven forbid that any random persons might show up. These announcements were so loud that people having meetings at the show had to either shout at each other to be heard or stop talking. By the end of the show, we’d memorized the announcements and were considering ways to find the announcer in a dark alley.   

A company I work with attends Prodexpo every year, an important Russian food show. When it ends, all hell breaks loose. Many exhibitors bring product from far away and don’t ship samples back to where they originated after the show ends. Others aren’t allowed to export product exhibited at the show to the country of origin, due to Russian customs regulations. These goods need to either be thrown away or given out to anyone who shows up. Hordes of folks seeking free stuff descend on the trade show on the last day.  It is done in an organized way. Some work alone, hauling large suitcases on wheels. The smart ones get free goods at one booth and exchange them at another one for more valuable stuff. Others move in packs, situating grandma at a strategic, central location on a bench. The family members fan out to gather free goods and bring them back to the grandma who guards it with her life. Exhibitors are asked straight up for samples. It’s game on. If an exhibitor has goods that need to be given away, a crowd gathers with their hands out.  Once everything is gone, the sample gatherers disappear to the four winds. When the show is closed, everyone converges where the grandparents are protecting the family horde. They can be seen leaving the trade show with suitcases and bags filled with food. It’s the best deal going, entirely free.

I think the old-fashioned way of doing trade shows will eventually die out in Russia. That’s too bad. Experiencing a bit of disorganization keeps us on our toes for the day when things go pear shaped. We all know that that day is coming. Might as well get a bit of practice at it, beforehand.    

Copyright, Daniel Brooks, 15 February 2019