Trade fairs are held worldwide for the purpose of exhibiting, showcasing and displaying latest products and services by businesses. They also offer an opportunity to meet business-cum-industry partners and customers, get acquainted with the latest activities of business competitors, and observe recent market trends and opportunities. In sharp contrast to consumer fairs, only a handful of trade fairs globally are open to the public, while others are attended by the representatives of businesses and members of the press. It can also assume a hybrid form. For example, it can be 'trade only' during the first few days and 'public' in the remaining few days.
Modern trade fairs have their origin in medieval Europe. Industrial exhibitions became common since the late 18th century reflecting the technological progress and dynamism of the industrial revolution. The concept of industry-wide annual trade fairs gained popularity from the late 19th century in Europe and North America. After that, specialised companies came into being in the 20th century solely for the purpose of managing trade shows. Permanent trade fair grounds were then established as venues, and a rotating calendar for trade shows was introduced in many Western countries. Keeping pace with rapid industrialisation, trade fairs and exhibitions became quite common in Asia during the late 20th and early 21st century. China now dominates the exhibition industry in Asia. In 2011, it alone accounted for over 55 per cent of all spaces sold in the continent.
The Bangladesh experience in this area has not been very satisfactory till date. According to a recent report in the print media, the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) under the Ministry of Commerce has participated in around 750 international fairs during the past 25 years, averaging around 30 fairs per year. But the state of affairs and management of the Dhaka International Trade Fair (DITF) that it organises in the capital in January each year is worsening day by day. It can now hardly claim to be of international stature.
Many among the local businesspeople complain that that the fair has now become a shopping outlet for the city-dwellers instead of serving its main purpose of exhibiting the country's industrial products and manufactures. It has also been reported in the media that the shop-owners of different markets in Dhaka are getting upset as their businesses are suffering because of what is happening in the name of trade fair. Even after the lapse of two and a half decades since its inception, the exhibition has not yet assumed the shape of a trade fair, let alone an international one.
A salient attribute of trade fairs worldwide is visits by foreign buyers, inspection and assessment of the quality of local products, and then placement of orders based on the findings. Another key global trait of such fairs is that the local importers are supposed to get the opportunity to acquaint themselves with foreign products, so that they do not have to visit foreign lands for the purpose. But these two salient features are hardly visible in DITF. Besides, the maximum duration of international fairs is usually one week globally, as their main purpose is to exhibit products. In most cases, selling is not a priority for the businesspeople, and most of the orders are taken for subsequent supply. But in contrast, EPB seems to be bent on earning instant money from the fair by transforming it into a huge shopping centre.
Many local entrepreneurs do not believe that this fair is playing any positive role in export promotion. Not many foreign buyers visit it and the orders they place are also negligible. Under these circumstances, questions may be raised about the very justification for holding this fair. Some even opine that this fair may be called a bazaar for buying consumer goods. The stated goals of holding DITF includes exhibition of local and foreign products, exploring foreign markets and developing linkages among domestic and foreign buyers. But that is hardly seen during the course of this fair.
Many among those who have visited fairs organised in foreign lands lament that they have not observed such indiscipline abroad. It could be gathered from some visitors and businessmen that most of the stalls lacked exportable commodities. Rather, there are allegations of displaying items that are not fit for export. On the other hand, only a handful of those organisations that engage in the export business participate in this fair. Electronic products, household utensils, women's dresses and different food items enjoy a lion's share of the commodities sold in the fair. And the stalls of foreign countries mostly aim at selling consumer items they bring and exhibit at the fair.
The visitors also complain about the chronic sound and dust pollution encountered at the fair-site. As is the practice elsewhere, there are no topical seminars or discussion meetings at the fair-venue. Besides, the stipulated exhibition policies are also violated randomly in many instances. For example, numerous local stalls display and sell foreign products. Some are even found to be shouting cut-throat prices at the top of their voices, similar to the hawkers who sell their products on footpaths.
Apart from organising fairs in the country, the EPB officials also participate in foreign fairs. Even during the current fiscal year, the officials of the state-owned entity have plans to participate in 54 international fairs of 25 countries including the USA, Japan, Germany, Brazil and Russia. Of these, the officials have already participated in 38 fairs during the past six months. Many observers allege that doing business and earning money has become the main objective of EPB while engaging in trade fair-related activities. It now makes a net profit of between TK 300 million and Tk 350 million each year by organising DITF.
EPB has a plan to shift the DITF venue from its present location of Agargaon at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar to Purbachal on the outskirts of Dhaka from next year. The relevant officials are expressing optimism that more care would be taken in running the fair from next year. But the concerned observers and stakeholders are sceptical about overnight improvements, unless there is rigorous planning and concomitant actualisation for better outputs and outcomes, in line with stated goals of such fairs. That may even require an overhaul of the organisation, its management and personnel including the top leadership, who mostly serve on deputation from the civil service cadres. Instead of generalists, professionals having business background are certainly required for improving the situation.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary of GoB and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.
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