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What it’s like to hold an Exhibition at COEX as an artist/seller

For the past four days, I volunteered to help my mom take a shot at selling her Zimbabwean art collection at the annual Home and Lifestyle Exhibition held in unison with the Gyeongyang Housing Fair. This exhibition, alike many others, are hosted in key cities around the country such as Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, Jeju and others throughout the year. It hosts a variety of creative products, from traditional hand held mirrors embedded with mother of pearl to extravagant tech that guarantees turning all food waste into liquid form. I’ve attended many of these events, but got to understand the behind-the-scenes of running our own booth. I thought this would be interesting for anyone wondering whether this is the step to launch or propel their business in Korea to the next level.

With 30 years of experience, this event boasts an average attendance rate of 180,000 persons. There is an entrance fee of 10,000 won, but they have the option of reserving a ticket for free beforehand. The bigger firms use this as an opportunity to showcase their exhibition design with elaborate and flashy architecture, case in point:IMG_0341.jpg

 

 

 

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(This particular shop was all about the pictures and promotions of–can you guess what? Shampoo!)

However, there are still a good number of smaller shops that sell their products in a more straight forward and simplistic manner. There are shops selling handmade jewelry to cosmetics and chocolate. Even if you’re not particularly keen to sell, if you are familiar with the fleamarkets and open market styles, this may be an interesting event reminiscent of those days when you can just walk up to the different stalls, have a chat and be hopefully jostled from your everyday surroundings and gain some home decor tips. Speaking of which, they host different seminars and conferences during the course of four days, where you may listen in on talks of brand design, sustainable and eco-friendly living, and other seminars for free. Unfortunately, most of these talks are held in Korean, and have yet to provide English translations due to the fairly limited attendance of foreigners (or perhaps, vice versa).

Setting Up.

This particular event is held over four consecutive days, with 2 days extra before and after for setting and wrapping up. They give you the whole day before to construct either your own booth or hire another company to do it for you. Because of this, the day (and air) is filled with dust and people panting heavily as they carry furniture and other goods across the huge hall. The hosting company conveniently failed to provide air conditioning on that day, and we had to move, unpack and organize items in the middle of Korean summer. When you apply to be a participating company, they are literally providing you with a standard 3x3m stall, and come to install lights, plugs, and a white box that you can use for some displays. Luckily, the plastic walls dividing shops are pretty durable and you can mount things onto it with a drill. We ended up drilling a painting, a light and a huge mirror so I’m guessing most other things are good to go.

Most of the preparations must be done beforehand. Bring your own tools and posters and marketing strategies. However, COEX has a lot of handy shops nearby, and you can pick up last minute supplies like tape and plastic chairs from the Daiso on the B1 floor. They will require marketing material a week before the exhibition itself, which they will disperse (though unseen by myself still). Another pro tip is packing a large piece of fabric that you drape over your products once you’re done for the day. It indicates that you have closed, and gives you some privacy when you leave the building.

If you don’t manage to complete everything in the day, it’s okay to do so the following day. However, because you share a wall, drilling it on opening day may not be seen favorably. You may still reorganize and set up your goods as there are not that many customers on a Thursday morning.

Personal Experience/Verdict.

Our mini exhibition/shop was wedged between a sink company, a facial exfoliating device company and a handmade arts and crafts store. Overall the neighbors were amiable and you grow a little fond of them by the fourth day, buying each other’s products and breaking bread with one another. However, deciding to partake in this exhibition requires some critical contemplation, especially if you are a relatively small company. While I’ve heard that smaller businesses in the arts pair up to split the booth costs, I am skeptical that many of them were even able to break even during the four days. The bigger companies, like the one above have no problem in fronting ‘advertisements’ as their main priority, even without reaping in the money. On the other hand, many of the smaller shops that were selling towels can hardly sell enough to even fathom covering the 3000,000 won booth fee (very rough approximation of 3000 dollars). Even our booth, which had a higher average price could barely breakeven. On that note, this exhibition, while catering towards companies that offer products as big as beds and storage containers, many of the consumers are within a demographic that are more frugal with their money. This is not the exhibition for you if you are looking for people that are willing to part with their money, even if it is for high quality art. Many are there, including myself in previous occasions, to have a feast for the eyes and have a little chit chat rather than to make an investment. While there is a considerable peak time on Sunday with last minute customers, I just don’t know if there 5~6 days is worth the effort. Through this experience, I felt fully the hardships of entrepreneurs, even with products as brilliant and futuristic as sinks that dissolve food waste into liquid form. They’re just not there for it. On the other hand, we were lucky enough to invite a gallery owner to see our booth and negotiate some business, but this was due to a friend network rather than an amity birthed by the exhibition. It’s really your call, but I strongly recommend that you prioritize your market research and consider what the primary goal of your business/exhibition is. In our case, we definitely chose the wrong market.

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However, I had a good experience. I had my very first taste of a small exhibition beyond the confines of my home. I did not realize the time was passing as I shifted products, displayed and rearranged the sculptures here and there. While it was a strenuous process, especially since it was done by the three of us only, unwrapping each of these products and finding an aesthetically pleasing composition took up the whole evening. I felt all the better after it.IMG_0305.jpg

 

Wrapping Up.

While it is advertised that the wrap up time is till the Monday after, we were surprised to see that most of the shops were packed and ready to go by Sunday evening following the exhibition. It dissolves into more chaos than the original set up, with some hoarse screams here and there as peoples’ frustrations go through the roof. This is another frustration that I had with the exhibition hosts–they do not seem to care for the participating companies. I say this because they offered no airconditioning the entire set up day, and immediately switched it off at 6PM when everyone was packing up. Everything had to be done in the excruciating heat and humidity of the Korean summer. This struck me as a disgusting capitalistic ploy, where all the smaller companies paid high sums to participate, slave away for four days everyday as they try to break even (sometimes located in farway and unfortunate areas with little customers) and immediately discarded as soon as they are away from the lime light. This was particularly disheartening to see, as some shop owners looked like they were on the verge of tears by the end of the show.

This is my personal experience and view on the Living and Lifestyle Expo, which transformed into the Home and Lifestyle Expo held in COEX. I felt like this was an interesting insight to the shenanigans, and especially interesting for those who do not have access to such information in Korean. Atleast, you know a little more and can perhaps have a little more sympathy for the sullen faces you may see at one of these exhibitions.

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