Expo 2020(21)

In light of today’s headlines that the one year countdown to Dubai’s Expo has begun, I wanted to share my 2 fils on the event’s history, branding, and strategy in the context of the COVID-19 realities we face today.

How it all began

It was November of 2013 when Dubai’s skies lit up to reveal its victory in winning the bid to host the world’s fair. The event would be a first for the Middle East, N. Africa, and S. Asia region, and Dubai emerged an exuberant winner after competing head-to-head with other contenders: Russia, Turkey, and Brazil. This, no doubt, was a remarkable achievement for the nation and its leadership who had invested countless hours and efforts to place the UAE on the map. Although many of its residents had seen the marketing frenzy that preceded the win, many were lost on the details.

Better known as the World’s Fair or Great Exhibition abroad, the event was first held in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. The Crystal Palace Exhibition was organized with the mission to create economic links between countries, and deemed a great success that paved the way for the cultural development of London. It featured 25 participating countries and attracted over 6 million visitors who were eager to see innovations with their own eyes, unbeknownst to them in Europe. “I’m not saying there’s nothing to see, but that there’s too much to see,” said Charles Dickens after visiting.

The undoubted success of Britain’s Great Exhibition prompted other countries, vying for the same title, to try and outdo their predecessors. In the years to come, many other nations would compete with one another and host spectacular events, inevitably leaving a development mark on their host cities. The expos would attract millions of visitors, and act as a platform to expose a nation’s inventions that would transform societies forever. Among the breakthrough tech legacies were the telephone, electricity, and X-rays which were first debuted at world expos. Other exciting launches included the reveal of what would later become world attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and the completed Statue of Liberty.

Although these earlier events were international exhibitions, host countries would set their own rules, without obtaining the input or counsel of any participating countries. This created major problems, compromising the quality and image of the event due to a perceived lack of transparency and conflicting management styles. In 1928, an important step was taken to set an organizational framework for future Expos and a convention was signed to regulate the exhibition. The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) would henceforth be dedicated to guaranteeing the quality of Expos and protecting the rights of all its participants. Today, the BIE has 170 member countries who form its General Assembly and who vote to elect the hosts of future Expos, govern the content and classifications, and provide countries with a how-to-guide for its organization.

Dubai’s win

Dubai’s win in 2013 was a historic moment which promised to deliver the ‘best Expo in the world’ and would be significantly larger than its predecessors. The site itself would span 4.38 KM, estimated to be 2x the size of Monaco and equivalent to the size of 600 football pitches. With its theme, ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, the Expo aims to emphasize the need for a greater collaboration among minds to develop solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. This unmatched event where 192 countries would take part with their own pavilions, is estimated to attract 25 million visits over the course of 6 months of which over 70% are predicted to come from outside the UAE. Shanghai’s 2010 Expo, in comparison, welcomed a high of over 73 million visitors; however, was mostly attended by a domestic audience.

A report conducted by E&Y analyzing the economic impact of the Expo 2020 has estimated that from 2013 to 2031, the Expo and its legacy is likely to contribute AED 122.6b (USD 33.4b) gross value added to the UAE’s economy namely due to its construction, visitors, and commercial activities. Its positive impact would also support many jobs in the pre, during, and legacy phases of the Expo. For the UAE and participating countries, this would no doubt be a golden opportunity to develop bilateral relations and to encourage trade and investment with other untapped economies. That being said, good things are seldom cheap. Many countries participating have had to dedicate a significant budget for participation which would contribute to securing their pavilion’s location, as well as its design, build, and dismantle, and other operating expenditures.

In their history, world expos have rarely been postponed or cancelled, with few exceptions due to global crises such as the two World Wars. However in May 2020, a resolution to delay the Expo 2020 Dubai surpassed the required two-thirds vote threshold by the BIE’s eligible and voting member states. The event is now scheduled to run from 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022, which would allow the UAE and all 192 participants more time as they focus their efforts on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Things to consider

There are several key things to consider from a strategic standpoint when the Expo proceeds with its next-year edition as planned.

1/ Expo 2020 Dubai has chosen to retain its name despite its revised dates. Although there may be significant costs associated with rebranding and marketing the event as well as redesigning merchandise, maintaining 2020 in the name and all collateral may have a negative effect as it refrains from distancing the Expo to the year 2020 which many associate with the epidemic. Also, using the previous year in the name may create confusion among visitors from international markets. Therefore, a major public-relations drive is required to ensure that organizers inform the public about the new date for Expo 2020 while simultaneously explaining why it’s still called Expo 2020. They should also emphasize why and how Dubai will be a safe place to visit next year. For example, South Dubai where the Expo is will be an all-inclusive safe bubble with hotels, restaurants and entertainment. This positive positioning should be thoroughly communicated to stakeholders and media who play a vital role in articulating the branding to both local and foreign audiences.

2/ As the forecasted attendance for the event shows that 70% is expected to be from international guests, this poses a challenge due to the travel restrictions that have been introduced worldwide, and the ongoing health risks due to COVID-19. Many airlines have drastically cut their international flights and there is a lot of uncertainty about the industry as well as hesitation by people to fly due to quarantine measures. This is crucial as it may lead to shortfalls in overall revenue as much of the attendance and economic forecast for the Expo is attributed to visitor expenditures including entry tickets, aviation, hotels, among others. Visitor forecasts may need to be revised with a lower share of overseas attendees and a renewed focus on domestic and regional markets. In addition, the logistics behind ticket reimbursements will also need to be addressed, as tickets have already been sold directly and through authorized resellers, to people who may not be able to attend the future Expo anymore.

3/ Due to the pandemic, many countries have temporarily halted construction work on their respective pavilions with plans to resume at a later stage with enhanced health and safety measures. However, these countries may now face additional costs due to extended payrolls, higher material costs, impacted logistics and production, and slower completions. Also, a one-year postponement may result in deterioration of the unused pavilions, and belated participant withdrawals which may in turn create ripple effects. Therefore, budgets will likely need to be revised and fundraised due to the financial ramifications of postponement, and projects will need to be closely monitored to manage and mitigate the risks associated with such disruptions.

4/ As the world begins to adjust to the new reality of physical distancing, a global event such as the Expo will require strict safety measures and procedures. This may include a redesign of public spaces, queueing systems, and entertainment and dining areas which will in turn affect attendance capacity. New measures could also require an advanced reservation system to enter pavilions and events such as workshops and presentations. Countries may have to change their exhibits such as touchscreens or seating areas to ensure contactless interactions. Therefore, organizers will have to work hand-in-hand with participants to ensure that enhanced guidelines are communicated and enacted.

5/ Pandemics like the coronavirus drive change. They mobilize governments, organizations, and individuals to seek landmark reforms to problems that COVID-19 has unearthed such as failing healthcare systems, education’s digital divide, inequality gaps, air pollution and so much more. This crisis presents an opportunity for Expo participants to address these topics and to incorporate their experiences, successes, and challenges into their narratives within the underlying theme. Therefore, countries may need to modify their agendas, displays, and guest experiences to incorporate accordingly.

6/ For many people and businesses, attending the postponed Expo 2020 in person may no longer be an option for reasons such as travel restrictions, financial concerns, or health. This may force a massive change on the event which has been ripe for innovation for a long time. Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have revealed at warp speed, the many benefits of online tools and the need for a digital future. Expo 2020 Dubai and future Expos can extend their reaches by offering visitor journeys to wider audiences that can be accessible online using virtual and augmented reality.

As the date draws nearer to its original launch (October 20 2020), it’s hard to imagine the World’s Greatest Show won’t take place at a time the world needs its message of hope most. However, this defining time in history and its impact on the postponement is an opportunity for the Expo to live up to its ultimate purpose and mission of connecting the world’s greatest minds and shaping a better future. The hope is that in 2021, Dubai’s Expo will be one met with a much more curious crowd eager not to let this part of history repeat itself, and one that will deliver a powerful post COVID-19 legacy.

Catch my visit to the Expo 2020 site earlier this year on CNN Arabic.

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