Sunday, October 1, 2023

Five rules for a successful Expo pavilion

By Andrew Snowhite (Snowhite Strategies)

ABOVE: Entry to the USA Pavilion at Expo 2017, Astana Kazakhstan

Expo 2020 Dubai opens its doors to the world in only a year and a half.  An amazing feat—there currently are two hundred country and thematic Pavilions being imagined, designed and built.  And with 25 million guests expected, hundreds of millions of unique interactions will take place onsite, with countless millions more happening online. 

If you are not familiar with an “Expo,” you might know it by its other name, a World’s Fair.  Today’s Expos are similar to the grand World’s Fairs of days past that brought people together from different countries and showcased new innovations to the world. Over the last 150 years, Expos introduced us to inventions and iconic designs such as the telephone, diesel engine and video conferencing and brought us the Eiffel Tower and the first Ferris Wheel. 

While it’s been over thirty-five years since an Expo was hosted in the United States (hopefully that will change soon), they are still important and well-known events worldwide.  In the last few decades this has been especially true for “nation branding,” countries leveraging Expo to show their progress and geopolitical importance. This is similar to countries hosting other global events like the Olympics or World Cup, but Expos are unique in their focus on humanity and the future, versus sport. As my Astana colleague Joshua Walker says, “Expos are the Olympics of soft power.”

There are two types of Expos. The first is a “World Expo” that runs for six months and focuses on a universal theme relating to the human experience. In this case, many participating countries construct an entire Pavilion building from the ground up, program and operate it, and dismantle it after the Expo ends. The second, a “Specialized Expo,” is a three-month event where participants are provided space for their Pavilion that they fit-out and operate according to a specific theme. You can see the difference between the two by comparing Dubai 2020 whose more ethereal theme is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” versus Expo 2017 Astana (Kazakhstan), a Specialized Expo that had a very clear theme of “Future Energy.” At the conclusion of the Expo, the site is usually repurposed as a tourism or commerce hub.

All Expos are governed by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), a Paris-based intergovernmental organization that has 170 member countries. Similar to the big global sporting events, member countries bid to host Expos and vote to decide who is awarded the honor of hosting. World Expos occur every five years and Specialized Expos happen sometime in between. After Dubai hosts in 2020, there will be a Specialized Expo in 2023 in Buenos Aires, followed by the next World Expo in Osaka, Japan in 2025.

In most normal situations, the year and a half timeframe until Dubai opens might seem like a long time to get almost anything accomplished. However, in Expo world, especially for a six-month World Expo, it means the clock is ticking, and fast.  Buildings have to be designed and built, teams assembled, cross-border companies and bank accounts opened and lots and lots and lots of visas and credentials processed and approved (this list could go on and on). 

My intent on writing this piece is to provide guidance to anyone and everyone who is responsible for an Expo Pavilion, either at Dubai 2020 or into the future. The two Pavilions that I helped to lead were the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. There’s no other event where you can represent your nation on the global stage, crafting and sharing a story with millions of people who might otherwise never have a direct interaction with your country, your citizens or your organization. My teams and our partners took this honor seriously, working tirelessly to ensure we delivered our message, strengthened our ties with the host country and created the best guest experience possible. This resulted in incredible teamwork and comradery, and while the process was intense, we had fun and built relationships that will last a lifetime.

So, what did I learn after delivering two USA Pavilions on budget and on time? I learned about the intricacies of Expos, about public diplomacy, about storytelling, about international business, about teamwork, and a ton about myself. Through these experiences I’ve identified a number of common challenges and solutions that apply to all phases of a Pavilion’s planning, design and operations. I hope these provide guidance for those working on Dubai as you hit crunch time as well as a roadmap for those already thinking ahead to Buenos Aires 2023 and Osaka 2025.

Here are my Five Rules for a Successful Expo Pavilion:

Rule 1: Create a Clear Theme and Story

This first step when approaching a Pavilion is to determine your theme. Everything, and I really mean everything, is dependent on choosing a clear and relevant theme that can be communicated across multiple mediums. This includes the physical Pavilion building and exhibit space, digital platforms, communications and PR materials and every operational aspect of the initiative.

The Pavilion’s theme needs to relate to the Expo’s overall theme, while reflecting what is unique about a Pavilion’s country or brand.  It also needs to reflect the goals for the Pavilion/organization’s participation, for example public diplomacy, promoting commerce, and nation or corporate branding. For reference, the USA Pavilions I worked on were public-private-partnerships with the U.S. Department of State where we were chosen through a competitive bid process and responsible for designing, buildings and operating the Pavilion on behalf of the United States of America. Our physical space and communications were focused on public diplomacy while our overall participation in the Expo was critical to strengthening government to government diplomacy and economic ties.

Guests watching the USA Pavilion 2012’s presentation being projected on the Pre-Show water screen

A good theme and theme statement serve as the foundation for the experience that is created and how it is explained and promoted. More so, remember that visitors have limited time in a Pavilion, so choose at most three simple takeaways you would like them to remember from their visit.

Here is an example. At Expo 2012, Yeosu Korea, the Expo’s theme was “The Living Ocean and Coast” and we created a USA Pavilion theme of “Diversity, Wonder and Solutions.” This theme provided a roadmap for every aspect of the project and allowed us to craft an engaging story.  See how the following Theme Statement provided the foundation for our story and the key takeaways for our guests:

Theme Statement: USA Pavilion 2012, Yeosu Korea

Diversity, Wonder and Solutions are the unifying themes of the USA Pavilion. Through a host of exciting technologies, and storytelling through America’s multicultural lens, the USA Pavilion experience will explore the vital connection between the health and well-being of cultures and communities and the future of one of our most important resources: the ocean. Highlighting the diverse and dynamic nature of America’s ocean and coastal environments, the USA Pavilion will reveal the colorful mosaic of American life. Its stories and experiences will convey the core values of innovation, partnership and hope that define the American spirit.

“Diversity” of America’s people and landscapes provided an ideal backdrop for content and provided guests with a better understanding of how culturally and geographically diverse we are as Americans. Showing our landscapes, from Alaska to Hawaii to Maine focused on the beauty of our coastal and underwater regions, inspiring awe and “Wonder” and presenting amazing visuals. “Solutions” allowed us to acknowledge the immense challenges facing the ocean while creating an opportunity to focus on American solutions and American-South Korea partnerships. 

We interpreted our theme through a multi-part storytelling experience to create three simple takeaways for our guests: 1) Americans and South Koreans continue to be friends and partners, 2) Americans and America are culturally and geographically diverse, and 3) the ocean is in trouble but if we work together we can make a positive difference. 

Creating the story and how it is expressed through the guest experience requires considerable internal thought and feedback. Also, it needs to be interesting and engaging to the end user, so focus on the people who will visit the Pavilion. Who are they? What language(s) do they speak? What are they interested in? How long might they stay? How might they feel about your country or brand upon entry? What do you want them knowing and feeling when they walk away? Exploring these questions will reveal your story and the optimal tools and methods to share it with your guests. 

While nothing replaces an in-person visit to an Expo or a Pavilion, to get a feeling for our theme and story in Yeosu, please check out this video overview on YouTube. It has footage of the Pavilion experiences we created, which included a Pre-Show presentation projected on a curtain of water, with greetings from President Obama and Secretary Clinton, as well as a custom wide-screen film that engaged and inspired our guests and had them repeating our mantra “This is Our Ocean” as they left the show (cheers to our creative partner, The Hettema Group). 

Yeosu planning with Phil Hettema (right) and my longtime friend and collaborator Philippe Cousteau (center)

It is important to note that while textually the theme and theme statement might be brief, their development entails a huge amount of time, effort and brainpower. This required hours upon of hours of collaboration between our core team and our creative and communications teams, in person and virtually. Moreover, we needed to ensure that our concept, how it was worded and manifested physically, was reflective of the Department of State’s Pavilion goals. The storytelling and design process required thousands of hours of collaboration, with Department of State input and review and approval of every piece of content we created (from footage in our films to the photos on the walls of the VIP Lounge). 

The opportunity to work with such a variety of people with diverse areas of expertise was amazing. I don’t think there are many other projects where a meeting includes architects and designers, operators, policy and diplomacy experts, international businesspeople, cultural interpreters, storytellers, educators and world-class subject matter experts. Moreover, it’s a magical experience once the theme and story begin coming to life, especially for team members that aren’t from a creative industry.  One of the most rewarding milestones of the Pavilion process was sharing the first draft of a film or media presentation with our colleagues at the Department of State. I loved their excitement at seeing how we collectively planned to represent America, their ability to contribute to the creative process and the realization that the Pavilion was indeed moving beyond ideas to a real and physical space.

Coordinating this many people to craft a theme and story doesn’t come without challenges.  For Yeosu and Astana, which both were on the other side of the world, it demanded a 24-hour work cycle.  Middle of the night phone and video calls occurred regularly in order to accommodate schedules between D.C., Los Angeles and local teams on the ground. We got together in person with our colleagues at the Department of State in D.C. so frequently that I’m not sure either project could have been pulled off if I didn’t happen to live locally.

Rule 2: People Relate to People

“Technology is amazing.” “What’s new today couldn’t have been imagined a few years ago.”  “The line between the digital and physical world continues to blur.” [Insert the next cliché that comes to mind].

We all get it. The tools that are now available to tell a story are incredible and will only continue to blow our minds in the coming years. But you know what? As much as people love flashy whiz-bang tech, what makes the most impact…wait for it…is interacting with other people!  Crazy, right? I know it sounds passé, but I’ve seen with my own eyes that people-to-people interactions are the most powerful means of telling your story!

Over the last few decades the United States has consistently implemented a Student Ambassador program. Although the program and its execution vary from Expo to Expo depending on the public sector partner of the Department of State, the concept is simple.  American university-aged young people who speak the host country’s language are chosen to attend Expo as part of the USA Pavilion team and to volunteer as Ambassadors in the Pavilion.  Not only do they meet and interact with the guests, but often they are integrated into the experiences while also helping with all of the operational aspects of the space (from running the shows to helping with VIPs to managing queues). In Astana we saw other Pavilions starting to utilize a similar Ambassador program, and often did exchanges between our Student Ambassadors and those representing other countries.

Nothing beats a direct person-to-person interaction and therefore these should be specifically built/designed into the guest experience.  It doesn’t have to be complicated but needs to be integrated into the fabric of the Pavilion…opportunities to talk with people waiting in line, having a Student Ambassador on a microphone welcoming people into the Pavilion or having lots of selfie stations (you can’t have enough photo ops).

Astana Student Ambassador meeting a local Kazakhstani guest

In Astana, we had a significant percentage of guests who had never met an American before, let alone spoken to them in one of their native languages. This was especially important as the view on Americans in that region is still evolving. As much as the Pavilion’s multimedia made an impact, nothing was more memorable or meaningful in terms of breaking down preconceived thoughts than small talk, a smile or a handshake. 

In Yeosu, which is about as far away from Seoul as you can get, we had a lot of guests visiting from very rural areas. Similarly, many had never met or spoken with an American before or had a predetermined notion of what an American should look like. I can still remember the reactions of surprise and joy when an African American Student Ambassador would speak to a guest in fluent Korean, and I still get chills thinking about the moment I shared with a Korean War veteran who embraced me, and thanked me, simply because I was an American.

Preparing for America’s National Day in Yeosu with our Student Ambassadors

It’s also important to note that our Student Ambassadors didn’t simply represent America and the Pavilion at the physical Expo space, they also traveled throughout the host countries. They volunteered in orphanages and at schools, visited manufacturing facilities of our corporate partners and went on culinary and cultural adventures. Take a look at the Yeosu and Astana Final Reports in my LinkedIn profile for more great examples of people-to-people interactions.

Rule 3: Design and Operations Go Hand in Hand

In many ways, an Expo Pavilion is similar to a business startup. Typically, it requires creating one or more new business entities, fundraising, opening bank accounts, building teams, engaging all sorts of vendors, securing insurance, creating HR policies, communications, etc. etc.

This is what I refer to as the “business operations” of the Pavilion. The operations referred to in this piece are the “Pavilion operations,” the operating of the physical Pavilion during the run of the Expo. 

There are two basic ways to plan a Pavilion. Option 1 is to centralize the planning of the design, content and operations, having each stakeholder at the table throughout the process (as described above). This can be managed by a single organization with the engagement of various third-party subject matter experts. Option 2 is to first engage a design and experience team, design and build the Pavilion, and then hire a company to operate it during the Expo. 

To save time I’ll get straight to the point.  Whatever you do, please DON’T choose Option 2!

It is imperative that the creative folks (architects, designers, storytellers, techies, etc.) are working with an operations expert during every step of the planning process, ideally someone with Expo experience. This should start during the concept phase and continue through construction and opening. Expo is like nothing else…it’s not a sporting event like the Olympics or a conference like SXSW or Davos…Expo has many unique aspects and details that can only be learned the hard way…by doing it!

And to take things a few steps further, it is also critical to include the project “owner” throughout the process. As noted, as the private sector partner responsible for every aspect of the USA Pavilion, our project “owner” was our partner, the U.S. Department of State. Most often a Pavilion’s project owner is a government entity, but for Thematic or Corporate Pavilions, it is the Expo Organizing Committee or a business (both of whom are writing massive checks with lots of expectations).

USA Pavilion 2017 team (L to R): Steve Keil (U.S. Department of State), Adolat Nadjimova (U.S. Department of State), Arman Sapargaliyev (Kazakhstan Embassy, DC), Joshua Walker (President, USA Pavilion 2017), Jenn Miller (U.S. Department of State), Margery Kraus (Chairman, USA Pavilion 2017 and APCO Worldwide), Erzhan Kazykhanov (Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the U.S.), Andrew Snowhite (Executive Director, USA Pavilion 2017), Anthony DeAngelo (USA Pavilion 2017), Alice Cosgrove (U.S. Department of State).

As I learned, the placement of an entry door and how it defines a queue line can have massive operational ramifications, as can the difference between people standing or sitting on benches during a show. Does the tech staff have direct, back-of-house access to the servers? How do VIPs access a bathroom? Are the type of fish being used in a wall graphic currently part of an intense international treaty negotiation? Will people recognize that a waterscreen projection surface is actually water? Hint—the answer to this is yes, most people do, but there are always a few rogue guests who have to get wet learning the hard way, no matter what you tell them.

These are only a few examples of the importance of combining design and operations planning into one process.

Rule 4: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

By now it should be clear that designing, building and operating a Pavilion is a challenge (albeit a rewarding one). Please don’t try to figure it all out yourself. There simply isn’t enough time.  This doesn’t apply only to Pavilions teams but to Expo Organizers as well. The lack of institutional knowledge passed down from Pavilion to Pavilion or Expo to Expo is surprising. It often times feels like everyone wants to learn the hard lessons themselves! 

However, it doesn’t need to be this way. Keep in mind that there are wonderful people who have done it before, most of whom would love to provide their feedback and guidance, or even join you on a new Expo adventure. And they aren’t too hard to find, many are on LinkedIn and social media, and as I’ve found they often form tight bonds that last for years and can quickly facilitate additional connections (my family still gets together with staff and Student Ambassadors from Yeosu and Astana a few times a year).

When we did Yeosu, Expo was new to us, but we had the foresight to build a team with deep experience. We had multiple people on our team who had recently wrapped up at Expo 2010 Shanghai and whose knowledge about operations and VIP were invaluable (many thanks to Mark and Nancy Germyn). We leveraged relationships to find a Korean law firm to help us guide a variety of administrative requirements as well as a knowledgeable in-country team member, who proved invaluable (Andy Kim, who also was a wonderful culinary and cultural guide). 

Pre-construction visit to Yeosu, with Mark Germyn (w/hardhat), Andy Kim (right) and the incomparable Bob Ward (w/baseball cap)

We were fortunate in Yeosu to have partners at the State Department who also had been at Shanghai that were able to provide Expo-specific guidance, especially relating to protocol and public diplomacy. A huge bonus in Yeosu and Astana was having the in-country U.S. Ambassador serve as our Commissioner, who along with their teams at the Embassy provided leadership and deep local expertise (Ambassador Sung Kim in Yeosu and Ambassador George Krol in Astana).  Important to note is that for years America had decentralized Expo management which often required a learning curve in D.C. and at the Embassy or Consulate in the host country. That’s now changed, and a new “Expo Unit” is managing Expos into the future while cataloging work from the past.

External partners are also key to provide subject matter expertise, content and funding. Most often, a country’s federal government provides the funding for Pavilions; however, there is legislation in the USA that prohibits State Department fundraising as well as funding without an act of Congress (which hasn’t been an option for a long time now). This means USA Pavilions have to raise all of their funds from the private sector, which is another story for another time (for example, Yeosu and Astana would not have been possible without the support of our “Global” level sponsors Chevron, Citi, and GE). We are now seeing that some other countries are either adopting this model or creating a hybrid version where the government provides base-level funds that are supplemented by corporate donations.

To help navigate corporate and political landscapes, we developed strong partnerships with the cross-country business associations. Their knowledge and relationships were important to fundraising efforts and to understanding how to operate a business in-country.  We also developed partnerships with a variety of organizations to facilitate the overall effort, from providing content for our shows (Monterey Bay Aquarium), guidance on sustainable operations (U.S. Green Building Council), communications expertise (APCO Worldwide) and identifying Student Ambassadors (University of Virginia).

Last, along with staff and partners, finding experts and companies with experience creating stories and designs, as well as constructing Pavilions, is a must. The United States committed to participating in Astana at absolutely the last minute.  If our design team, BRC Imagination Arts, hadn’t already done multiple Pavilions at past Expos, coupled with my knowledge from Yeosu, there is no way we would have had time to complete our design and build (in over thirty years of business it was BRC’s most compressed project ever). 

Giving a talk about Expos with BRC’s Christian Lachel (right) in our VIP Lounge in Astana

Rule 5: Murphy’s Law…or Everything Costs More and Takes Longer

If ideas like these cross your mind…

We can raise half our money now, start our design and build, and raise the rest as we go.

I won’t get charged a last-minute fee to get materials through customs or onto the Expo site.  

It’ll be easy to get fifty local cell phones for our international staff. 

Of course, someone locally can make a 1×1 meter sheet cake designed like an American flag for National Day. 

Why wouldn’t there be enough projector bulbs in-country in case ours blow out…

Well, you may have some challenges to deal with ahead.  Due to their complexity, tight time frames and the variables of working internationally, a Pavilion serves as a perfect platform to experience Murphy’s Law. Having done two Expos now I’ve learned that almost everything that can go wrong at some point very likely will. You’ll also find that everything costs more and takes longer than you would rationally expect. But in the end, like me, hopefully you will find it one of the most magical experiences of your life.

Surround yourself with supportive team members, mine institutional knowledge and leverage the expertise of your stakeholders so you are prepared for surprises throughout the process.  It’s one thing to be surprised with a demand or costly situation, it’s another to be without the funds to fix it.

And remember the most important lesson of all…there is only one thing that money can’t buy, and that’s time. 

Andrew Snowhite is the principal of Snowhite Strategies, a global advisory firm focused on urbanization, sustainability, experiences and storytelling. He was the Executive Director of the USA Pavilion at Expo 2017 Astana Kazakhstan and the Chief Executive Officer of the USA Pavilion at Expo 2012 Yeosu Korea. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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