When it comes to putting the expert into Expo, there’s probably no-one more qualified than Urso Chappell.
At the age of 15 he went to the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee and was hooked.
Nearly 40 years later, he is looking forward his 12th Expo in Dubai next year after a journey that has taken him from Astana to Vancouver, via Milan and Shanghai.
Dubbed the “Expo historian” he is uniquely equipped to assess the likely impact on Dubai and the UAE, both during the event and in the long term.
There is that longer term benefit to establishing your city as a city that’s important
One of the first lessons, he says, is to expect the unexpected, although in a good way.
“People can experience cultures they’re not necessarily as familiar with and lots of interesting things can happen,” he said in an interview from his home in San Francisco.”
“One of the lessons I learned working at Expo 2015, in Milan, was that no matter how much you plan a space to behave the way you want it to, people will use it for their own for their own needs.
“Amazing interactions can happen, and in ways that you had never previously expected. It becomes a little experimental world on a very small scale, that one hopes people bring home with them and continue that optimism and openness to other cultures and other people.”
The practical benefits for the host country can take many forms. Often it is major infrastructure projects or land regeneration. As in Dubai, Shanghai 2010 resulted in a major expansion of the subway system.
The Eiffel Tower was originally the gateway to the 1899 World’s Fair in Paris. The It’s a Small World ride at Disney Parks was first created for the New York World’s Fair in 1964.
Expo 86 in Vancouver was held “on a blighted ignored side of downtown that wasn’t really being used, and now its completely revitalised and one of the most sought after neighbourhoods,” Mr Chappell said.
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Governments also have differing ambitions for hosting an Expo. “In China there was clearly an infrastructure need, and a country like the United Arab Emirates is trying to show themselves on the world stage as a country of import, especially Dubai as a city of import,” Mr Chappell said.
Even when an Expo loses money, as several have, the long term benefits can be spectacular. Vancouver in 1986 only covered its costs by selling lottery tickets but eventually went on to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.
“They could never imagine hosting the Winter Olympics if they hadn’t hosted The Expo just 24 years earlier,” Mr Chappell said.
“So there is that longer term benefit to establishing your city as a city that’s important. It’s economically vital, and that has a sort of gravitas to it.”
There is certainly no shortage of cities wanting to host an Expo, with Buenos Aires following Dubai in 2023 and Osaka, Japan, two years later.
In its failed bid for 2020, San Jose, at the heart of California’s Silicon Valley estimated winning the event would increase economic activity in the region by a staggering US$5.6 billion (Dh20.5 bn).
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“The potential increase in employment surrounding the event would be on the order of 42,000 yearlong, full-time jobs. This increase in output and employment would likely yield a benefit to state and local coffers of $440 million,” the report concluded.
Pre-Covid-19 and the resulting postponement, Dubai estimated that Expo 2020 would produce revenues of between $25 bn and $35 bn, (Dh92 bn -Dh128 bn) along with 200,000 jobs and millions of visitors.
Dubai is also unusual In the scope of the countries it invited to take part, including Israel, when at the time the UAE had yet to establish diplomatic relations. With such a large foreign born population, the audience will also be the most diverse.
This opportunities for participating countries are another important role of Expos. A study by the branding specialist Tjaco Wallis of the 2000 Hanover Expo found that while the Netherlands pavilion cost the equivalent of Dh152 million, it created ten times that amount for the Dutch economy in potential revenue.
But there are other benefits than just financial. Expos are a chance to project soft power, not just for the host, but also those taking part.
“Maybe you don’t think of Moldova every day, but Moldova had its own separate pavilion in Milan 2015 and made a big splash, as did Angola,” said Mr Chappell.
“It was really making a statement on behalf of the country, that we are as important as France, England, China, Russia, Australia, countries like that, that are a little more established.”
For some hosts, he compares hosting an Expo with throwing a party. “You probably won’t make money at the party. But it gives you an excuse to clean up the house. It gives you an excuse to buy new china. It gives an excuse to go ‘okay, I’ve reached a certain level’.”
It also creates something you can’t put a price on, he says, with memories that can last for generations.
“Whenever I go to Montreal, people always talk about Expo 67 as being an important event in their life. And even when you go to places like Chicago, they still talk about 1893 as if it happened last year. It’s still very much baked into the concept of the city and the region.”
For the moment, his disappointment at not heading to Dubai next month is more than matched by the anticipation of what next year might bring. “Each Expo is its own unique thing,” he said.
“And even the organisers don’t necessarily know what it’s going to be until after the first day.”
Updated: September 12, 2020 11:23 AM