Over 182 days, more than 24 million people visited the desert of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to behold an attraction—which much like a mirage—has since vanished. Expo 2020 Dubai will forever be remembered as an oasis of learning, entertainment, and humanity.
The fabric of a world’s fair is a vibrant tapestry that’s equal parts museum, science center, resort, and theme park woven into one. Themes of these international expositions often include discovering solutions to the current challenges facing mankind. While exhibits enlighten and presentations provide opportunities for reflection, the escapism found in live entertainment and captivating cuisines complete the experience.
With the slogan “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,” Expo 2020 Dubai opened on Oct. 1, 2021, with more than 200 structures housing displays and exhibits. And like desert sands through an hourglass, by design, these attractions only operate for six months. Layer in a global pandemic that pushed back opening by 12 months, construction challenges, and the pressure to get it right, there was an opportunity to reimagine.
“Sometimes you need to push yourself to think out of the box, and you need to be resilient in that process,” says Marjan Faraidooni, chief visitor experience officer at Expo 2020 Dubai. “If we were to go with what the first version was, we wouldn’t have created something that our visitors have told us is ‘remarkable’ and ‘different.’ You push yourself regardless of the pressures that you’re feeling because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and you want to create something that people will remember forever.”
The ethos of Expo 2020 Dubai forever lives on through its lessons of best practices in staff development and well-being, operations, and sustainable design.
Developing a Team First
The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE)—the Paris-based organization overseeing World Expos—named Dubai the 2020 host city in November 2013. Soon after, Faraidooni joined the effort to turn 438 hectares of sand into an attraction. Besides creating a modern exhibition on a global scale, Faraidooni began investing in developing each individual on the team to be the best representation of themselves—the same mantra several exhibits at Expo 2020 conveyed.
“What was really clear is that I needed to trust myself,” she says. With that trust in place, Faraidooni was then able to “trust the people that we were working with to create the stories and to create the experiences that we had,” she says. She recommends leaders in the attractions industry allow creators, makers, and managers ownership.
“Make sure that you give them the space to be creative, but you needed to do it through a timeline,” she suggests.
Master planners of Expo 2020 brought together everyone from architects and storytellers to environmentalists and Hollywood producers. “Magic happens when you get people of different backgrounds, but [share] the same vision. Our vision was very bold and audacious, and we gave people the opportunity to think outside the box. We trusted them—and trust doesn’t come easy, but we worked with people who had the same value system as we did,” Faraidooni says.
Before Expo 2020 concluded, full-time employees were provided with displacement assistance, including resume development and access to job placement services. (With the limited run of Expo 2020, all professional employees were aware their assignment was only temporary.)
An attraction within its own right, the Women’s Pavilion proved to be a significant exhibit, according to Faraidooni. “It was a great way to also talk about women, in general, and the role that they play in making societies thrive,” she says. Faraidooni’s position as a leader at Expo 2020 was a responsibility she calls “humbling” and an example for the next generation of attractions operators.
“I hope that it can be a benchmark to other attractions and World Expos to know that women have it in them—if you trust them—and if you give them the opportunity.”
The operating structure for Expo 2020 resembled those in place at theme parks around the world.
“We’ve taken a very traditional organizational structure and then just expanded it exponentially, ensuring that we have a complete mixing, diverse range of people leading each team who can speak a multitude of different languages predominantly,” says Clive Stephens, director of operations for Expo 2020. Stephens—who previously worked at Alton Towers and was part of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games—says employees traditionally conversed in English, and many presented tours in English, Arabic, or Hindi.
With the layout of Expo 2020 resembling a fidget spinner toy, three entrances and their adjoining parking lots were created at equal distances from one another. This master plan allowed for easier entry and exit at peak times. Admissions associates scanned tickets and QR codes on smartphones before guests proceeded through a bag screening area (similar to airport security) and metal detectors. This way, should a guest need assistance, they could exit the line early and visit a ticket booth.
Envisioning the Future
As Expo 2020 began to wind down, Faraidooni turned reflective during her Funworld interview.
“I feel sad. It’s really bittersweet,” she shares. Faraidooni says she was prepared for what she calls “a period of quiet” after Expo 2020 closed its doors on March 31, 2022.
The site is currently in the midst of a transformation; producers continue to remove and recycle the remnants of pavilions as the area transforms into a new city within Dubai named District 2020.
The Sustainability Pavilion, the Mobility Pavilion, the Vision Pavilion, and the Women’s Pavilion were designed to become permanent attractions, along with “Garden in the Sky,” the Intamin-provided observation tower, and a dynamic water feature with its 13-meter-high cascading waterfalls. Even the sewer covers—branded with the Expo 2020 logo—will provide a lasting memory. At the heart of District 2020 will be the Al Wasl dome, one of the largest projection domes ever created and home to Expo’s evening entertainment.
Moreover, purpose-built structures that were first home to many of the 192 displaying nations were initially designed to eventually become residential buildings and commercial spaces. Each will have a plaque to commemorate the country exhibit that first occupied the space.
- Scott Fais is a six-time Emmy Award winning journalist and IAAPA’s managing editor of global communications and digital content. Write to him at [email protected].
Tour Expo 2020 Dubai in a Funworld-exclusive video at IAAPA.org/Expo2020.
The first World Expo, the Great Exhibition, took place in London in 1851.
Construction of Expo 2020 Dubai took 225 million work hours.
Ōsaka-Kansai Expo 2025 is the next World Expo, taking place April 2025 in Japan
Expo 2020 Dubai by the Numbers
- 30,000 volunteers from 135 countries
- 30,000 entertainment performances
- 438 hectares
- 192 country pavilions
- 182 operating days
- 130 parades performed
- 100 helpful robots on patrol
- 96 performance venues and stages
- 3 entrances
While Expo 2020 Dubai was in operation, a robust smartphone app allowed visitors to plan their day. Guests could use the digital passport to try and score an elusive reservation to the Japan Pavilion, learn of nearby food and beverage outlets, and get live entertainment show times. The app also offered wayfinding in real time, using geotracking. The service located the exact position of a guest and created a map that would lead a user to the desired exhibit—right down to how many footsteps it would take to get there. Expo 2020 partnered with DeviceBee Technologies to create the app.