“Expo Exchange” by Gordon L. Linden and Paul Creighton – Urban Land [Urban Land Institute]; October 2000; p. 40-104.

World expos or world’s fairs are efficient agents of urban renewal and have certain advantages over other popular catalysts for redevelopment, growth, and tourism, such as sports venues and urban entertainment centers. Their most important selling point is that expos are a proven vehicle for implementing major, permanent urban improvements rapidly. In a dramatically short period of time, they can generate significant revenues, attract money for capital improvements that otherwise would not be available, and effect lasting change that otherwise would not be possible. The United States has not hosted an expo since the Louisiana World Expo of 1984, which, although a financial failure, produced tangible benefits for host city New Orleans. But there are better ways to proceed.

Things have changed since the days of great North American expos such as those in New York in 1939, Seattle in 1962, and Vancouver in 1986. To survive and prosper, modern-day expos must face issues that involve politics and the failure to move beyond obsolete models of funding, organization, and administration. A chief concern about this type of event is its potential for losing money, and if expos continue to follow obsolete models, most inevitably will lead their communities into political controversy and financial problems. Expos can be economically structured to break even in the short term-and to pay off in the long term but to do so requires throwing out some of the established expo models and rules that in today’s enterprise-driven environment are no longer valid.

Since 1984, expos have been held in Japan, Australia, Spain, Korea, Portugal, and Germany-and despite certain drawbacks, most of them have enjoyed considerable success. These events have been primarily government initiatives, but as expos grow more and more expensive, government support everywhere is beginning to dry up. As in the United States, the public sector in other parts of the world is becoming reluctant to fully support world’s fairs. This undermines the foundation of the traditional model, making it necessary to revise how the public/private partnership of an expo functions. Additional areas in crucial need of revi-sion are expos’ overall development time, the role of the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), post-use site planning, and architectural legacy.

Expos traditionally have taken as long as ten years and sometimes longer to get from the moment of official BIE sanction to opening day. However, to attract and retain political, business, and community support and to keep the project alive and funding intact through completion, the lead time has to be substantially shortened. The BIE, a treaty organization of some 40 member nations, originally was formed in 1928. It imposes on expo organizers a set of rules and regulations that have not kept up with today’s competitive global marketplace, and it is virtually impossible to update them in a timely manner because of the length of the process for getting new measures ratified.

The BIE expo model places undue emphasis on what is now an antiquated vision of the role of government and nations in world society. Further, it has no real teeth. Useful regulations such as the limitations on the frequency of expositions, which were instated to reduce the creative, financial, and organizational burden on exhibitors, are routinely circumvented. BIE sanction is no longer essential to holding a successful expo.

The BIE is organized around the idea that national governments are the only legitimate voice and mechanism for contacts among nations for the purpose of organizing international expositions. But in today’s global economy, major cities such as Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Sao Paulo are displaying the kind of economic strength and social dynamism historically associated with nations. Cities are becoming powerful centers of decision making, and they are taking their place as organizational building blocks of the new world order. An expo featuring cities of the world is not only plausible, it could breathe new life into the traditional expo model.

Leaving a permanent architectural legacy once a standard feature of expos, now often comes in for criticism as a wasteful practice. It is no longer essential and in some cases can be counterproductive. Demolition has been the common fate of expo buildings that were intended for permanent use and as a symbol of the historic event but that lacked a feasible plan for use after closing day. In all cases, architectural legacy must be connected securely to a sound and reasonable postuse plan. There are numerous land use and building design strategies that can accommodate expo requirements and circumvent a sad ending.

If a realistic plan for postuse is in place before development of the exposition, most of the required facilities and services can be retained and fully used on a permanent basis, if desired. An expo has the potential to deliver a variety of permanent facilities including retail space and business parks (office, light manufacturing); food and beverage and merchandise outlets; entertainment and performance venues; parks and open space; visitor attractions; and related roads, infrastructure, and services.

The public/private partnership underpinning a world’s fair has to be much less dependent on government funds than before, but it cannot do entirely without such support. The key to success is using government support to attract private support, by holding out the real promise of economic development welcome prospect as the U.S. and world economies shift from an industrial to a service base, compelling governments to formulate new strategies for attracting investment and economic activity (e.g., from tax breaks for automobile manufacturing to marketing and promotion of tourism).

The Seattle Century 21 Exposition of 1962 is a good example of a successful venture. Seattle received state and federal funding for some elements, but the event was largely a local initiative. Its centerpiece, the Space Needle, was privately financed. Seattle’s thriving Pacific Science Center, which recently added a new large-format theater, began as an expo building; good planning enabled it to reopen as a science center the day after the fair closed. The former fair site continues to be a locus of downtown development with the opening of the new Experience Music Project, a privately financed arts center. Its monorail continues to operate today. Seattle ’62 is one expo that closed out its books with a surplus.

When it comes to actual public money, support requirements, following an enterprise driven model, can be relatively minimal similar to the requirements for a major sports event, including assistance in marketing, cooperation on expediting permits, and cooperation on management of fire and life-safety systems and backup. If the government has control of a site that will have some public postexpo use, the government can contribute to the project by malting the use of the site available to the expo organizers at a nominal fee.

Without BIE oversight, and with greater dependence on private funds, world’s fairs will depend more than ever on strong leadership to maintain integrity of purpose and retain their status as cultural rather than trade events. For decades, numerous cultural and nonprofit institutions have been coping with the issue of how to stay true to their missions in the face of declining public sector support; many hope to meet the challenge by exploring new directions in delivering educational content in an entertaining way.

The financial planning of a world’s fair must be sound, and it must reflect a solid understanding of how such an event works. The organizers must become thoroughly familiar with the unique workings of an expo – a fairly steep learning curve that sometimes takes novice organizers months, if not years, to complete and all the cards must be on the table at the outset.

First, the success factors that the community hopes to achieve through hosting the expo must be outlined. Examples include accelerating the redevelopment or development of a site with special requirements that normal market forces cannot or will not address (e.g., fragmented ownership, contamination); establishing or repositioning the identity of a city or region; and stimulating economic activity (e.g., tourism, employment). Next, a financial feasibility study to assess costs and benefits should be undertaken. The financial impact of an exposition comes in three forms:

  • Enhanced Existing Venue. A permanent venue (convention center or trade fair) is temporarily adapted and improved to create a significant legacy. At Hanover Expo 2000, situated on Hanover, Germany’s permanent trade fair site, existing venues were supplemented with temporary buildings, new infrastructure, and new permanent buildings to enhance the trade fair’s position as the largest facility of its kind in Europe.
  • New City Center. A new mixed-use facility is created as the centerpiece of a larger, long-term redevelopment plan. Lisbon Expo ’98 restored a derelict shoreline site with new development and improved access and infrastructure, and the site is being further enhanced with new housing, schools, and parks.
  • “What Now?” This is the fair with a negative legacy. The site goes downhill after the event because of poor planning and political in-fighting. In the United States, the Knoxville Expo ’82 remains the subject of community debate and an unfulfilled redevelopment opportunity.

Organizers need to understand clearly why they are backing a fair instead of another type of catalyst for urban growth, such as a stadium or other major sports venue, an entertainment center, or a convention center.

Understanding an expo’s advantages in this respect makes it easier to sell to sponsors. Unlike new stadiums, which are under pressure to generate year-round revenues, an expo need stay up for only six months before the site can be converted to more stable, tried-and-true uses. Major sports events, such as the Olympics, may leave behind a stadium or other new and improved sports venues, but many of these, such as an equestrian center or a shooting range, have difficulty operating year-round. Events such as the Super Bowl, for example, are very short term and generate little in the way of actual community interaction. An urban entertainment center, however, mixes entertainment venues and retail stores, attracts families and generates revenue year-round, as does a state of-the-art convention center. So why not make them the centerpiece of a world’s fair? The ex p0 can act as a catalyst for developing the new centers, which remain after closing day as a permanent legacy. The additional benefits that an expo can bring include international media attention, increased tourism, and positive direct and indirect economic effects.

An expo is a cultural event partly by virtue of its theme, which organizers and exhibitors alike have a mandate to express. A good theme is relevant to the times, easy to comprehend versatile, and memorable. Strong themes for today’s expos relate to urban life and urban is sues such as the environment and life in the 21st century.

The expo’s location is central to its success As with any major event, the host country must assess both the regional and local infrastructure needed to accommodate an in creased number of visitors for the duration of the event. These requirements include good highway access, a major airport, a substantial inventory of overnight accommodations and other support services. As to a specific site the best choice would be a large, contiguous parcel of land surrounded by compatible land uses that does not have major grade or elevation differences, which are undesirable for a largely pedestrian environment. Several world’s fair sites have included either natural or manmade water features, which have enhanced the environment and aesthetics of the setting both during and after the event.

When it comes to putting the team together, the value of experience in organizing such an event cannot be understated. There is no lack of available expertise, but the tendency to reinvent the wheel is strong, often prompted by the organizers’ desire to fill key roles only with representatives of the host region Recent difficulties in Lisbon and, currently in Hanover – principally related to shortfalls in estimated attendance – underscore the need to seek, obtain, and listen to advice from people who have had significant experience in the organization and operation of an expo. The use of local talent can be maximized in the many areas needed to plan, develop, and operate the event. Some of the skills needed include marketing, architecture and engineering design, construction, on-site operations (food services, merchandise sales), entertainment operations, finance, and accounting.

The top line of an expo budget is operating revenues: admissions; concession operations (sales of food and beverage products, merchandise); ticketed performances, rides, and amusements; and space rentals for corporate participants. Corporations can take part in many ways, including sponsorships, official supplier programs, and in-kind donations of goods and services. If an expo has a sound business plan and effective management, operating revenues should exceed operating costs, yielding a surplus. For the six-month event to achieve, on its own, break-even status, this surplus must equal the cost of putting up the facilities. Alternatively, if a realistic plan is in place for leaving a physical legacy, the capital costs expended for physical facilities will exceed the surplus, but they will contribute to creating a physical environment that may have a productive life of 20 years or more.

If no physical legacy is desired, then consideration can be given to using existing facilities, a county fairgrounds or a military base, for example. This approach was used in hosting the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games of 1984. Faced with a variety of constraints, including a commitment to stage the games without expending public monies, the organizers used existing sports venues and portable and temporary facilities, thereby avoiding the need -and cost – of building new structures. Marketing and public relations are essential to holding a successful world’s fair, not only in attracting numerous, high-quality exhibitors to the event, but also in engaging the public 5 interest in attending and participating in its various activities and programs. The public relations function also is crucial to developing and sustaining a positive community image of the undertaking and to maintaining an open forum for communication and resolution of any concerns.

The long lead time required for almost any type of major project, including an exposition, can be a deterrent to gaining political support people holding or seeking political office are understandably wary when a world’s fair proposal is brought to them. Success requires strong community leadership. The potential for negative political fallout can be minimized by taking a proactive approach to addressing community concerns such as traffic construction, and financing; by envisioning a vi able and desirable legacy for the event and most important, by cutting development time.

The physical legacy of an expo can include parks, meeting and performance halls theme structures, museums, even housing practically anything that a community needs Even without a specific architectural legacy on site, a world’s fair is a means to improve transportation links arid arteries and to install state of the art infrastructure such as fiber-optic telecommunications systems, solid-waste-management facilities, auto-free zones, and more. Expos al so can be a vehicle for environmental cleanup or reclamation of a property, which becomes a new urban asset that the expo corporation can sell for reuse. For example, the site of Vancouver Expo ’86 was a jumble of unused rail-yards and sawmills. By combining several small, underutilized, and derelict properties into a large single holding, cleaning up the contaminated areas, and improving access and infrastructure systems, the expo corporation turned the site into a prime location that was sold to private developers for redevelopment as a mixed-use urban project.

Long-term benefits to the host community include increased tourism and world-class status. In fact, a number of fairs that were not considered a financial success in the short term have brought long-range benefits to their host cities. The Louisiana World Expo gave New Orleans its convention center, a park, and a shopping center. San Antonio, site of the HemisFair event in 1968, has its RiverWalk. Lisbon’s Expo ’98 was closely linked to a post-expo vision in which a polluted, derelict waterfront containing a refinery, a munitions dump, a slaughterhouse, and a solid-waste landfill was transformed in-to an attractive, mixed-use urban area.

Because of the need to reduce expenses and production time, a modern expo committee often will do well to focus more on long-term legacy and the use of temporary facilities.

A world’s fair is an opportunity to reuse, temporarily or permanently, a site that already has large buildings. A former military base with large warehouses, airplane hangars, and residential buildings can house an expo as the means for readying the buildings and site for new, permanent uses. Empty waterfront piers can be similarly exploited.

Preplanning at World Expo ’88 in Brisbane, Australia, enabled some of the buildings, which were modular in design, to be sold, moved after closing day, and reassembled at new sites in the region to house auto dealerships. The organizers learned from Vancouver Expo ’86, which created some excellent permanent structures, but millions were spent on buildings that were later torn down. Spokane resold some pavilion buildings for agricultural use following its 1974 expo, an event that was that city’s ticket to restoring its riverfront. (See ‘Defining Vision,’ on page 68.) Lisbon has reused some of its temporary expo pavilions for much-needed sports halls in nearby municipalities.

There are risks to staging any event that unfolds over a period of years. However, the present times are relatively peaceful and prosperous, and, with appropriate contingency planning, some of the avoidable risks that may surface can be anticipated. A legacy with which a community can identify is a strong political asset, and expos have the benefit of creating immediate, recognizable legacies. With the right planning and the right approach, a world’s fair can be a powerful agent of urban renewal: to the public, a source of pride; to its organizers and promoters, a prominent feather in their cap; to its host region, a highly visible, long-term asset.

Gordon L. Linden is Manager of Planning and Urban Development for Parsons International, Dubai, UAE. He will be acting as an accredited journalist at Zaragoza, Spain’s Expo 2008. Paul Creighton is President of Olympia, Washington-based Creighton Management, Inc. a private consulting firm specializing in private and public events, theme parks, world’s fairs, and agricultural fairs.