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Sanjive Khosla, chief commercial officer at Expo 2020 Dubai, is the man tasked with achieving the event's target of 25 million visits throughout its six-month run. He outlines the strategy and science behind reaching this goal

Expo 2020 Dubai: The story behind creating the world's greatest show

Sanjive Khosla, chief commercial officer at Expo 2020 Dubai.

“I think people are now starting to feel the excitement. It’s getting closer. You know they can see it’s all coming up, it’s there, it’s going to happen.”

As the Expo 2020 Dubai site nears completion and gets ready to open its gates in a year’s time, Sanjive Khosla, its chief commercial officer, is the man responsible for making sure all the tickets are sold and the event reaches its target of 25 million visits throughout the six-month run starting October 20, 2020.

“It’s getting closer. You know they can see it’s all coming up, it’s there, it’s going to happen”

The target consists of around 15 million unique visitors, with around 70 percent – or about 11 million – coming from overseas and the remaining consisting of 4 million local residents coming multiple times.

So, where did the 25 million number come from? Khosla and his team have commissioned regular studies over the last few months to estimate demand. “We continuously measure the likelihood of visits from key markets internationally, and also domestically… Up to now, all our research has shown us that when we interview people who are travelling to the UAE or Dubai, the likelihood to visit [Expo 2020] is going to be extremely high, especially once you present to them what you’re doing and what’s going to be the concept. So, we are fairly confident of the numbers that we have out there now.”

Khosla estimates that international guests will visit an average of about 1.2 times, while local UAE residents are predicted to visit an average of three times throughout the six-month period. The numbers work out at around 145,000 visits for every one of the 173 days the site is open.

Welcome to the future

In order to achieve this target, the marketing campaign is already underway. The first big awareness drive was the ‘Welcome to the Future’ video campaign starring Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi. A big awareness drive, including a free concert starring American singer Mariah Carey, will start this week and will focus on the ‘One Year to Go’ campaign to the opening of the event.

Sheikh Mohammed predicted Dubai would stage the best World Expo yet after visiting the Expo 2020 site in August

Khosla states that the next major campaign will be launched in March next year, around the tagline of ‘The World’s Greatest Show’, which will coincide with when prices for special tickets – including seasonal passes and monthly passes – will be revealed and go on sale.

One of the key strategies Khosla is using to attract the millions of visits is encouraging events taking place in Dubai to be held within the Expo 2020 Dubai site or in the Dubai Exhibition Centre, a dedicated venue located just 10 minutes’ by walk from the gates of the Expo 2020 Dubai site.

The events already confirmed are the World Government Summit and Maritime Week, but many more are expected to be announced in the coming months.

“The World Government Summit at least tends to be an event that is a paid for event. So, you are here as a delegate, you pay to take part. There, we bundle the ticket along with the delegate package… There will be some events, which will be free events, which will happen out there [at Dubai Exhibition Centre]… We use the event and marketing clout of the event organisers to actually convert potential visitors to [Expo 2020] ticket sales. So, that’s our strategy,” Khosla explains.

Local interest

With a target that UAE residents will visit an average of three times each over the course of the event, how is Khosla confident this will happen? “If you look at why people will come back, I really bucket them into three or four different buckets. The first thing is the 192 countries and their pavilions. Each one of those is like going through a mini attraction or a mini museum. I think it’s going to take a lot of days for people to cover that many experiences, so you’ll have to come back.

“Our target is to sign up 400 international ticket resellers and we are well on course to do that”

“We also have our three thematic signature pavilions, which we are building and designing ourselves, and the programming for those is quite incredible. Those ones would be an hour, hour-and-a-half for visitation.”

The third ‘bucket’ of visits will be the more than 200 food and beverage outlets which will be on site and will include around 50 different cuisines across all price points, from fine dining restaurants to food trucks. “I understand that there’ll be quite a few concepts which have never been seen before,” Khosla says.

Expo 2020 Dubai will host around 60 events every day, ranging from small attractions to international celebrity appearances. “We have close to 20 odd performance venues on site… We have already started identifying A-listers. We are also being approached by festivals. There are a number of festivals which are in Dubai and a lot of them are coming to us and are saying ‘hey we want to do something during that time out there’. That’s exciting for us because that’s loyal clientele.”

Emirates airline is among the major sponsors of the Expo 2020 Dubai

Every country will also have its own dedicated special day, which Khosla says will attract local nationals from each country to come out to the site to celebrate at the country’s pavilion.

“And, finally, we’ve identified six special days and on these six special days it will be a complete site takeover, which would celebrate that moment: Diwali, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Chinese New Year, UAE National Day and International Women’s Day.”

Key source markets

While Expo 2020 Dubai has been a part of Dubai life and UAE conversations since the city won the rights to host the event in November 2013, getting the word out internationally is equally important and that is already underway.

“In terms of, especially the international market, we’ve been working with ticket resellers for quite a while right now and we’ve already signed up a number of ticket resellers. We’re already starting to bundle up tickets with tourist packages. Our target is to sign up 400 international ticket resellers and we are well on course to do that,” Khosla says.

“We have close to 20 odd performance venues on site. We have already started identifying A-listers”

Based on pre-sales commitments from resellers, there are already early indications as to which source markets will be the biggest for visitors when tickets go on sale next year.

“There is a natural affinity in some markets. Markets which are familiar with the Expo tend to move faster and markets which have long lead times for holiday planning move faster. So, typically your Australasia, Germany, Japan, Asia, they are moving faster right now. You’re also seeing European markets moving faster because they have more familiarity with Expo. You know some of the bigger markets, such as India, KSA, because it’s so close, will probably move a little later.”

In order to attract international corporates and executives, the Expo team also has in place an incentive programme and dedicated packages for tour operators, focused around different themes.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum was briefed by director general of Expo 2020 Dubai Reem Al Hashimy on the progress of the project

“There’s tour operators who actually specialise in corporate incentives. We’re working with them to target corporate incentive groups and what we’ve done is we’ve designed specialised journeys. So, let’s say you’re an engineering firm and you’re interested in the architecture journey, maybe you’re into energy, and you want to see the sustainability journey and so on and so forth.

“We’ve designed a whole bunch of journeys which are there. Some of these journeys, of course, are fairly technical in nature, but there are also some which are fun, such as an art and cultural one, [and] there’s a gastronomy one.”

Revenue generators

Khosla is also responsible for monetising the event and there are three main revenue generators at his disposal: ticket sales, sponsorship from partners, such as MasterCard, Nissan, Pepsi, SAP, Emirates, Siemens, Emirates NBD, Etisalat and UPS; and licencing.

“We then have also been actively engaging with licensees to help design products, so Expo merchandise, from magnets to pins to electric scooters, toy sets or something even more fancy like watches and chocolates,” he says.

“I mean there’s a huge variety of product categories that we’re currently working with and we’ve identified a number of licensees who have signed up and who are in the design stage or manufacture stage of the product. These will then be distributed through both online and offline, onsite and offsite. A lot of them are already in place.”

Visitor targets

Dubai has a lot of experience organising showstopping international events, but a recent stumbling block has been the fact that some of the theme parks which have opened in recent years have not attracted the huge numbers initially forecast by consultants. Is Khosla concerned about this and confident in his ambitious targets?

“I think first there are a few differences out here. I’ve been around in the UAE since 2001 now and I’ve been involved in some of these big projects. It’s interesting to observe some of, I guess, you know the mistakes that were made,” he says.

“I think where we are different is that this is a one-off event. It will happen for six months. What you are going to see here, you will never see again - I love that. It’s important for us to get that message out and for people to understand that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You’re not likely to have an Expo happen in this part of the world in our lifetime.

The Expo will present the rich and historic culture of the UAE and its people

“So, it’s not like ‘Oh I can always go next year’. This one you will never have the option to go back… It’s been very strongly supported by our partners, Emirates airline, Pepsi, MasterCard, all of them huge brands which are also backing us and helping us promote this. I think that’s something that is different from the other attractions, [which] have traditionally struggled to get the word out.”

A good indicator of demand and interest – at least locally – came recently when the bus tours of the under-construction Expo 2020 Dubai site sold out within hours. “We had to extend [the site bus tour schedule] a few times because the demand was so high, the volunteers’ program is doing extremely well, every event that we’ve held has had a very strong response.”

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