y senior writer Charles Pappas and I recently returned from a visit to Shanghai, China, for the 2010 World's Expo. Leading up to our trip, we read several reports vilifying the organizers of the USA Pavilion. So on the day we planned to tour it, we were prepared for the worst.
But once inside the pre-show area, the pavilion began defying our low expectations. During a film called "Overture" - a compilation of clips that show Americans trying to welcome visitors to the USA Pavilion in Mandarin - an amazing thing happened: The visitors smiled, laughed, and applauded. Now let me put this in perspective. We had seen several presentations featuring all the bells and whistles of Hollywood. But no other video presentation captured the Chinese the way this humble film did.
The audience remained engaged throughout the pavilion's two other presentations: One features American children discussing their dreams for a better world while another tells the story of a girl who turns an urban area into a Green space. Despite the Disney-esque message, I was grinning like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert. And I wasn't alone. So why was the USA Pavilion successful, despite initial criticism? And what can exhibit and event professionals learn from its success?
First, just as any good exhibitor considers a show's demographics, the organizers of the USA Pavilion identified their audience and designed an experience for them. Ninety-five percent of Expo visitors were Chinese, so Americans' opinions didn't dictate success or failure. Similarly, your exhibit must be designed to appeal to your target audience, not your sales team.
Second, the pavilion's organizers focused on the experience inside the pavilion as opposed to only the exterior design. I've visited many beautiful exhibits over the years, but when I get inside, there's often no experience. What the USA Pavilion arguably lacked on the outside, it more than made up for on the inside.
Furthermore, U.S. organizers created an outreach program that is going into Chinese schools, introducing the USA Pavilion's presentations to a much wider audience. Successful exhibit managers know that to maximize their investments at trade shows, they too need to reach beyond the attendee list via virtual events, microsites, media and public-relations efforts, or full-fledged road shows.
Finally, unlike many pavilions staffed almost exclusively by Chinese, the USA Pavilion was staffed by "U.S. student ambassadors," who put an approachable, charismatic face on America. There's certainly a time and place for outsourced talent, but your staffers are the face of your brand and should personify your core attributes.
As it turns out, I wasn't the only convert. Adam Minter, a writer for Foreign Policy who previously called the pavilion "a sorry spectacle," later visited the pavilion and blogged about how the Chinese audience was transfixed by the student ambassadors' linguistic and cultural fluidity. "The young Americans are precisely who and how I would want the USA to represent itself at Expo 2010," wrote Minter. "Entrepreneurial. Optimistic. Well-educated. Sense of humor. Sense of integrity."
I hope others who ragged on U.S. organizers had the opportunity to actually visit the pavilion and see that while it might not be the most stunning, conceptual, techno-loaded structure at Expo 2010, it's extremely successful in its own right. It resonates with its target audience, it communicates a cohesive and appropriate message, and as corny as it might sound, it made this slightly jaded journalist pretty proud to be an American.
For an extended version of this editorial, along with videos of the USA Pavilion,