How Dubai pulled off a mega Expo 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Marjan Faraidooni, Expo’s chief experience officer, wraps up the journey from the 2013 bid to the gates closing

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When an Emirati woman driving a buggy gave a ride to the elderly and families with children at Expo 2020 Dubai, they did not know the person driving them around was a senior Expo official.

As they chatted about their day, Expo’s chief experience officer listened in.

These rides across a site twice the size of Monaco helped Marjan Faraidooni tune in to what people were saying, what they enjoyed and measure the impact of the Expo.

It took this exceptional level of engagement and groundwork to make the site come alive and adapt to the needs of millions streaming in through the gates over six months.

To operate during a pandemic and constantly changing variants and breakouts, it was very nerve-racking
Marjan Faraidooni, Expo 2020 Dubai chief experience officer

Ms Faraidooni, who also handled human resources, told The National about the Herculean task of staying nimble as Covid-19 protocols were constantly updated.

She gives a unique glimpse into the running of a global event with a 35,000 workforce including tens of thousands of volunteers to stage the first world’s fair not just in the Middle East but in a wider region including North Africa and South Asia.

A behind-the-scenes look at the nervous days of handling the Omicron breakout and keeping the site safe until gates closed on April 1.

Being nimble

When the coronavirus pandemic began, the Expo set up a task force responsible for testing on site, running the vaccination programme and providing booster doses to staff, their families and country participants.

“We reached a point of time where we had many testing facilities across the site, and that was done to control the number of people who had Covid,” she said.

“We worked very closely with our Covid task force in making sure we were providing all support.”

The Expo worked with the Dubai Health Authority and the UAE Ministry of Health to constantly update safety guidelines.

“From the very start, we were very bold, in announcing that anybody who wanted to visit the Expo had to be vaccinated or show PCR that was valid for 72 hours or 48 hours before they visited,” Ms Faraidooni said.

“We monitored the situation with updates and changes, particularly in the Omicron breakout. Being nimble and always having our ear to the ground was very important.”

The leadership team met every morning throughout the 182 days to discuss the previous day and the challenges moving forward.

“We were responsible for not only the people part of our team making this a reality, but for visitors — making sure they felt safe coming to our doors. So of course, we were very nervous,” she said.

“We were operating under very difficult circumstances to pull off the event. But to do it during a pandemic and constantly changing variants and breakouts, it was very nerve-racking.”

Mental health support

Motivating people and constant communication was key when the Expo was delayed by a year due to safety considerations amid the spread of Covid-19 worldwide.

The message to be open, communicate and discuss the plan ahead came from the top from Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Co-operation and director general of Expo.

Health bands were given to all staff to track fitness levels and mental health support was offered.

“Wellness was important because we wanted to make sure our staff were prepared physically and mentally for the journey ahead,” Ms Faraidooni said.

“We recognised our staff did not have family with them here so they were struggling during the pandemic.”

A weekly wellness newsletter was introduced with health tips.

As chief of human resources, Ms Faraidooni ran sessions with experts with information on how to identify stress and take care of staff.

Listening to visitors

Ms Faraidooni made sure to observe visitors, whether by giving them a ride or joining people who sat under the giant Al Wasl dome

“I spent a lot of time driving buggies and picking up visitors myself just to understand what the feelings were on the ground and what we needed to improve,” she said.

One of her favourite spots was Al Wasl Plaza, that came alive during the maghrib sunset prayers.

There she watched people’s reactions during the first show when images of thousands of doves fluttered across the trusses within the arched interior.

“This always gives me goosebumps when I listened to the people around me go ‘wow’,” she said.

“People of all ages, the child in the pushchair, the senior citizen with the orange lanyard, to the tourists — they are absolutely in awe of the beauty they are seeing.

“For me that puts everything into perspective and that will be the moment I will miss the most.”

Changing perceptions about the Arab world

The depiction of Arab legends from navigators to mathematicians in the Alif or Mobility pavilion was well received.

Low seating areas across the outdoors that creatively used calligraphy to spell out messages of love and tolerance caught people's attention.

“We do get people telling us they were proud to see how we depicted the Arab world and international visitors told us they learnt more about our people,” she said.

The numbers

More than 900,000 schoolchildren visited the Expo — the first destination for school outings during the Omicron outbreak.

The theme pavilions that anchor the site captured their imagination.

Ms Faraidooni and her team were integral to the delivery of the pavilions, from the draft stage eight years ago to the execution.

“Our thematic pavilions have seen more than 1 million visitors. And that for us are 1 million opportunities to inspire people to be agents of change,” she said.

Visitors pledged to change how they live. More than 95 per cent of people who visited the Terra pavilion committed to take up a task to save the environment.

More than half the visitors to the Mobility pavilion recognised technology must be used for the common good.

“These are very big outcomes and impact people from the opportunities we have created,” she said.

“This brings pride to me and my team who brought this to life. You can’t help feel emotional to see people being inspired.”

What now?

The Expo was closed to the public in the early hours of Friday and will open later this year as District 2020.

After the high pressure time spent working together, the team is emotional. Tears were spilt during the last week of the world's fair.

“It's a very special moment of time where we got 192 nations together to really connect,” Ms Faraidooni said.

“It's really touching to hear people say their visits to Expo connected them as families, and to people from different cultures and people around the world.”

Several structures will remain. These include Al Wasl Plaza, the Sustainability, Mobility, Vision and Women's pavilions.

“The Expo will be in memory,” Ms Faraidooni said.

“You will see reminders that this was the place that hosted the World Expo in October 2021.

“It's not going to be the same place. So if you came through our doors, we hope that you have great memories at this Expo.”

10 attractions that will stay as part of District 2020 — in pictures

Updated: April 01, 2022, 10:38 AM