Expo 2012 opened our eyes on eight fronts!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012 00:40 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Let’s accept it, Sri Lanka made a statement to the world that we are open for business with Expo 2012, even though it had its limitations like the faulty air conditioner at the launch that grabbed media attention.

Whilst some can say that the shine was taken off the event due to the very uncomfortable launch event, which may be true, the fact of the matter is that post May 2009 some may have been exposed to only media reports that Sri Lanka was safe for business. But Expo 2012 addressed this gap and made the 600 plus foreign delegates experience the beauty and tranquillity of Colombo City together with the 200 odd media personnel, which in my view was a big win for Sri Lanka.

I am in no way advocating that the shortcomings must be overlooked, but I feel we as Sri Lankans at this moment of time must view Sri Lanka positively so that we signal the correct vibes globally. BBC had covered some components live whilst Aljazeera had aired three segments dedicated to the event. CNN had also telecasted same, which gives us an indication of the exposure that Sri Lanka received. Yes it was not perfect, but at least Sri Lanka tried and this should be the spirit in today’s competitive world, though things could have better given that this was one of the key events globally for any country.

Working against all odds

My mind goes back to the time when the height of the ground operation against the LTTE was in motion in December 2008. The Government decided to stage the first Industrial Exhibition in Jaffna so that the south would begin to engage the north and thereby avoid the LTTE instigating the people of Jaffna.

There were three of us appointed to champion this project. It was a challenging task given that all logistics had to be done by sea or air because the A9 was not accessible at that time due to heavy fighting. The event attracted 304,000 people from the Jaffna peninsula and 168 companies from Colombo.

A Mobitel official stated that a mobile phone at Rs. 5,000 was not the need for the youth of Jaffna but a Rs. 45,000 one. I guess that that was the day that the private sector realised the potential that Jaffna peninsula had to offer for business growth. Similarly, Expo 2012 also generated this feedback, like for instance the Kuwaiti delegation mentioned that they never knew Sri Lanka’s export product portfolio was so wide.

Let me share one more event that happened during the height of the war. It was in 2008 when a core team of us under the leadership of the Sri Lanka Tourism Bureau championed the first-ever Hikkaduwa Beach Fest. There was many who bickered that the event would not become a reality as Sri Lanka was under the cloud of terrorism at that time, but the event attracted 17,000 revellers into the beautiful beach stretch of Nari Gama where all hotel rooms were booked in the vicinity during the five-day event. The event was not perfect, but today it has the potential to carve out a niche in South Asia as the ‘party beach’ for a youngster.

Similarly, Expo 2012 is the only the beginning for more iconic events to be staged in Sri Lanka. What is required now is to pick up the learnings from the healthy debate that we see in the media and not get de-motivated with adverse publicity that happened due to the faulty air conditioner at the launch.

No. 1: First impression

As the great Malaysian President Mahathir Mohamed mentioned in his last visit to Sri Lanka, the essence of the success of Malaysia is that it took decisions with pragmatism rather than just following Western business models. He went on to say that it is only a Sri Lankan who can feel the vibes of the local community and the culture that it fosters. Hence, whatever decision that is taken must be in this perspective rather than pleasing global super powers.

Whilst Expo 2012 took place in the background of the uproar of the international community post the Geneva fallout, yet Sri Lanka was able to attract a commanding global partnership to the event that included some key CEOs travelling in their private jets. Whilst this is very positive, the point is that the first impression we gave them due to the faulty air conditioner created a negative outburst in the media.

Even though the overall exhibition was a success due to the many sales leads received by the stallholders as well as the very impactful international symposium that took place at the Hilton, the perception created at the ‘launch’ totally clouded the event. This was very unfortunate but that is the reality of the world. As psychologists Shiffman and Kannuk said, perception is more important than reality in today’s business world. Let’s learn from this fallout and make sure that this does not happen at Expo 2014.

No. 2: High expectations

I remember the first lesson I learned in my initial studies of marketing. Do not create too much of expectation before the event as it raises the bar on customer expectation, which the product cannot sometimes deliver. This leads to cognitive dissonance. I feel Expo 2012 fell into this trap.

Starting from the touch point of arrival at the hotel, transport to the venue, greeting at the launch event, seating arrangement, ease of witnessing the launch event and the duration of the event, Sri Lanka fell short of the expectation created due to the pre-event strong media. This can be a lesson for Expo 2014.

If I may take a parallel, when China hosted the last Olympics it downplayed the pre-event media and focused on improving the product and related infrastructure and the attention to detail on execution. China invested a staggering 40 billion dollars on the Beijing Olympics. Almost 26 billion dollars was spent on improving the transportation, which included railway hubs, new railway lines, improvements to the Beijing subway and Tiajin expressway, which actually had no links to the Olympics.

May be Sri Lanka should have done the same and used the Expo 2012 to carry out a facelift on infrastructure and perhaps staged Expo 2012 once the BMICH was ready to host such a event. Then we would not have had to erect a makeshift building to stage the launch event. Ideally, the Expo 2012 launch event should have been at the main auditorium of the BMICH. Sri Lanka must learn this game from the world when staging global events. Focus on the macro plan and the detail workings rather than just working on the targeted event.

No. 3: Driving business

Let’s accept it, the essence of Expo 2012 is the buyer-seller meetings and the sales leads that were generated. From the feedback that I got from a cross section of stall participants, it was very positive. Some even received hard orders. May we should have spent more on this area by upping the overall impact of a stall and having carpeting across the different buildings.

The SME building in particular could have got some funding to look better, commented stallholders. At the end of the day, 70% or more exports proceeds come in from the SME sector. May be this is a cue to Expo 2014.

No. 4: System friendly

Whilst some can be critical of the organisers of international events like Expo 2012 and before this IIFA, the reality is that working under the current FRs and ARs in the public sector procurement system can be very tough. If Sri Lanka is keen on becoming a serious venue for international events, then we have to streamline financial and administrative regulations so that it will not be a typical public sector-organised event.

Maybe it’s best that a private-public partnership organisation be set up to cater such events so that decision making is quicker and scrutiny post the event does not happen due to political reasons or ideology. May be ROI-based culture can come in so that it’s only internal and does not have to dragged into the public eye like what we saw post the launch event of Expo 2012.

No. 5: Infrastructure other than roads

Another emerging fact is that Sri Lanka must invest on infrastructure other than roads so that we can cater to the strategies of the private sector. In this respect the issue of solid waste management and the soft skill training required to stage international events of this stature should be addressed. This includes high visibility hoarding sites in Colombo. Maybe we need to take these learnings for the forthcoming Commonwealth Conference that is scheduled to happen in 2013 in Sri Lanka.

No. 6: Holistic media

At the Expo 2012 Symposium, one speaker from a super power government made some cutting edge statements on the social fabrication of the north east, which was strange as it was more a trade event. I guess this is the reality of the world and Sri Lanka must be ready to face this challenge post the Geneva vote. A nation branding campaign is a must. This can be either category driven like tourism and tea or it can be nation led. We must address this new challenge positively.

No. 7: Sector pavilion

Given that Sri Lanka’s sector specific strategies are very developed and in fact are setting trends globally, maybe we need to have communicated the same ethos at Expo 2012. This could have included the ‘Ethically Manufactured Apparel,’ Ozone Friendly Ceylon Tea, Ceylon Cinnamon and Sri Lanka Handlooms just to name a few.

A key pick up for me from the Expo 2012 Symposium was that Ceylon Sapphires can be marketed under the theme ‘Ethical Mining and Polishing’. Maybe sector-specific pavilions can be an idea that can be fleshed out at Expo 2014.

No. 8: Inclusive organising

Another insight that came out strongly at Expo 2012 was the stronger support by the chambers. The integration of chamber support when staging such events which are of international repute must be mandatory. But for this to happen there must be inclusive organising and inclusive invitation where the hero is Sri Lanka. We must take a cue from India on this, where we see that post the event the winner is the country and no one else. Maybe this is a key learning for Expo 2012.


Hence just because the air conditioner malfunctioned at the launch, one cannot come to a conclusion that Expo 2012 from overall sense lost impact. A more holistic evaluation is required. Did it take away the shine of Expo 2012? Maybe yes, but the attitude required is to pick up the learnings and shape the events that are to be staged in Sri Lanka in the future rather than look back. Let’s also keep in mind that the positive vibes we demonstrate today will become the image of the country tomorrow.

(The views expressed are the author’s personal views and not the views of the organisation he serves in Sri Lanka or internationally. He is actively involved in the development agenda of the country.)