How to create a concept that everybody loves?

Creating a winning concept at Expo 2020 Dubai – Reflections from Monika Birkle

Umbrella-decorations at Dubai Expo 2020.
News article


Expo 2020 in Dubai is indeed the world’s greatest show with 3 million visitors so far. The offering is overwhelming: 192 national pavilions, organizations’ and partner pavilions, celebrities, concerts, food experiences and entertainment offers compete for visitor’s attention. The visual and auditive impressions are constantly brought to you, crowds move and lines form, there is a constant flow of people. It’s like being in Disneyland with bright colors, flashing lights and a jumble of sounds, music, voices, laughter, crying kids, drums.

Brazil's pavilion in Dubai 2020 Expo. Water on the floor.


It has been fascinating to embark on the numerous pavilion’s customer journeys. They are truly real-life lessons in experience design and storytelling. Some pavilions succeed extremely well, and here is my take on the elements needed for creating a winning concept at the Expo 2020.

Elements for creating a winning concept

  1. Make queuing part of the experience. Entertainment, audio content, welcoming hosts, communicating about waiting times are god ways to keep the visitors happy while standing in line.
  2. Use tangibles. Give the audience something concrete they can touch and feel and that’s aligned with the theme, like umbrellas in the Netherlands pavilion or a ball pit in the Hungarian pavilion. Sanitizing measures needed!
  3. Take care of your pavilion staff. The guides give the first impression of the pavilion, their smiles should be genuine and welcoming and energy levels kept high. They inspire and invite the visitors to explore the pavilion, leaving a positive trace in visitors’ minds.
  4. Don’t overdo it with touch screens. Visitors don’t want to touch surfaces due to hygiene risks. Consuming digital content is somewhat tiresome, unless you are really into the topic.
  5. Kinaesthetic environments work the best. A multisensory experience where the visitor moves, hears, sees, feels, touches and smells without a device in between provides good opportunity to learn new things.
  6. Design for a clear people flow. A well-functioning, accessible event space has a clear entrance and incoming and exiting visitor lines do not cross. Since it’s getting dark at 6 pm having the entrance, signs and boards lit up in the evenings help the visitors to orientate.
  7. Prepare instagrammable spots. Taking photos is a basic need, visitors want to duplicate what they see and share it within their social networks.
  8. Pitch your content in 10 seconds. Delivering fact-based content alone is not really working, but try combining it with some entertaining elements. A catchy one-liner lets the visitors stay on their toes and open up for a longer conversation.
  9. Simplify the message. Build your message around one element like Switzerland who brought the fog from the Alps, Hungary their thermal spas and Oman pavilion was filled with the scent of Frankincense. Create a catchy slogan to support your communication.
  10. Storify the customer journey. Invite your guests on a fairytale-like adventure. Combine tangible elements with visual storytelling, and a soundscape, finally spice it up with surprising elements. Do not force the audience to follow a pre-defined tempo, but let them rather freely navigate through the pavilion in their own pace. 
Three Haaga-Helia students as guides at Dubai 2020 Expo.


These lessons learnt are valuable take-aways when planning any kind of event, small or big, corporate or for consumers. Just like Pine & Gilmore stated: "Work is theatre and every business is a stage."

Text and pictures: Monika Birkle

Senior Lecturer
+358 294471600