End of Expo: A Small(er) Country Perspective

Was Expo 2010 worth it? Depends, I suppose, on who you are. If you’re from a small-town in China, and your only experience of Expo was had on a blazing hot August day when you had to stand in lines for hours with several hundred thousand of your closest friends to see a half-baked exhibit on German polyester – probably not. But, truth is, for many of the organizers and participating countries, Expo 2010 wasn’t about the ticket buyers, it was about the government officials and business executives who planned to use it as a six-month meet and greet to take place behind closed doors, in VIP suites. So, in search of this perspective, I sat down for a chat with Juan Pablo Cavelier, the General Manager and Director of Colombia’s Expo 2010 pavilion. In fact, I sat down with him in Colombia’s VIP area – pictured below.

Colombia’s participation in Expo 2010 was far from assured: the country was one of the very last of the 200+ to RSVP for the event. Nonetheless, under a very limited schedule, it managed to build a first-rate pavilion for less than US$10 million. Compared to the tens of  millions spent by some countries, this was a modest sum. But for a country that wasn’t sure it wanted to participate, it was serious money that needed to be justified – at some point. Some excerpts, then, from a wide-ranging conversation (some of which will be published elsewhere) on just how Cavalier will that.

Scrap: Colombia was one of the last countries to confirm for Expo. I suspect that, among the reasons for that late confirmation, were questions about whether or not a pavilion would be worth the money spent on it. So now, as the Expo wraps up, I wonder if you could tell me – was it worth it? And why?

Cavalier: Ok the answer is definitely yes. Even from a numbers basis perspective – Colombia receives officially 1.5 million people per year in terms of tourism. The Colombia pavilion will have received, by the end of Expo, three million people.

We’ve been showing 3 million people, who were completely unaware of what Colombia was about, something about Colombia. Awareness, raising awareness in China, was critical.

From the retail side, the whole retail experiment, selling arts and crafts from Colombia, enabled us to learn on a daily basis what kinds of things we could sell here. The lessons that we are taking back in terms of arts and crafts we can and cannot sell in China, back to the country, are amazing.

Scrap: Give me an example of something that worked and something that didn’t.

Cavalier: What worked, definitely the items below RMB 50 (US$7.35). Like the bracelets, some of them were brought in from Colombia, made from a special element called caña flecha. The other ones, I think these are Chinese made, they say Colombia. But those [the caña flecha ones] sell, like, close to a thousand per day.

Scrap: A thousand per day? How much were they?

Cavalier: RMB 10 (US$1.50), so you get RMB 10,000 (US$1500) there. The next item that was really successful was the coffee, but that’s a little more expensive. And next, little boxes, they worked very well.

What didn’t sell are leather products made in Colombia. They’re not cost efficient, they make very few, so the unit cost is about RMB 2000 – 3000 (US$300 – US$450). So that doesn’t sell, that was very, very slow.

But it’s interesting – how we turned over, from the first month when we were selling RMB 12,000 – 15,000 (US$1790 – US$2238) per day, it went up to RMB 40,000 – 50,000 (US$5970 – US$7462) per day, just on the change in product mix. So it’s really a matter of understanding the market.

Scrap: So who gets that information, then?

Cavalier: In this particular case, the people who were managing the store, who were representing lots of organizations dealing with arts and crafts in Colombia.

Scrap: Let me ask about the bigger commercial question. We’re sitting in front of the VIP area and a lot of this Expo, people don’t see it, but it’s about VIPs bringing together customers, say. Was it successful in that sense for Colombia? In creating relationships if not deals.

Cavalier: I definitely think so. See, the way the Colombia pavilion was structured, all the major stakeholders would own the second floor, the VIP floor, to do deals and presentations for a specific period of time. And that enabled us to first – for some areas of the country – to really raise awareness about the opportunities that are there. For instance, our last stakeholder, Antioquia [State] did magnificent work in saying these are the types of investments we are looking for, these are the types of opportunities that we have now. We are looking for potential investors, especially in infrastructure, especially in light trains and so on.

There were some others that were more sophisticated, such as the Assoication of Hydrocarbons. They closed their Global Roundtable at Shanghai Expo, and they were very pleased because they had very strong one-on-ones in which they were literally closing deals and so on.

Was it [the Colombia pavilion] successful? Definitely. First of all, because early on we didn’t believe we could bring people into Expo easily. We didn’t think that people would be motivated to come to Shanghai and come to these roundtables. The answer is that they did and they did so willingly. Throughout all the possible events we did, we got people for that. We managed to put Colombia on the map. You know, let’s say, the standard Latin American countries that are in the minds of the Chinese businessman – Brazil, Venezuela, and Mexico. And that’s it. Not Colombia But Colombia came in, and we’re now on the map.

The last thing I would say, is that being here, seeing what interests people, it’s a reality check. It’s a reality check in the sense that people then finally realize how big China is, how complex it is, and how difficult it is to a certain extent. It’s not about, you know “We’re going to go to China and sell coffee.” You really have to – they’re becoming more and more sophisticated, and we’re competing against the rest of the world. So it’s not about dreaming, it’s about setting up very specific business plans and following up. And that’s the critical thing – following up.


  1. considering that the majority of the visitors to pavilions were poor locals from provinces all over china who would never be able to visit any of the the countries in the expo, one would have to ask why the colombian government felt this was important. Sure, it’s a feather in the cap for Shanghai for having bussed in thousands of the great unwashed masses, but in the grand scheme of things, does it actually give any benefit to colombia (or any other small country that spent money on the expo)

    We are all beginning to feel the same way about this expo, that it was a facade, not for the rest of the world, but for china. So that the Leadership could say to the world that china was so great that they had an expo which broke all records (Irrespective of whether the attendees actually wanted to visit in the first place)

    So when I hear about a pavilion owner who says “it was great for us”..I have to reach to one side and get a big handful of salt (not a grain)

  2. I’m from Colombia and I do think this was worth it… not just because of the number of visitors (anyway is awareness, as they say in the article, the important issue, i do think so) but because of the meetings and contacts that were done during these six months… i’ve read about some agreements and possible bussiness and I think is a good ROI, more thinking that many of the colombian visitors were institutions from the government, and it means bussiness for the country and not just for private enterprises, that anyway are colombian and put some money for us to be there.

  3. I agree, the answer was definitely yes. Colombia Pavilion executed over a dozen events which are spectacularly planned out and attracted crowds of expo people and outsiders. They mingled and smoozed with the Chinese who make decisions in this country in industries ranging from emeralds, diamonds, mining, coffee, tourism and real estate. They showed their culture to the world, and did so with a budget far less than most of the major countries at the Expo. As a volunteer for the Peruvian Pavilion who attended some of these events, I personally feel it was worth their investment.

  4. I’d agree with Benny that in some ways it was a facade, but brushing off the impact an event like the expo can have on of all of those poor “unwashed masses” is short-sighted and condescending. The people who attended the Columbia Exposition (yes I know, different Columbia) in Chicago were mostly the American version of the people who attended Shanghai Expo. It was certainly just a giant commercial gimmick, (just like Shanghai Expo) but the cultural, world-opening impact it had was significant. One example is Walt Disney whose father helped buld it. Disney grew up with his fathers stories and memories of the Columbia expo and was captivated. What did Disney do with that inspiration?

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