As last week’s media coverage was dominated by House Republicans’ efforts to dismantle Obamacare, a curiously named measure called the United States Wants to Compete for a World Expo Act (H.R.534) quietly made its way through both houses of Congress, enjoying overwhelming bipartisan support. Signed into law yesterday by President Donald Trump with little fanfare, the measure has one simple objective: to authorize the U.S. secretary of state to file the papers necessary for the U.S. to rejoin the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), the Paris-based governing board that sanctions all World’s Fairs.
Why now? Because the U.S. has its sights set on hosting the 2023 World’s Fair, and the BIE will be deciding which country gets the hosting honors later this year.
World’s Fairs are a big deal for the country that wins the rights to host them. Think of them as the International Olympics of business and culture but with a lot more cash flow and a much bigger audience. For example, the 2010 Expo in Shanghai was a six-month affair that drew over 70 million visitors.
World’s Fairs are most commonly marketed as “Expos,” and they offer countries countless opportunities to market themselves inside giant, immersive retail-experience pavilions that aim to tout each nation’s global importance, while corporate sponsors from back home leverage the occasion to display their latest inventions, technologies, products and business opportunities. It’s also the ideal setting for national tourist boards to push their cultural and travel agendas. They are cultural and economic juggernauts. In fact, the 1967 Expo in Montreal was such a success that it became forever associated with the city when they named their expansion Major League Baseball team, the Montreal Expos, after the event.
The U.S. let its membership in the BIE lapse in the early 2000s, and with that, it lost the right to host World’s Fairs. The United States Wants to Compete for a World Expo Act aims to get the U.S. back into the mix because it has its sights set on winning the rights to host the 2023 World’s Fair in Minneapolis, Minn. “This is an important day for all of us who have long championed the return of World’s Fairs to the United States,” said Manuel Delgado, the chairman of ExpoUSA, one of the entities that has been pushing for a U.S. World’s Fair in recent years. “Being part of the BIE means that cities across America—from Minneapolis in 2023 to San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston, and many others to come—will be able to host future Expos and enjoy the tremendous cultural, educational and economic benefits of the Fair.”
There is powerful logic behind the choice to host the Expo in the land of 10,000 lakes (which will take place in the summer months, as organizers are quick to point out). The proposed theme of the U.S.’ 2023 Expo bid is health and wellness, playing towards Minnesota’s strengths as the nation’s epicenter of healthcare, medical technology and nutrition companies. “Minnesota is to healthcare and medical technology as Silicon Valley is to the tech world and the internet,” said Mark Ritchie, president and CEO of Minnesota’s World’s Fair Bid Committee and former Minnesota secretary of state. “Heads-of-state, royal families and the world’s biggest celebrities come to Minnesota for treatment because we have arguably the most advanced hospitals, health research facilities and healthcare delivery systems in the world—a little secret that we’re not so keen on keeping a secret anymore.”
Branded as “Expo 2023 USA—Minnesota” with the tagline “Healthy People, Healthy Planet: Wellness and Well-Being for All,” the U.S. bid is currently in a showdown with competing bids from Lodz, Poland (organized around a fairly nondescript theme branded as “City Reinvented”), and Buenos Aires (with a pitch that seemingly aims to please everyone with the universal themes of “Science, Innovation, Art and Creativity”). Rio de Janeiro had been in the running until Brazil’s bid committee ran out of steam recently. (An Olympic Games, one World Cup and an impeached president within a three-year period tends to have that effect on a country.)
Joining the BIE sets the stage not only for the Minnesota bid, but for other World’s Fairs to be held on U.S. soil in the not so distant future. Houston, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have all expressed interest in securing Expo hosting duties down the road, but until now, lack of membership in the BIE was a major obstacle. “Rejoining the Bureau of International Expositions paves the way for us to compete on a level playing field with the bids from Poland and Argentina. Equally important, this also makes it possible for all other cities around the United States to bid to host an Expo in the future,” added Ritchie.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, scion of the Target retail empire and one of the state’s most popular political leaders in recent years, has been a very vocal supporter of the state’s World’s Fair effort. “With the president’s approval, this week’s achievement takes Minnesota one step closer to hosting the United States’ first World’s Fair in three decades. Expo 2023 will bring millions of visitors to our state and shine a global spotlight on Minnesota’s world-class medical and technology sectors,” remarked Dayton. Importantly, one of the core tenants of the Minnesota bid is minimizing up-front costs by using existing infrastructure and maximizing revenue from ticket sales, digital media revenue streams and intellectual property royalties—a business model very familiar to the Minnesotans behind the Expo bid. The Minnesota State Fair, the second largest of these annual statewide get-togethers in the U.S. in terms of attendance, is a major event that has run smoothly and generated a profit every year since its founding 150 years ago.
As it is with the selection process of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), there is a process that plays out in the BIE where representatives of bidding countries must woo the organization’s delegates from the other 167 member countries. However, for the U.S. bid to go forward, the Minnesota Expo organizers must also overcome one final obstacle: Unlike most other nations seeking to win the rights to host an Expo, the U.S. government will not act as a financial guarantor of any U.S. World’s Fairs. The United States Wants to Compete for a World Expo Act even explicitly states that all funding for the event must come exclusively from private sources. This provision might hamper all present and future U.S. bids, putting them at a distinct disadvantage to countries such as the UAE or China, which allocate massive amounts of state resources to ensure that the events go smoothly. (Understandably, no U.S. politician wants to have to explain why taxpayer dollars are being invested in building exhibition pavilions for the Republic of Moldova and not supporting injured veterans or rebuilding crumbling highways.)
There is a bigger issue facing the BIE than just deciding which country will get the rights to host the 2023 World’s Fair. As the delegates of the BIE member countries prepare to convene in the City of Lights to hear final pitches from the U.S., Argentina and Poland, they must also consider a much weightier question: Does the BIE want to move to a more sustainable private sector financing model, one that necessitates corporate buy-in and becomes an integral part of global companies’ branding, or is it satisfied with being relegated as a recurring roadshow that only stops in a handful of petro-states and command economies willing to foot the bill? The BIE’s upcoming selection of a host city for the 2023 Expo will not only feature a showdown between the U.S., Poland and Argentina, but more broadly, it will force BIE delegates to think about what kind of economic model—state or private-sector—they will employ for all future World Fairs.
The Minnesota bid is moving ahead and has strong support from a growing list of the state’s health, medical technology and nutrition companies, including Medtronic, General Mills, Blue Cross Blue Shield and the world-famous Mayo Clinic. National players already on board include Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—the nation’s largest public health philanthropy—and FedEx. Equally important are the broad sources of financial support, coming not only from Fortune 500 companies but also from an array of trade unions, credit unions and tourism agencies, with plans to build out those support networks as the bid proceeds. The onus of the Minnesota bid, as well as all future U.S. bids, will be on lining up an impressive cadre of corporate financial backers who can play the role of de facto guarantor for the World’s Fairs, coupled with a strong governance approach from the host committee.
It’s increasingly clear that the future of BIE-sanctioned World’s Fairs will have to be based on a new model that intersects corporate sponsorship with competent host committee stewardship. Otherwise, the BIE will find it increasingly hard to get competitive bids from the more developed economies that have come to see these events not as foundational pillars of national pride as they once did, but for what they are now: global trade shows on steroids. In fact, the writing is already on the wall: France’s bid for the 2025 World’s Fair, like the Minnesota bid, is slated to be funded entirely with private-sector money.
Fortunately for the U.S. and the organizers of Expo 2023 USA-Minnesota, the BIE’s traditional model of relying on state funds to guarantee these large events has not been without challenges. The Milan Expo of 2015 enjoyed ample state backing from the Italian government, but it still had its share of financial woes. This backstage drama has led many BIE delegates to consider if having the backing of global multinationals isn’t an altogether better alternative to relying on state funding.
Immediately concerning the 2023 U.S. bid, the BIE will have to do a quick gut-check and ask itself if it has more faith in the strength of corporate America and the $18 trillion dollar U.S. economy, the sovereign guarantee of Poland (which had its credit rating slashed by Standard & Poor’s last year), or the backing of Argentinian government (which is dangling on a precipice of financial free-fall with inflation levels expected to pass 20 percent this year coupled with falling real GDP growth.)
It’s still unclear how the BIE will vote, but the rubber will hit the road on June 14 when the Minnesota’s World’s Fair Bid Committee will make its final presentation to the BIE in Paris. The final selection will be announced in November.
Arick Wierson is a former political and communications adviser to New York City Michael Bloomberg where he was responsible for managing the City’s multiple television, radio and digital platforms. Currently, Wierson is a political and branding consultant to the Government of Angola, advising the country’s efforts to attract foreign investment and promote trade.
Richard Hecker is the CEO of Traction + Scale, an investment holding company that builds companies transform their industries. He is also the co-founder of @RichieBlueEyes.. You can follow him on twitter