Expo: What goes into assembling the world’s greatest show

The world’s biggest cargo plane and mammoth-sized trailer trucks were put into service to deliver equipment, machinery and construction materials to the Expo site.

To pull off an Expo that is dubbed as the ‘world’s greatest show’ during a pandemic is a logistical nightmare by any count. The operational and logistics planning level that went into massive shipping equipment, machinery, and construction materials for the Expo 2020 Dubai site is nothing less than head-spinning.

The world’s biggest cargo plane took to the air from Houston to Dubai, carrying the 46-tonne projector for the Al Wasl Dome at the Expo site. Mammoth-sized trailer trucks plied the autobahns of South Germany, at night, to transport the three 21-metre high carbon-fibre entry gates.

It took a multi-modal delivery plan, spanning continents and involved air, sea and road transportation, to haul everything from the most fragile to the bulkiest consignments to Dubai from across the globe.

Alan Williams, UPS vice-president Expo 2020 Dubai sponsorship and operations, said the Expo 2020 Dubai logistics is easily the biggest and the most challenging assignment that UPS has undertaken in the region in its 114 years in the business.

“It is an event when the world is coming to Dubai and the Expo and are excited to be associated with it,” said Williams.

As the official logistics partner of Expo 2020 Dubai, UPS is tasked with the delivery of consignments for most of the 190 participating countries pavilions at the event.

Carbon-fibre gates shipped from Germany

He said the company moved some of the most challenging consignments for the event. Some of them were directly transported to their warehouse at the Expo site, while others were stored at their warehouse in Jebel Ali.

“There are different examples I can give. But the delivery of the three-carbon fibre gates for the Expo enterance, from Germany to Antwerp, and then to Dubai was one of the most complex deliveries we have undertaken,” Williams said.

“We did nine shipments in total… one a month… because of the sheer size of the consignments. We had to use special equipment and special-length trailers. We needed special commissioning and licenses to drive from South Germany to Antwerp (in Belgium) at night,” he added.

The 21-metre high mashrabiya-style carbon lattices, designed by British architect Asif Khan were made in Bavaria, Germany. They are one of the top attractions at Expo 2020 Dubai.

After the 740-km road trip through Europe, the carbon gates were shipped from Antwerp to Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port.

“There were a lot of moving pieces that we had to put together throughout the journey. It’s a huge challenge putting together things at the right time and doing it nine times over,” he said.

Transporting projectors for the dome

Williams said the world’s largest cargo flight, the Antonov AN 124-100, was chartered to deliver 11 projectors for the Al Wasl Dome – the world’s biggest 360-degree projection dome.

“The projectors weighed 46 tonnes. It would not fit into a normal aircraft. So, we had to hire the 124, which is the world’s biggest cargo plane, to fly the projectors from Texas to Dubai,” he said.

The projectors, made in Monterrey in Mexico, were transported by road to Texas, Houston and then flown to Dubai.

“The journey was not complicated. But complications arose from the size of the product we were moving. When you look at international shipment for upsized pieces… a lot of different stakeholders are involved… a lot of moving pieces have to be synchronised… for us to get it to the point of delivery when the customer wants it. That is a challenge,” he said.

Pandemic threw a new set of challenges

For a logistic giant like UPS that has been in the business for 114 years, there was enough to fall back on its previous experience – supporting mega-events like the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

But Expo 2020 Dubai threw a different set of challenges, primarily due to the raging pandemic that put the pressure on logistics operations globally, said Williams.

“When there is an event of this scale, you are very much at the mercy of things happening around the globe, whether it is a pandemic or a natural disaster. Under normal circumstances, we will put together a plan… then have plan B as a contingency plan. But with the pandemic.. we had to deal with something global that impacted so many countries in so many different ways. But we have been able to keep going,” Williams said.

Yet, there were unforeseen challenges to deal with. When the Suez Canal was closed for six days, after the grounding of the container ship Ever Given in March this year, Williams said many of the containers headed for the Expo got delayed because they had to take alternative long routes. “We straight away went into contingency mode. Some of the pavilions that were planning their installations on a sequential basis had to work around that delay,” said Williams.

“One thing that we learnt is never to stop learning. It is the first time an event of this size is taking place in this region, so there is no playbook. The biggest takeaway for me is that we are creating an event playbook for this region, in terms of how to run the logistics of a major event in future. And we are proud about it,” said Williams.

Secret consignments for Expo

Apart from the highly publicised consignments, there are a few ‘secrets’ that Williams is not willing to spill due to confidentiality agreements with clients.

“There are quite a few things we have put together through our global network… which are the world’s biggest ‘this’ and the world’s biggest ‘that’. They will be revealed on October 1. What I can say is we are excited to be part of this mega event. It is pretty satisfying to see that we have been part of this,” he said

For instance, he said, UPS had to use a combination of road, sea and air transport to ship a particular consignment from the Caribbean islands. “If I tell you from where and for who, you will piece together the information. Many companies have ‘big reveal’ for Expo that you have to wait and see,” Williams added.

Logistics to peak after Expo

There are different phases to the logistics operations for the Expo. As the construction of most of the 190 country pavilions is complete, UPS has moved on to the ‘fit out’ phase, which involves setting up the interior design. “The third phase, which is the exhibition content, is in full throttle. The business has peaked as we are bringing in the actual content for the exhibitions.

“But this is not the end of it; rather, that is when it starts. We need to replenish the content throughout the six months because a lot of countries will not have the same exhibition throughout the event,” explained Williams.

UPS will also be bringing supplies to retail stores at the Expo, and the onsite warehouse will be used to stock up goods.

“Our work will peak in the months after the Expo as many country pavilions will have to be decommissioned and the contents shipped back,” he concluded.


Anjana Sankar

Anjana Sankar is a UAE-based journalist chasing global stories of conflict, migration and human rights. She has reported from the frontlines of the wars in Yemen and Syria and has extensively written on the refugee crisis in Bangladesh, Iraq and Europe. From interviewing Daesh militants to embedding with the UAE army in Yemen, and covering earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks and elections, she has come out scathe-free from the most dangerous conflict zones of the world. Riding on over 14 years of experience, Anjana currently is an Assistant Editor with Khaleej Times and leads the reporting team. She often speaks about women empowerment on her Facebook page that has 40,000 plus followers.

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