Conferences connect people to ideas

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What do broadcast television, X-ray machines, cellphones, ice cream cones and Heinz Ketchup have in common? They were all first unveiled at a World Expo, one of the longest-running and biggest mega-events in the world.

Director of destination marketing at Expo 2020 Dubai, Sumathi Ramanathan, told delegates at the opening plenary on the first day of Meetings Africa on February 24 that big events organisers were all “in the business of connecting people”.

She told delegates from the meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions industry at this annual event organised by South Africa Tourism, that events brought people together. “The power of events is not in the filling of hotel beds and [serving of] conference meals; events, when they are done properly, actually have a real purpose and have the ability to touch humanity and individuals,” she said.

The World Expo is held every five years and attracts four times as many visitors as the Olympics and the Fifa football world cup, she said. Throughout its 168-year history, World Expos have “contributed a lot towards humanity” with the unveiling of new inventions.

Ramanathan said the upcoming Expo 2020 Dubai will run over six months and so far has the confirmed participation of 192 countries, including all African countries. The Chinese have confirmed that they will be revealing something very special in terms of artificial intelligence and big data, and will be looking at a satellite that will enable them to communicate with extraterrestrials.


“This might sound far-fetched, but I’m sure in 1970 people didn’t think they would have a phone they can put in their pockets,” she said. The mobile phone debuted as a design for the first time at the World Expo in Osaka that year.

Ramanathan said the Dutch were looking at how to convert mushrooms into building materials and tiles, while the UK has a “poem pavilion” inspired by physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. “Before he died, one of the last pieces of research he did was how we can communicate with extraterrestrials if we are ever to meet them,” she said. At the UK’s pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai, visitors can type in any word they like in any language, and a user-generated poem in that language will be transmitted into outer space.

“It’s about showcasing technology and innovation that will actually enable people to envision a better future for the planet, and for humanity,” she said.

The economic impact is also crucial. Expo 2020 Dubai is expected to attract 25 million visitors and is projected to contribute $33-billion to the United Arab Emirates’ economy over a seven-year period, from the time Dubai won the bid to host the Expo in 2013 until the end of the exhibition, she said. The Al Wasl Plaza that is being erected for the Expo is set to become a new landmark in Dubai, just as the Eiffel Tower did when it was erected for the 1889 event in Paris.

Chief officer of the South African National Convention Bureau and Meetings Africa organiser Amanda Kotze-Nhlapo encouraged delegates in her opening address to network and “come together as Africans” and “wow the world”. She said the world was standing at Africa’s doors, ready to do business. “I don’t understand why people go to Thailand when you can come to Africa,” she said. “We have the oceans, we have the mountains — and we also have elephants.”

She said Africa, and in particular Gauteng, was the place where humanity started, with reference to the Cradle of Humankind. “We can sell to the world a better world, a better people, that’s what meetings are about: for us to come together and drink from the fountain of humanity, drink from this source where all innovation starts, because if it wasn’t for people, there wouldn’t be innovation.” — Carien du Plessis

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