This Fair Could Flop

The mishaps began early. at the grand opening of the Hanover world's fair earlier this month, Polish President Aleksandr Kwasniewski got stuck in an elevator in the newly unveiled European Union pavilion. Technicians rushed to the scene but couldn't get the brand-new lift to budge. After anxious minutes, the hefty statesman had to climb a ladder and wriggle through a narrow hatch onto the roof. The elevator mishap was just for openers. Last week, Prince Ernst August of Hanover, in town with his wife, Princess Caroline of Monaco, suddenly collapsed at a gala after a long day shaking hands on the fairgrounds. Medics whisked him away; the exact cause and nature of his fainting spell remain unknown. Fortunately, when Ludmila Putin blasted in last week during her husband's state visit to Germany, the Russian First Lady got away unscathed.

The fair itself may not be so lucky. Barely three weeks into its four-month run, Expo 2000, as the fair is known, is off to an embarrassing start. The biggest and most expensive world's fair ever, the 1.8-billion euro project was supposed to make bold statements about solving the 21st century's problems, show off a vibrant Germany to the world and bring 40 million visitors to Hanover by the time the curtain comes down on Oct. 31. Instead, German newspapers have trashed the fair as "mediocre" and "embarrassing." There's been a plague of technical problems. And despite some truly stunning exhibits and a vast entertainment program, people are staying away. After an opening day that drew only half the 300,000 expected visitors, the numbers leveled off at 60,000 a day--just 30 percent of what organizers had forecast. Financial disaster is looming: government sources told one newspaper that the Expo could cost German taxpayers as much as 1 billion euro. "The Expo is in very critical condition," admits Jurgen Resch, a member of the fair's advisory board.

Expo 2000 was supposed to be a grand "workshop of ideas" for the new millennium. Originally conceived in the late 1980s when Gerhard Schroder was the governor of Lower Saxony, Hanover's state, the fair borrowed its theme--"Humankind, Nature, Technology"--from the 1991 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. There's a 100,000-square-meter general exhibition devoted to broad topics such as health, transport and energy. Forty-one countries built their own pavilions that celebrate national art, culture and technology. The Japanese pavilion, for example, is a giant origami bubble made entirely of paper and cardboard, all to be recycled at the Expo's end. Switzerland's exhibit is housed in an astonishing all-wood labyrinth designed by architect Peter Zumthor. While some parts of the show are didactic, others are just fun. In the dimly lit transport hall, visitors stroll among 72 egg-shaped robots moving noiselessly in little herds. In the health exhibit, fairgoers can relax to New Age music while lounging in automatic massage chairs.

But all along the Expo has been dogged by public-relations fiascoes. Last year the United States decided not to build a national pavilion after Congress refused to spend public money. (There are eight McDonald's franchises on-site, though.) The German media seemed to revel in reporting management squabbles, cost overruns and construction delays. Exorbitant hotel prices and rail fares hiked during the Expo discouraged visitors. "There've been dramatic marketing mistakes," says Jurgen Kindervater, spokesman for Deutsche Telekom, an Expo 2000 sponsor. Left-wing protesters who call the fair the propaganda tool of globalizing capitalists threw burning tires onto train tracks and caused massive delays. Stressed by Hanover's noise and crowds, camels flown in for the United Arab Emirates' exhibit had to be evacuated to an animal sanctuary. The Expo's cultural highlight, a 20-hour production of Goethe's "Faust," is in trouble: last week, the lead actor fell off a ladder during rehearsals and broke his hip. The biggest problem may be the notion of the world's fair itself. Expositions in centuries past promoted grand-scale engineering feats--from steamboats and grain combines to satellites and rocket ships. By contrast, the late-20th-century miracles of microchips and fiber optics are little suited to display in sprawling exhibition halls. Moreover, national pavilions seem somehow anachronistic in an era of increasing globalization. Media giant Bertelsmann chose to build its own separate complex on the site, a multimedia show called "Planet M," rather than participate in the German pavilion. Eager to spice up the show, the organizers threw in music, dance, arts, theater and ethnic food. But Korean barbecue and Zulu war dancers seem more in keeping with a high-class street fair than an ode to mankind's future. "The purpose of a world's fair today is totally unclear," says Eckhard Kucher, a marketing specialist in Bonn.

Organizers are scrambling to salvage the fair. They've slashed prices for evening tickets and offer free guided tours. Trying to help, Chancellor Schroder last week ordered his ministers to promote the Expo by making personal appearances there. By the weekend the new marketing push appeared to be working: daily attendance was up to more than 100,000. "Every world's fair has terrible attendance at the beginning and soars in the end," insisted Bernd Bauer, a Bertelsmann executive in charge of the company's 50 million euro Expo investment. He also points to visitors' polls that say 94 percent would recommend the fair to their friends. Still, attendance will have to more than double yet again to get the show out of the red. Even if the makers of the Expo manage to spare German taxpayers' wallets, it's not clear if they'll be able to rescue the concept of a world's fair for the 21st century.