Expo 86 -- a successful venture in an era of world's fair flops

There were a few drops of oil under the colorfully-decorated Rolls-Royce once owned by the late entertainer John Lennon. ``What do you expect for $2.3 million -- a car that doesn't leak oil?'' joked Jimmy Pattison, the reddish-haired president of Expo 86. Mr. Pattison, who bought the car in 1985 at a New York Sotheby auction, says, ``You have to pay more for that.''

Pattison, a hard-nosed multimillionaire entrepreneur, runs what has turned out to be a highly successful world's fair. He bought the car to display at this exposition on transportation and communications: World in Motion -- World in Touch.

Poking about the exposition, as he does seven days a week, Pattison saw visitors were having a hard time reading the sign telling about the car. As we talked, he told one of his top assistants to see that the sign was properly lit at night.

``The people of B.C. own that car,'' he said firmly, referring to his gift of the car to the province Aug. 4.

``Look after that personally. Don't delegate it.''

His stern attention to detail is undoubtedly one reason why this fair has left a basically good impression on most of those attending. He spends virtually no time watching over his own 7,000-employee business empire, with sales that exceeded $1.2 billion (US$864 million) last year. All his time is given over to the exposition, which has racked up approximately 15 million visits.

That number already exceeds the 13.75 million visits anticipated by Expo 86 budget analysts. Recently, Pattison told the press he was aiming for 20 million visitors by the fair's end on Oct. 13. Expo 86 will spend another $500,000 on advertising in British Columbia, Alberta, and the US state of Washington to encourage greater attendance.

Every day, fair officials ask 600 to 1,000 departing visitors for their opinions. The two most common favorable comments concern the friendliness and politeness of the 15,000 employees and 15,000 volunteers working for Expo 86 and the cleanliness of the site.

Certainly one of the things that Expo 86 visitors like least is the long lines for popular exhibits -- lines that may keep them waiting for an hour or two.

But from a financial standpoint, those lines translate into a reduction in the fair's budgeted deficit: the projected $311 million (US$223 million) shortfall between total expenditures of $802 million (US$577 million) and revenues of $491 million (US$353 million).

Precisely what impact the higher attendance will have remains a closely guarded secret. To the annoyance of the local press, Expo's board voted to tell only the government the fair's financial status and save a public announcement until after the fair ends.

From the standpoint of the province's ruling Social Credit Party, it took the high risk of launching the fair in spite of initial skepticism and criticism from some members of the press and opposition politicians.

So the party feels justified in basking in the glory of Expo's success.

It is impossible for outsiders to calculate the finances accurately. Since a one-day ticket costs $14, 1 million extra one-day visits could bring an extra $14 million in revenues. But then there are three-day passes for $34.95, season passes, and cheaper tickets sold in advance.

Expo officials haven't announced the mix of tickets sold at the multiple gates. Also, there are receipts from souvenir stands, rides, parking, stroller rentals, restaurants, and so on.

On the expenditure side, Pattison was able to keep construction of the fair under budget. Since its opening by the Prince and Princess of Wales May 2, however, Expo 86 has spent ``a lot more money'' than originally planned on free entertainment outside the pavilions, doubling the number of live shows to some 263 per day.

Pattison, who makes $1 a year from his Expo job, says that British Columbians should not get any unpleasant financial surprises.

Financial success hasn't exactly been the rule for other world expositions. Montrealers are still paying off the blown-up deficits of their much larger 1967 world's fair. Citizens of Knoxville, Tenn., also felt the financial sting of their 1982 fair, and the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition went bankrupt.

As Pattison spoke, the ``Great Canadian Bagging Competition'' was taking place in the plaza below his third-story office -- one of the 263 events. Employees of the Safeway supermarket chain were stuffing bags with groceries, getting points for speed, care, and weight distribution. An orchestra played lively music in the background. Hundreds were watching.

Later that day, two Inuit girls from Canada's far north performed throat singing -- a deep, rhythmic singing from the depths of their throats.

At the same spectacularly beautiful site, Canada Place on Vancouver's inner harbor, one group of dancers swooped around a small arena. Elsewhere, a girl dressed as an ambulance attendant climbed on the shoulder of another white-clad girl, who then ran through the crowds making siren noises.

So there's plenty to see and do at this fair without necessarily lining up for the travelog-type films featured in many of the pavilions.

The films are of all types -- multi-screen, massive screen, 3-D, screen and actor, actors and screen, slides, and so on.

Some are admittedly excellent. One British Columbia pavilion, for example, shows a film featuring a large, computerized ball from outer space that is escorted around the province by a young girl who often rides inside.

The show in another exhibit hall is basically a commercial on the economic attractions of the province. But it is cleverly done and an actor that it keeps your attention.

A visiting journalist with a limited time frame can get what is called ``easy acess'' to the shows. Those not from the press wait in long lines for shows that last perhaps 15 or 20 minutes.

Expo's budget calls for the bulk of its shortfall to be covered by proceeds of a special lottery. That, of course, is just a form of taxation on gamblers.

Real gains for the province from Expo 86 will arise from the extra revenues it gets from employee salaries and the extra profits or sales taxes racked up by area businesses; from the few handsome buildings that will be left standing and usable; from a site close to the city center that is now serviced properly with water, sewage, and other facilities ready for planned development of office buildings, residences, a marina, a home for the elderly, etc.; and from a new appreciation of Vancouver and the province by outside businessmen.

More than 7,000 businessmen have participated in the fair's Business Visitors Program, getting VIP treatment at Expo 86 and being informed about business opportunities and contacts in the province. That's almost twice the number anticipated.

Whether these businessmen will bring new orders and investment to the province remains to be seen.

But Mr. Pattison is confident it will.

``It has got to bring a new awareness of B.C. around the world,'' he says.

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