Connecting Minds and Creating the Future with Cisco
Expo 2020 Dubai will open on October 1, 2021, signalling a fresh start for events around the world. The six-month event is the first World Expo held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region, under the theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.”
A total of 191 nations will be taking part in Expo 2020 Dubai. The 4.38-square-kilometer site will host millions of visitors who will explore more than 200 pavilions and participate in programming focused around Expo’s three subthemes of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability.
A Connected Event On-Site and Behind the Scenes
Our goal is for Expo 2020 Dubai to be one of the most connected event sites in the world. I joined Expo 2020 in 2017, at the beginning of work on our information communication technologies (ICT) infrastructure plan. As vice president of network technologies, I was in charge of delivery of ICT infrastructure. In 2020, I was appointed as the event’s head of technology operations. Early on, Cisco was selected as our digital partner to design, implement, and operate a site-wide converged network across the fairground’s various districts. We also selected Webex Meetings to integrate communications with operators, vendors, and employees.
We were making good progress with event planning, but we faced some internal challenges at the time. Expo 2020 Dubai’s offices had more than 35 meeting rooms, but they were booked all day, every day. If you needed a space, you would often have to reserve it more than a week in advance, which eliminated any impromptu meetings. Back then, people were used to and preferred face-to-face meetings, but our conference room situation made it impossible to gather our people, vendors, contractors, and others in a single location.
We had already partnered with Cisco to build and implement a new network, and one of the requirements was an upgraded collaboration system, which would also help us overcome our meeting room issue. We requested some assistance, and Cisco came to us with the suggestion to widen our use of Meetings and bring it into our offices. It was an easy decision to make. We procured 140 Desk Series screens of different sizes, including individual screens for members of our executive team.
We deployed Meetings across our entire network, but the initial uptake was slow. In 2019, we averaged 200 Meetings calls a day, and only a fraction of our 1,200 employees used the platform. People still wanted to meet in person, despite the difficulty in booking physical meeting rooms. But all that changed last year, when the pandemic forced us Expo 2020 Dubai to be postponed and we instructed almost everyone to work from home. The meeting room situation was suddenly a thing of the past.
We Were Prepared for the Unexpected
Fortunately, when the United Arab Emirates went into lockdown, we had the hardware and software in place to work remotely. Our IT infrastructure was robust, stable, and secure, and we had enough Meetings licenses to ensure everyone could continue to connect in virtual meeting spaces. In less than a week, we went from working face-to-face to collaborating from home.
Cisco made our move to remote work relatively painless. The first piece of the puzzle was Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client, which provides secure remote access to systems, services, applications, and storage in our data centers. Employees could access files and folders on our network and even share them with colleagues without worrying about internal or external security breaches. Despite working from home, our employees were as well protected as they would be if they were still in our offices, and that security allowed everyone to work confidently.
The second part of the equation was, of course, Meetings. With its user-friendly interface and plug-and-play features that require little or no configuration, Meetings was instantly accessible to our internal users. Even though few of our employees used the platform when it was first deployed, everyone began to use it daily within the first couple of weeks of remote work.
In addition to its intuitive interface, we liked that Meetings is highly secure. We purchased business licenses for all our staff members and set up a hybrid solution to optimize network security. For obvious reasons, remote workers used the cloud-based version. However, in-house users—including Webex Room users—connect via an on-prem version of Meetings that runs on our internal data center servers. Either way, we know that Webex offers best-in-class security that integrates with our onsite and remote cybersecurity and infrastructure management tools. As a result, the confidential matters discussed during our virtual meetings are safe.
Supporting One Million Minutes of Meetings
The technology was the easy part, but our people had to transition to a new way of working. The Cisco Customer Experience team helped us every step of the way. Thanks to Cisco Anyconnect Secure Mobile Client, we scaled our VPN capacity from 300 to 8,000 concurrent users. Next, Cisco Customer Experience Team reshared documents from the initial rollout and helped us craft tutorials and cheat sheets to help everyone feel comfortable with the platform quickly. The Customer Experience team also staffed a helpdesk to provide timely answers to any questions. All of this ensured we could maintain a regular working schedule.
As expected, Meetings adoption increased exponentially in the early weeks of the pandemic: from March-June 2020, we had 143,000 participants, including internal staff and external vendors, participate in more than 28,000 remote meetings—including 19,000 video calls. But our adoption stayed high, and we saw our highest usage in March 2021, with more than 1,200 meeting hours logged in Meetings. From May 2020–May 2021, we’ve held more than 111,000 meetings, totalling more than 3.8 million minutes.
Our staff was remarkably productive from home, but they continued to use Meetings as the Expo 2020 Dubai offices gradually reopened and some people returned to work. We started with 20% of our workforce returning and are now up to 90%. We’ve had to reconfigure our office spaces to ensure employee safety and are repurposing our 35 meeting rooms because we don’t need them anymore. We all spend a lot less time driving and/or flying to meetings in other locations, and we don’t have to wait until a room is free to have a meeting. The majority of our teams now use Meetings, which is easier and faster than reserving meeting rooms.
As our digital partner for Expo 2020 Dubai, Cisco was selected to design, implement, and operate the network for the entire site. Throughout the planning process, Webex was a part of our collaboration, and Cisco provided operational support for the site and our offices. Cisco engineers helped troubleshoot our Webex installation and support our cloud team in operating our data center and communicating with Expo 2020 Dubai vendors. We wouldn’t have this level of support had we simply downloaded and deployed a free video chat tool. Instead, we have comprehensive Webex assistance as part of the company’s broader operating agreement with Expo 2020 Dubai.
Meetings Is Here to Stay
I think remote meeting habits are here to stay, and virtual meetings are the future of business. People can collaborate across borders and time zones with increased efficiency and lower costs. And the technology will only get better. At some point, we’ll be using AR and VR—or even holograms—to make it feel as if virtual meeting participants are all in the same room. These possibilities are no longer in the realm of science fiction. In fact, they’re the kind of thing visitors will explore at Expo 2020 Dubai.
Expo 2020 Dubai is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, both for visitors and those of us running the event. In the months leading up to the rescheduled World Expo—and after it has opened—we’ll be going back and forth between our offices and the site, dealing with vendors and onsite personnel, and working hard to ensure that visitors enjoy their stay. And we’ll be able to do it all seamlessly, thanks to Meetings. With Cisco, Expo 2020 Dubai will connect minds and create the future while welcoming people from around the world.