Russia: From red to amber… AsiaEuropeExpert Opinion

EW‘s Johnno G visits the Venice of the North and finds some Imperial exhibitionism.


Forgive me a self-indulgent moment on preconceptions, but before the FIFA World Cup this summer, you couldn’t have paid me to go to Russia.

So political are the agendas to which we are exposed through the mainstream media, it is easy to believe what we are told rather than rely on a real face-to-face experience.

A great friend recently returned from Russia where he had watched the semi-final of the World Cup between England and Croatia, and spoke at length about what a fantastic place Russia was and the great treatment and warm hospitality extended to all travelling fans by the locals.

His experience started to challenge my conventional thoughts on a country I had never yet visited and I began to look forward to my business trip to St Petersburg for the 85th UFI Congress.

For those of us who need visas to enter Russia, the conventional wisdom is that the process is complex. Well, it may not be cheap, but provided you read and take note of all requirements before you start to process your application, it’s a simple enough task.

And airlift from my country, the UK, is first class, with Russia’s northern ‘Window on the World’ reachable in just over 3 hours.

Pulkovo airport is modern and connected by air bridge to the Park Inn Hotel and, provided you use a licensed taxi, the monumental ExpoForum convention and exhibition centre is just a 15-minute, $8 dollar ride. Uber is even cheaper, coming in at around $4 for the journey.

The Congress itself was a great success. A truly global audience, with record-breaking numbers, gathered for 4 days of networking, educational sessions and business of the day, which included the handover of the presidential baton from Corrado Peraboni to South Africa’s Craig Newman for his 12-month tenure as UFI President.

The ultra-modern venue was stage to Thai colour and dance, as Bangkok gave delegates a stunning preview of what to expect next year as the UFI family gathers for Congress number 86.

Big themes in the UFI sessions were sustainability and legacy, and Russia can clearly carve out for itself a wonderful exhibition legacy judging by some of the key presentations the Russian Union of Exhibition and Fairs members made at the Congress.

Some of these cities may involve long distance travel, but boast valuable industrial experience and markets. This is a country – the biggest in the world – that put the first man in space, produced world chess champions, created numerous scientific breakthroughs, is a major oil and gas producer and which has a rich and diverse culture and heritage. The World Cup has been an exhibition showcase for a country that many have sought to isolate with sanctions, but which somehow pulled off one the world’s biggest event spectacles of the year.

Not all successful Olympic or World Cup hosts are able to realise their legacies of course. Witness the White Elephant venues of Greece and the debts incurred in many other destinations.

The 500 delegates representing the crème de la crème of the global exhibition industry had the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of their football fanatics and drill a little deeper into the potential of a country that has been described as riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

The first night welcome hosted by ExpoForum and sponsored by BIEC treated UFI delegates to classical musicians playing while the guests networked with friends old and new.

The Gala Dinner, at Catherine Palace, was a treasured experience, with UFI delegates being allowed exclusive access to The Amber Room and a full on evening fit for a Tsar. Social media that night were awash with numerous FOMO messages.

And I haven’t even mentioned the delights of The Hermitage and The Peter and Paul Fortress. St Petersburg is a city with 800 bridges and, for the VIPs of the global exhibition industry, provided a perfect bridge to connect cultures for the benefit of business.

I would say, don’t let politics get in the way of people power and breaking down barriers.

Peter the Great was a towering figure that helped drag Russia into the future; it was also the cradle of the Russian Revolution and clearly a place where big things happen.

St Petersburg has now set itself the goal of becoming Russia’s MICE capital. This will also require a monumental effort, but, judging by the seniority of the Russian political and economic leaders attending the special session on Russia moderated by EW’s editor Paul Colston during the UFI Congress, then all the ingredients are present for some exhibition alchemy that can, hopefully, produce many golden rooms full of exhibitors to complement the magnificent amber room of Catherine’s Palace.


Paul Colston and I were attending the 85th UFI Global Congress at Expoforum in St. Petersburg, Russia. We were kindly hosted during our stay by The Park Inn at Pulkovo Airport.

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Exhibition World hosts great guests on its pages. Our Expert Opinion section is a unique collection of the best ideas from the best professionals in the international events industry.