More than 400,000 guests stopped by the Coca-Cola pavilion at Expo Milano 2015, which just wrapped up its 184-day stay in Italy’s second-largest city. The non-commercial Universal Exposition formerly known as the World's Fair convened representatives from 145 nations, international organizations, civil society and corporations for an interactive learning experience on the complex theme of global nutrition.

The Coca-Cola pavilion celebrated the company's heritage and vision within the context of the Expo theme of Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. Visitors were guided on a multisensory journey that explored Coke’s deep roots in local communities around the world, sustainability model, innovation legacy, and commitment to environmental stewardship.

We caught up with Kim Alexander, Coca-Cola general manager for Expo Milano 2015 (kneeling, below), as she and her team were gearing up for the Expo’s final few weeks. 

Congratulations on a successful Coca-Cola activation at the Milan Expo. What has been the most challenging aspect of managing Coke’s presence at such a massive global event?

The biggest challenge with such a long event is keeping our staff of 60 ambassadors engaged and diligent every day so we could “go the distance.” We have to remind ourselves that just about everyone who comes here is visiting us for the first time and will likely not return, so we have to make sure every guest experience is perfect and that we communicate the right messages consistently every time. Seeing our team’s incredible energy, day in and day out, has been truly inspiring.

How many people pass through the Coca-Cola pavilion each day?

When we opened, we were expecting around 1,500 guests per day based on the organizers’ overall attendance projections and our numbers from the Shanghai Expo in 2011. We averaged 1,800 visitors daily from May through August, and now we’re up to 2,300. Saturday was the Expo’s busiest day yet, with 271,000 total guests.

How long does it take for guests to pass through the Coca-Cola pavilion?

The tour takes 15 to 20 minutes. Each of our three sections takes about five minutes, then guests usually spend additional time sampling drinks at the Coca-Cola Freestyle station and browsing in our shop. Until the end of September, visitors were waiting an average of 45 minutes to enter our pavilion. Now the wait is up to almost two hours. Some country pavilions like Japan and Italy have up to eight-hour wait times!

What do you want guests to take away from their time in the Coca-Cola pavilion?

We want them to understand what The Coca-Cola Company is all about. We’re a local operation everywhere we do business. Especially in Italy, a lot of people love the brand, but don't realize it has been here for over 80 years. We’re also bringing to life the idea that movement is happiness. We partnered with Just Dance on an interactive dance experience to get people moving and having fun, and visitors absolutely love it. Our team of ambassadors usually starts the day before doors open on the dance floor getting warmed up and laughing together. We also talk to consumers about our sustainability commitments and educate them on things like how plastic bottles get recycled and repurposed. All of our staff uniforms are made from recycled PET bottles, and our 100 percent plant-based PlantBottle is on display here. In addition, we’re showcasing one of our Sicilian bottling partner’s electric cars. Their entire sales organization has electric cars, and they’re working with local municipalities to install community charging stations. Finally, at the end of the tour, guests exit through our shop where they can purchase tangible examples of everything they’ve just learned about, including artisan crafts, handbags and more made by Coca-Cola 5by20 women entrepreneurs , EKOCYCLE merchandise, rPET shirts and sets of custom aluminum Coca-Cola bottles featuring the Expo logo. We want our guests to learn about Coca-Cola and our mission and vision, but above all, we want them to have fun.

Coca-Cola's connection to the Universal Exposition – which is held every five years – dates back to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Why was it important for Coca-Cola to be here in Milan?

The Expo’s theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy For Life” is a great connection point for us. It brings the Golden Triangle we talk about at Coke to life in a physical, tangible way and provides a forum we can discuss issues facing the world and explore collaborative solutions for the future. This is the first Expo where civil society and business have had a major presence alongside countries. One or two entities can’t solve these issues on their own, but together we can make a difference. Secondly, in Italy, Coca-Cola has its highest brand love scores in Europe. So this is the perfect place to showcase our vision, history and commitment to Italy – from the revenue we add to the tax base, to the jobs we create, to the communities we support.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Coca-Cola bottle. How have you celebrated this milestone at the Expo?

It’s been great having the Expo and the 100th anniversary both fall in 2015. The Coca-Cola bottle plays a prominent role in our pavilion, inside and out. On the exterior, big red bottles echoing the contour shape greet people as they walk up. When you enter the pavilion, your eyes are drawn to a huge glass contour bottle chandelier hanging from the ceiling, made out of smaller bottles. As our architect was designing the pavilion, he wanted to highlight the beauty of the Coca-Cola bottle. If you look at it from a pure design perspective, the pavilion looks like a full-size contour bottle encased in a glass box. He did that intentionally to celebrate the bottle. We also featured an exhibit with 10 Coke bottle-inspired art pieces from Andy Warhol and noted Italian artists. And last but not least, our ambassadors open ice-cold glass bottles of Coca-Cola or Coke Zero and hand them to guests as they start their journey through the pavilion.

What have been the most popular elements of the Coca-Cola pavilion?

The Just Dance experience is really popular, and Coca-Cola Freestyle has been a big hit, too. It’s something consumers in Italy and most of Europe have never seen before, and it reinforces our commitment to offering beverage choice and variety. One thing we’re doing which is unique is that we give all visitors a guided tour. Our brand ambassadors take groups of 10 to 12 guests through the experience. That’s one of the things our guests appreciate the most. We’ve gotten positive feedback about the fact that we’re taking time to tell stories and educate guests versus having them take a self-guided tour like they would in a museum.

You relocated to Milan from Atlanta to lead this project. What has the experience been like for you personally?

For me, the entire journey has been incredible. I came over here in July of last year to begin planning with our partners. Getting to opening day in May was such a huge success for my team of four women who went from concept to opening in less than nine months – selecting our suppliers, architect and construction company, and building the pavilion from scratch. Seeing our vision come to life in such a short timeframe was amazing, proving that anything is possible. We also engaged all Coca-Cola employees in Italy through an internal engagement program where they could volunteer to work at the pavilion for a week. Seeing our associates return each day tired but happy was incredible to see and inspiring for them to see the passion our consumers have for Coca-Cola.

When the Expo ends, the Coca-Cola pavilion will live on in the city of Milan. What can you tell us about its ‘second life’?

Working with the municipality of Milan, we wanted to create an experience that would not only be sustainable during the event but also give something back to the community as a thank you for hosting this amazing Expo. The Coca-Cola pavilion will be donated to the city as basketball courts and a playground. We’re working to identify a location. We will dismantle the pavilion and return the Expo site to virgin soil by Christmas. And, hopefully by May 2016, we will celebrate its “rebirth” around the one-year anniversary of the start of Expo. The fact that we’re donating our pavilion to the city of Milan reinforces our local focus and commitment to our communities.