[MM with store designer/planner Alex Cook (right) and an unnamed carabao (centre, though you probably realised that)]
Sometimes you’ve just got to take the bull (or in this case the water buffalo, called a carabao in Guam) by the horns.
I’m back in London following a whistlestop visit to Guam and South Korea. But brevity does not equate to lack of substance. What a simply amazing (but not amazingly simple) few days. I’ve had the chance to meet new and emergent Korean duty free retailers in Seoul; catch up with the great commercial team at Incheon International Airport; to see (and be surprised by) Lotte Duty Free’s excellent new retail complex at Guam A.B. Won Pat International Airport; and to snatch some time with long-term industry friends.
People often ask me how a man of my advanced years (they sometimes use less polite terms than ‘advanced’) stays on the road (well, technically in the air) for as much as I do, for as long as I do. Besides the obvious answer that it is all down to the excellent quality of the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that I imbibe, the truth is twofold.
Firstly, I am a passionate advocate of 1Above, a ‘healthy flying’ aerotonic drink produced by a New Zealand company of the same name (it has its own retail outlets at Auckland Airport, pictured above, and is now sold through Relay in other Australasian gateways). It is rather better at keeping you hydrated than my usual blend of grape juice and water and it helps enormously with sleep patterns across time zones. What happened last week when I forgot to take it en route to the mid-Pacific? Answer: Sleepless in sea… surrounded Guam. Lesson learned.
Secondly, and more importantly, I simply love what I do. As I’ve said before, I find the whole airport and airline world magical, including critical sub-sectors such as travel retail, food & beverage and airport advertising (my own variation on the train-spotting syndrome – I am endlessly fascinated by the great panoramas and positioning of airport ads – see below for a great example from Lotte Department Store at Incheon International Airport. Talk about power of impact.).
I’ve always tried my hardest to capture that magic, and indeed my own (as the great Van Morrison would put it) sense of wonder, especially in this Blog. And on that note, I was delighted (but also sad, for reasons I shall come to) to receive the following e-mail from Julie-Ann Beattie (below), Manager Retail Development, at Christchurch Airport, which is of course my home town airport, the place from whence I left on my great life journey all those years ago in 1987.
Alas, Julie-Ann, who has done a fabulous job through some of the most testing conditions any airport executive could have faced (the impact of the two devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011), was writing to tell me she was moving on to a new challenge. But she also wrote some words which meant a lot to me, and I hope she will forgive me for quoting them here: “Hi Martin, I will miss the world of airports dreadfully and will continue to be an avid reader of all The Moodie Reports and Blogs – as there is no other industry quite like airports. And with your insight and contact, you have the amazing knack of transporting those at the bottom of the world on a magical journey of awe – even if it is only for a couple of minutes.
“In a world of consumerisation and the overstuffed consumer, it is refreshing to see your take on travel retail product development and merchandising creativity which at times is truly stunning and jaw-dropping. Please continue doing so – it makes me want to travel every day!”
And me Julie-Ann. And me…
Thank you, and may the next stage of your life’s journey be successful, happy and fulfilling. No-one understood the desperately pulsating yet defiant heartbeat of Christchurch better than you, as you and your colleagues strove magnificently to keep the human lifeline that was the airport open at a time of fear, catastrophe and heartbreak and as (I know) your own home lay precariously, acutely vulnerable to the terrifying power of a force that would not relent for months. May you and the beautiful ‘Garden City’ of the greatest country on earth flourish forever.
Back to business. I think Julie-Ann is right in lauding the quality of some of the industry developments we are seeing increasingly around the travel retail planet. Yes, I know there is still much mediocrity but there is also so much that excites and even occasionally inspires.
I saw examples of both last week. Lotte Duty Free’s success in winning the Guam contract has been mired in controversy with DFS continuing to challenge the whole tender process, one of the bitterest rows in industry history. But last Wednesday’s Grand Opening was not the occasion to dwell on that. Building on a great retail vision and design by Singapore-based Lightfoot Space (take a bow Alex Cook and your colleagues for an outstanding job), and the passion, perserverance and ability of a hard-working local team, Lotte Duty Free has delivered surely one of the best retail offers in any small airport in the world.
It’s not flawless but there’s plenty to cheer. The immediate visual impact as passengers clear security is stunning – the replica Carabao, the Guam Cultural Center and the giant aquarium combining to great effect and surely leaving no passenger in any doubt as to the provenance of the offer (or of where they are flying out of).
This truly is Sense of Place in ambition and (partly) in execution. I have championed that concept relentlessly for well over a decade and I remain frustrated by how frequently retailers, food & beverage operators and airports talk about it but fail to grasp the really important intellectual and cultural values that underpin it. Guam is a good and, I think, brave (especially in an airport with just 1.3 million departing passengers) attempt at, in the words of American author Ken Kesey, ‘Sometimes a great notion’. Now let’s see a better range of quality local products, more art and culture, some exhibitions, maybe even some live performances. Make this mid-Pacific paradise come alive even more.
Beauty has been treated tastefully and with seriously strong brand impact from big international names and also an array of Guam debutantes, notably of course from Korea’s burgeoning skincare sector. Liquor, tobacco, luxury, watches and fashion accessories are all competently (and sometimes better than that) presented and the confectionery and food line-up is a big step up from that traditionally offered here. The sunglasses section is top class. I also liked the feeling of ebullience and pride among the staff, resplendent in their colourful new uniforms (below) which nicely echo the vibrancy of the offer.
As I wrote in my original report, there’s a nice softness of tone to the overall environment, characterised by gentle design curves and locally inspired finishings (the banana leaf pattern is particularly alluring). The way retail has been opened up to merge seamlessly with the food & beverage offer is a deft and potentially lucrative touch and Lotte’s heavy investment has even manifested itself in a makeover of the airport’s long-maligned toilet facilities.
[No longer a sinking feeling: Lotte has even refurbished the airport's long-criticised washrooms]
On that point, in 27 years of travel retail journalism I must say that last week was the first time I have been given a tour of an airport’s washrooms. Fearing a quirky pop-up store, I was relieved to witness instead a simple but essential upgrading of facilities which, like sub-standard retail and food & beverage, can have a disproportionate impact on an airport’s reputation.
[MM with Lotte Duty Free CEO and members of Lotte's Guam team]
Later that evening before my flight I had a few casual drinks in a downtown Guam bar with some of Lotte’s local team. They were, as the saying goes, ‘letting their hair down’ (I let mine down years ago but never got it back) after one of the biggest, most-pressured occasions in the retailer’s history (despite boasting a business worth less than US$40 million, the airport carries huge significance in terms of Lotte’s international aspirations).
It’s at times like this that one really discovers what retail teams put into their jobs. It’s nice to see the high fives, the letting go of tension, the genuine interest in what an outsider thinks of their efforts. Great people doing a great job.
Having slept from the moment I crawled into my Korean Air seat at 01.40 all the way to Incheon, I spent the next two working days meeting some of the key figures in (and around) South Korean travel retail, our industry’s biggest market, and catching up with long-time industry friends. First up was KDB Daewoo Securities Equity Analyst (Textile & Apparel, Hotel & Leisure) Regina Hahm (above).
Regina’s insight into travel retail is as detailed and precise as anything I have ever experienced in the investment community. Read her comments on The Shilla Duty Free’s quarterly results published earlier this week and you’ll see what I mean. We had a wonderful dinner, which I left knowing a whole lot more about the business than I had when we began. Analysts such as Regina read the industry in a slightly different (though often converging) way to a commentator and journalist such as me and the opportunity to compare notes was a rich one indeed.
The next day I had surely one of the great lunches of my lifetime with David Yu (centre below), CEO at Entas Duty Free, together with one of his managers James Kang (right), course after course after course of exquistely presented, deliciously flavoured representations of one of the world’s great cuisines.
Remember the name Entas Duty Free. It is going to make headlines. I, undoubtedly, will write some of them. The company plans to become Korea’s third-biggest player (after Lotte and Shilla) and will take a giant step towards securing that ambition when it opens a major downtown duty free store in the city of Incheon later this year, having already unveiled a seaport store there. Entas will chase a presence at Incheon International Airport and it would be a brave person who bets against them.
The retailer is a subsidiary of The Entas Group, a leading Korean restaurant operator which owns and operates 80 Korean, Japanese and Chinese restaurants, including Kyungbokkung, Sapporo and Kokuryo. The group’s Song-do Hanok Village development – another arm of its business – was completed recently, introducing Korean culture and cuisine to foreigners visiting Incheon. I like those ideals very much. I dined at one of their biggest and best Seoul multi-restaurant facilities and as the pictures reveal, it was both a magnificent culinary experience and a visual feast of the senses. Watch this space, watch the Incheon space, watch the Entas name.
Later that day I also spent quality time with Incheon International Airport Corporation’s Director Concession Team 1 Sang J Ahn and his colleague Young-Shin Kim, Senior Manager Concession Team 1. They’re both really nice people, passionate about their role in sustaining Incheon’s status as one of the world’s greatest (and many people say the greatest) airports.
Young-Shin is working day and night on the forthcoming major food & beverage tender but most industry attention is, of course, on the Incheon duty free bid – a mega-contest if ever there was one. As Mr Ahn explained, the process cannot be kick started until a new CEO is appointed at the airport. Hopefully, very hopefully, that moment will be soon.
I also squeezed in a dinner (after a two-hour traffic jam and an encounter with a seriously disorientated taxi driver who may, just may have been the Korean cousin of Robert de Niro) with MCM’s delightful Jeanie Jang (above), and, the next morning, a breakfast with long time Imperial Tobacco duty free executive John Kammerman (pictured below and, by the way, if you’re looking for a great duty free executive in Asia Pacific you won’t get much better).
Then it was a dash once more to Incheon and the long ride home to Heathrow. Believe it or not, Young-Shin Kim came to the airport to see me off at my (very distant) gate, underlining the warmth, generosity and grace of the Incheon team (and in my view the Korean people). My full views will be the subject of a further Blog but I was hugely impressed by the seemingly airport-wide embracing of a totally service-led culture.
I have raved before about the wonderful Korea Traditional Cultural Experience Center (above), a combination of shopping, culture, entertainment and education without equal, in my view, in the whole airport world. As for the airport’s live cultural shows (below), they are quite simply, showstoppers. Move over walk-through duty free, move in walk-through culture – I know which I prefer.
[The Louis Vuitton store at Incheon International Airport has become a tourist attraction in its own right]
[Tall stories: Hey, that giraffe just ate my hair...]
The core duty free shops, meanwhile, were doing a roaring trade. After a soft 2013, things are looking much better this year (a major factor in Shilla’s excellent quarterly results) and all the core category stores were simply teeming with customers as I left on Saturday.
I flew home with the always excellent Korean Air (I want to send every single British Airways crew member, but especially the grumpy ones that seem to always be assigned to me, on the Korean Air service course), itself a retailer of great repute (some US$200 million in sales last year). I was going to write this Blog onboard. Instead, I must confess, I slept the sleep of the angels, the blue-eyed angels as a friend of mine terms them, all the long way home.
[I'm loving that front cover...]
[The shape of things to come: In a few weeks Lotte Duty Free will open its biggest-ever duty free space at the stunning new Lotte World Tower]