This Blog begins about 50 minutes out of Doha just off the coast of Kuwait. Beneath me the perfect blue waters of the Persian Gulf sparkle like immaculately polished gemstones.
I’m onboard a Qatar Airways flight way home to London after a whistle-stop visit to the Qatari capital and, more pertinently, the new Hamad International Airport.
Over the past 12 years I’ve spent roughly half of my time out of the UK. I’ve lost count of the number of cities I’ve visited. And while I’ve become a true international citizen, much of that citizenship has been earned onboard airplanes and in airports, hotels and offices. My normal routine runs something like this – depart Heathrow, arrive at overseas airport; take transport to local hotel; visit airport retailer downtown or on-airport; depart overseas airport for Heathrow.
I have certainly stayed true to type over the past two days. On Monday evening I flew from Heathrow to Doha, arriving at Hamad International on Tuesday morning before heading a couple of hours later to meetings with Qatar Duty Free Vice President Keith Hunter and then Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker.
Subsequently I took an all too brief airport tour, dashed back to the outstanding Oryx Rotana Hotel, had dinner there with the Qatar Duty Free team, worked till the wee, small hours online and then did a final farewell tour of the airport before flying home courtesy of the simply brilliant, brilliantly simple, consumer experience-obsessed Qatar Airways. Door-to-door in 48 hours, with a 20-hour break before I head to Malpensa Airport in Milan, Italy, on Thursday.
But oh what I have learned over those 48 hours. Projects, passion and personalities are my current favourite ‘three Ps’ of travel retail. There is nothing I enjoy more in this business than sharing time with a commercial team that has created a retail and/or food & beverage offer. Always, to a man and a woman, from senior executive to shop floor staff, they give of their time generously and nowhere was that the case more than in Doha.
As I look out my airplane window towards Diwaniya, Iraq to my left, I wonder if there can be any more exciting project in travel retail than creating the commercial offer at a new airport. That is exactly what has happened here in Doha as Keith Hunter (with me below) and his team conceived and crafted what they simply KNEW had to be an outstanding, and if humanly possible world-leading, retail and food & beverage proposition.
With a boss as driven as Akbar Al Baker anything short of that was unacceptable anyway but it wasn’t just about pressure from above. Keith, inspired I think by his huge respect for Al Baker, has the same zero tolerance attitude to mediocrity; the same obsession with excellence and detail; the same ability to lead from the front.
When leaders care, teams care; when leaders inspire, their lieutenants inspire. You will have heard perhaps about Al Baker’s tough management style; you will hear the cheap (mostly British) critics harp on with their finely tuned sense of schadenfreude delight in the delayed opening of Hamad International (or for that matter the – temporary – economic troubles of Dubai a few years back); you will even be regaled with industry tales of how leading international concessionaires could do it better.
My advice? Turn down the sound. Instead come visit Doha and Qatar Duty Free (or Dubai Duty Free). Understand the complexity of what they have created here. The vision. The obstacles. The buy-in. The brilliance. The passion. The excellence. The execution. The sense of commitment to country, to progress, to something altogether bigger. And then come back to the thought that London might finally get an additional runway sometime post-2020 (if it’s lucky).
So you’ll forgive me an (aging) small town boy’s delight at my Doha discoveries. I think what has happened here at Hamad International should be a case study for every student of our industry. More particularly, I would urge every senior airport executive around the world to come visit. For this is what happens when all airport stakeholders are aligned in their interests.
The great, great challenge of the ‘Trinity’ (airports, concessionaires, brands) ideal is to get industry stakeholders on the same page (if not always in agreement). The doom merchants and diehards of the industry dismiss that concept as a naive utopia and of course they’re easily and demonstrably right – while being emphatically wrong.
How so? On the one hand they’re right because the industry’s various stakeholders spend so much time obsessively committed to MAG, margin and what I term ‘misery debate’. But wrong – wrong, wrong, wrong – in that great ideas are never built by naysayers, narrow-minded sceptics and neanderthals.
Give me an Al Baker or a Keith Hunter every day of the week. You watch – see who our industry’s leaders are over the next decade. Watch how Qatar Duty Free flourishes not just in Doha but around the world and you will see who creates the paths to progress. Here you have a different type of Trinity – airport, retailer/F&B operator and (critically) airlines under common ownership
So what of Hamad International? How good is its commercial proposition? Was Al Baker really right in resisting the concerted courtship of the biggest and best names in travel retail, all arguing that they could do a better job than his in-house operation?
So here we go. Hamad International Airport. Qatar Duty Free. A consumer verdict.
First up, best in class – Marmalade Market (whoever thought up the name deserves a bonus). I have been harping on for years that our industry can do the food & gourmet category better. This, and I think Heinemann’s A Little Something at Sydney Airport, are by some distance the best expressions of that vision to date.
I love Marmalade Market. I know it will do well. It is simply too good to fail. Why? Because it’s simply a treasure trove of gourmet goodies that begs to be discovered. Every shelf and fixture offers a surprise, from multi-flavoured Persian candy floss to chili-infused dark chocolate; from cinnamon-infused honey to pomegranate dressing; from an array of loose biscuits to micro-brewery beers. Don’t expect to recognise most of the brand names – as I said this is all about a voyage of discovery.
Confectionery is so often the ‘also ran’ category of new stores. Here, to borrow from Tour de France parlance, it’s right at the front of the peloton. Pick ‘n’ mix Lindt chocolates are doing storming business; the Fauchon area is stunning; and the Chocology boutique, offering fresh chocolates, exudes class like a soft-centre chocolate oozes its liquid filling (it features a particularly sumptuos Godiva offer with some pieces especially made for Qatar Duty Free). And how about the chocolate-dipped strawberries, presented in a cone-like paper wrapper? Foodie nirvana.
The difficult fashion category is very well and sometimes edgily executed via the Esquire (menswear) and Junction outlets and the ten-store luxury zone (Chopard, Giorgio Armani and Salvatore Ferragamo are yet to open) has a lovely soft curve to it that avoids the ‘boxed set’ look of so many airport luxury areas.
Other stand-outs for me (I’ll bring you more photos over the weekend) included Cedar Room, a small but perfectly formed circular unit offering super-premium spirits and cigars; a brilliant Tag Heuer boutique; and a Harrods signature store that is generating incredible sales. High-end watches, too, are doing roaring business – Rolex via a stand-alone boutique and others in the GMT generic watches and jewellery store.
Pulse is an attractive and well-ranged consumer technology outlet and (again nicely named) The Bumble Tree an impressively sized and ranged toy shop. The latter category is hopelessly under-represented in travel retail and it’s good to see Qatar Duty Free giving it such a major focus.
[Qatar Duty Free's 'Kev the Bee'. Kevin Farrow, outside The Bumble Tree]
And the core categories? Beauty is the big winner here, with several blockbuster brands such as La Mer, MAC and Bobbi Brown making their Doha debut, and the whole area beautifully open, accessible and classy. There’s a lovely high-end fragrances room (it just needs some tweaking in the lighting) though I’m not so sure about the main fragrances area, especially a rather cluttered back wall. A soon to be added masstige store called Blush underlines the retailer’s determination to reach out to all passenger profiles, not just the luxury orientated.
The well-ranged liquor zone was moved just weeks before opening so it’s too early to judge as some changes are still being made, especially to the wines and super-premium spirits offer. Tobacco, both cigars (featuring a fine walk-in humidor) and cigarettes, is well done.
There is more, much more to come – over 20 more outlets in the existing South Node and a whole new offer to follow when the North Node comes on stream in a few months.
If that all sounds like a big job, Keith Hunter and his team are also responsible for food & beverage, part but not all of it working with SSP. I dined at Yumcha, an Asian fast food outlet in the Eat Street Food Court, which boasts seven different offers ranging from coffee to Arabic food. Qatar Duty Free has developed its own coffee concept called Jamocha Café and there’s a highly impressive Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar that ranks as the restaurateur’s biggest in the airport world (and is already proving a smash hit). SSP will introduce its outstanding Le Grand Comptoir wine bar concept (a regular front-runner at the annual FAB awards) while, excitingly, a celebrity chef-led Italian restaurant will also open in coming months.
And what of the airport itself? Apart from it being darker than I would have expected (something that’s being worked on), it is a vast, user-friendly and often incomparable airport in terms of facilities. Swimming pool? Check. Squash courts? Check. Gym? Check. Incredible business class and first class lounges? Check.
[Sans racquet, The Moodie Report Chairman tries out the new squash courts]
Importantly, Hamad International features several major public art installations with more to come. Art is a central tenet of the Qatar Museum Authority’s aim to push the boundaries of the traditional museum model and to offer cultural experiences in public spaces. Qatari artist Faraj Duham has been commissioned to create large murals while artist Ali Hassan is producing an iconic desert horse sculpture. Other local artists include Mohammed Aljaida, Mubarak Al Malik, Amal Alatham, and Yousif Ahmed. Works will be revealed progressively over the next year and also feature international artists, including Keith Haring, Damien Hirst and several others.
But it’s the first of the international installations, entitled Lamp Bear by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, which will surely remain the talking point for years to come. Positioned right in the heart of the public concourse in the South Node, this giant bronze teddy bear with a shining light over its head (symbolising the enlightenment of the young) is already a complete show stopper. During my stay I saw scores of passengers taking photos. Its sheer sense of fun is a brilliant and wholly unexpected counterpoint to the stress of travel. Dutch artist Tom Claassen has crafted a series of sculptures of the Oryx, an antelope native to the Arabian Peninsula, and there’s much more excitement and culture planned.
For Keith Hunter, the commercial offer (his team also handles airport advertising) is a triumph. One can only begin to imagine the blood, sweat and maybe even tears that went into this project. Keith now heads a team of over 1,200 – a huge boost rise over last year and set to soar even further as the North Node plus Concourses D and E are added.
Driving back to the hotel with him after Tuesday’s tour, it was impossible not to be impressed with the sheer passion he has for the project. “I’m not going to sell it short,” he says. “I think it is amazing, great. But the really exciting thing is that there’s so much room to take it forward. I am really proud of what my incredible management team have achieved – I don’t believe there is a problem we can’t get over – and there’s much more to come.”
The final word goes to the irrepressible Akbar Al Baker. “We used to deliver a very high-quality product inflight but we didn’t match it on the ground when people came here,” he told me. “Passengers have very high expectations, especially when there are other [highly competitive] facilities in the region.
“[As an airport] we were far behind and now we are foremost in what we provide to our passengers. The facilities that we have in this building are unprecedented in any other airport.”
It would be hard to argue otherwise.
FOOTNOTE: A final word for the service onboard Qatar Airways. Those in the know believe the carrier’s wine offer is one of, perhaps the, best in the world. As part of a big initiative in the wine category we’ll be announcing next week, here are my views on the whites alone (the reds will have to wait for my next flight).
Mosburgerin Reserve 1er Cru 2011 Grüner Veltiner: A beautifully constructed Austrian wine. More full-bodied and structured than many Grüner Veltiners; firm, clean and with surprising complexity. A lovely wine from first nosing to a finish as long and thrilling as a Viennese waltz.
Petite Clos: Is this wine really from New Zealand? The French name and complexity of palate suggests not but indeed it is from Marlborough, the spiritual and viticultural Sauvignon heartland of Aotearoa – the land of the Long White Cloud, the flightless Kiwi bird, and of course those mighty All Blacks. Lovey aromatic lime and asparagus nose; beautifully intense, concentrated flavours; long and rich on the palate. Put the flair, finesse and firepower of the All Blacks and French rugby teams together as a wine and you would get something very near this.
Bouchard Pere et Fils, 1er Cru Beaune du Chateau 2010: You know, I ‘m not so sure white wine gets much better than this. This is a sublimely brilliant marriage of new (but not excessive) oak and citrus flavours, as zesty as a dissolvable aspirin mixed with lemon and lime and yet as refined as an elderly schoolmistress about to make her confession in church. If your plane crashes, make sure you order a glass of this just before you go down…