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For personal reasons I was unable to attend the annual Duty Free Show of the Americas in Orlando this week but by all accounts (and certainly those from the seven Moodie team members there) it was again a great success.

Pancho Motta and his IAADFS board and Michael Payne are collectively a class act. I will return, as someone rather more famous than me, once said.

The show was notable for the formal unveiling of the Duty Free World Council, as indicated by the name a global body charged with defending and promoting the travel retail industry’s interests (and supporting the work of the various regional associations).

I hope the emphasis is put as much on ‘promoting’ as ‘defending’. Our industry will forever find itself on the wrong end of legislative changes, either in relation to the products it sells or the environment in which it sells them. Hence the need for defence, hopefully as proactive and anticipatory as possible. A global, co-ordinating body can only be good in that regard.

But more, as I have said before, needs to be done to promote the virtues of our industry too. Trawling the newswires, travel blogs and forums as I do each day, it’s hard to escape the feeling that a worryingly high proportion of public sentiment towards the shopping side of the airport commercial experience is jaundiced and sometimes overtly negative.

Why is that I wonder? Perhaps because the industry mainly sells things that people often do not need? Because those items are often perceived as overpriced (perception as we all know is a bedfellow of reality)? Because the shops are viewed as a distraction to the main purpose of being in an airport, a distraction that (as many industry statistics show) lures the minority not the majority of passengers? And (this one is certainly true) because so many travellers are confused as to what they can buy and whether it will be confiscated along the line?

I do believe that an effective PR campaign for our industry, both locally and globally, would be worthwhile. Some, notably Dubai Duty Free do it already – not just through advertising campaigns but through good deeds, brilliantly communicated.

I would love to see a global product guarantee system for example (our ‘Disqus’ reader feedback mechanism regularly receives queries from disgruntled travellers angry that their item has proved faulty and asking what they can do about it, and from others whose purchases have been seized at security). I would love to see a CLEAR, simple and globally consistent expression of the LAGs regulations that can be easily understood not just by industry lobbyists, executives and journalists but by the common man – and each and every airport shop assistant.

Recently I asked Gavin Lipsith, the Editor of The Moodie Report e-Zine, to do exactly that. I asked him because I was confused about the ever-changing regulations. And if I am confused what chance do my readers have of understanding what I am writing? What chance do I have of educating my own team of reporters?

I am prepared to wager good money that if, say, 50 top industry executives were to name ‘LAGs’ as their Mastermind subject none (other maybe than the likes of Sarah Branquinho, Keith Spinks and Frank O’Connell - more of him later) would get more than 80% of the questions right.

The task proved illuminating. Gavin got great assistance from the likes of Keith Spinks but he had to go back time and again to such helpful sources to clarify various points raised by me as a devil’s advocate dressed up as a normal travelling consumer. As you can see via this link (pages 6/7 )it was a nice effort. But now look at the ‘Essential questions answered’ section and put yourself in the shoes of a first-time traveller from say Paris to Sydney via Hong Kong, who really wants to buy a bottle of fine single malt for her grand-dad. Confused? You will be.

That’s where, of course, our industry steps in. Simple, clear, constantly updated signage and other notifications on what CAN be bought (more perhaps than what cannot); educated staff on the shop floor and at point of sale (generally around the world, and I travel more than most, I would say most are very good).

But maybe more can be done. The industry should have a ‘zero tolerance policy’ on product confiscation as construction firms do with non-wearing of hard hats on building sites. No consumer should ever be sold an item that is later taken away from them. The fact that this has been happening in thousands upon thousands of cases in recent years is an industry disgrace. If we blame ignorance of regulations (or, worse, we don’t care) what chance does the poor consumer have? And why should they feel any confidence about duty free/travel retail as a sales channel? Ok the easing of the LAGs restrictions has helped immensely but the disaster of the past few years is a permanent stain on the industry’s reputation.

The Duty Free World Council, now hatched after a lengthy incubation, is well aware of such issues. As it sets about its work, perhaps it should put the consumer mind-set at the heart of everything it does. It should monitor those social and digital media vehicles I mentioned earlier (we’re happy to do it to save cost) and be aware of the ‘chatter’ out there on ‘travel retail street’. 

Given the calibre of the people involved, the new body (and its regional associates) will be right on the case lobbying and business-to-business wise. But it would be nice, somehow, to see that the efforts of individual retailers in giving a good name to the industry (through corporate social responsibility initiatives, support of local communities, good employers and simply being honest, quality operators, LAGs or not) are also front of the consumer mind.

As one well-known Irishman (the legendary rugby player Brian O’Driscoll, also known by the acronyms BOD and GOD in Ireland) steps into retirement after this weekend’s final Six Nations Championship game against France, another veteran steps back into the limelight. Yes, Frank O’Connell, who served as President of the European Travel Retail Council for many years until stepping down in 2012 (to be replaced by Sarah Branquinho), is now lacing up his boots again as he makes a comeback as President of the Duty Free World Council.

Like BOD, Frank (I better not call him FOC as hopefully he is on a decent honorarium) played many fine games, though like the former against those cursed (and quite wonderful) All Blacks, he had his nemisis, those damn Danes in 1999. He’s a good politician (one would need to be in his new role), erudite thinker and astute lobbyist. But he and the Duty Free World Council will need to be even more. Like the world around us, travel retail is changing every day.We can’t stop the conversations going on in social media about our industry, instead we need to participate in them. We need to not only defend our interests but, even more importantly, the consumer’s. The rest will follow.

Footnote: Maybe in hindsight it was best that I didn’t attend the Americas show. For at the press lunch after the Duty Free World Council was unveiled, one press representative declared loudly to anyone that wanted to hear (and no-one did) that ‘Trinity had failed’. Quite what that means is anyone’s guess but given that the same individual has been spouting the same claptrap for years (while always expecting to attend The Trinity Forum for free as it generates such good copy and therefore advertising for his title), it came as no real surprise. My rather more temperate Deputy Chairman Dermot Davitt handled the matter with dignity, style and quiet force but it hardly made the situation any less cringe-worthy.  

For, I suppose the millionth time, Trinity is not a model. It is an ideas platform, an ongoing dialogue, a concept, one based on promoting greater engagement and understanding between three key industry stakeholders (airport, retailer, brand) to the mutual benefit of all, most importantly the consumer. It is not a panacea to overly onerous MAGs; a recipe to combat ‘overbids’ (whatever that term, used constantly by the same ‘critic’, is supposed to mean); or a rose-petal scattered pathway to industry harmony.

Therefore, how can it fail? Perhaps that same perennial critic should invest in an air ticket to Abu Dhabi International Airport and hear how Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC) is approaching its forthcoming commercial tenders for the Midfield Terminal Complex. Perhaps he should have bothered to attend ADAC’s recent well-attended launch of the RFP process (only The Moodie Report, two of us, turned up from the various industry media invited).

Trinity has failed? Try telling that to Mohammed Al Bulooki or Gavin McKechnie. If ADAC puts its promises into practice, the Midfield Terminal exercise will represent the industry’s biggest breakthrough in years, the ultimate affirmation of the value of dialogue. Did they quote ‘Trinity’ principles again and again and again? Anyone who attended knows the answer.

Dinosaurs (commercial ones anyway) and naysayers are, as the Brits say, a penny a pound (or ‘as common as muck’ as my dear old Irish ma used to say, not about me, I hasten to add). As I get older and more irrascible, I give them an increasingly wide steer.

Which I also do on the subject of industry awards. I have just read the latest results from another awards function in the Americas from a well-known industry publication. What are the criteria for these things? If an industry vote, how many are actually voting? On what basis? What protections are in place? Why are advertisements sold to short-listed parties? How do you compare, say, a Shopping China with a DFS? So many questions and never any answers.

Sorry but it’s just a nonsense and whether the winners are advertisers with us or not, we will NOT be reporting the results. Our industry is better than that.

And on a lighter note: My new favourite joke, courtesy of the wonderful (and wonderfully wry) Jane Grant:

A Roman walks into a bar and asks for a Martinus.

“You mean a Martini?” replies the barman.

“If I’d wanted a double, I would have asked for it,” says the Roman.

One Response to “BOD out, FOC in; the ‘failed’ Trinity concept; and nonsensical awards”

  1. Bill Matz says:

    Martin, I think “the industry” should be allowed, quite justifiably, to offer up dual awards for that last bit: it’s the most amusingly terrible and terribly amusing joke of the year.

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