A very Grand Cru, a very big elephant in the room, and a very sweet Peranakan Love Story

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In every village by the sea
There stands a tall and ancient tree
That shelters from the sky above
A tree of hope, a tree of love
It shares with us our joy and feels our pain
It grows with us through sun and rain
It stays so green the whole year through
And flowers when a dream comes true
Bunga Sayang, Bunga Sayang
You are heaven’s own work of art
Bunga Sayang, Bunga Sayang
Gentle flower of the heart

– Bunga Sayang (Composer and lyricist: Dick Lee)

Another day, another Moodie Davitt Report Interim Bureau, this time onboard Cathay Pacific 716 bound for Hong Kong after a fascinating couple of days in Singapore covering the outstanding launch of Glenfiddich Grand Cru with DFS at Changi Airport.

Onboard the good ship Royal Albatross as the evening celebrations for the launch of Glenfiddich Grand Cru begin

Fascinating but also strange. For amid all the clinking of Champagne coupes (this time holding golden-hued single malt whisky), ribbon-cutting and joint photographs of the three Trinity partners, there was the elephant in the room – DFS’s imminent departure from Changi.

(Left to right) Lim Peck Hoon, Executive VP, Commercial, Changi Airport Group; William Grant & Sons Global Travel Retail Managing Director Ed Cottrell; Glenfiddich Malt Master Brian Kinsman; and DFS Group General Manager Singapore Prashant Mahboobani perform the traditional opening rites
All smiles amid a toast to a succesful Trinity partnership. But from next June, another liquor retailer other than DFS will be featured in similar shots as a 40-year alliance comes to an end.

The retailer’s decision not to bid on the Changi liquor & tobacco concession – which it has held unbroken since 1980 – came as a shellshock to everyone. Staff, rivals, Changi Airport Group, me. DFS’s top management held their cards close to their chest until the last moment. Many Singaporean staff heard the news just hours before our story broke on 26 August. Many tears were shed. The DFS team here is like family.

The word on the streets had been that DFS would bid to make profit over the contract term, instead of the financial haemorrhaging they would have incurred under the contract extension terms initially agreed to (and jointly announced) late last year.

That was then, this is now. A big change in tobacco regulations alone changed the whole context of the business. From early 2020, all tobacco packaging will be stripped of its colour, brand images and promotional information. The airport retailer will only be able to sell tobacco in a confined area – stopping cross-promotion of, say, Chunghwa cigarettes with Moutai or other baijus. Such changes could shave US$60 million off annual revenues.

The arrivals allowance for liquor has been savaged, probably wiping off a third of sales made at point of entry. Even a retailer as good as DFS would struggle to offset such blows. Moreover, the business is heavily reliant on Chinese shoppers to maintain the average spend.

And what if at some stage of the contract term there is a sharp downturn in Chinese spending, driven perhaps by Beijing’s continued promotion of its home-grown duty free industry? Factor in all those variables, and DFS’s well-founded concerns about the geo-political climate – including the commercial carnage that’s happening as a result of the Hong Kong protests – and you understand the company’s reluctance to bid with any level of confidence.

But not to bid at all? That decision shapes as less a commercial decision and more of a statement. One of disenchantment with the rules (and model) of airport bidding. I’ll analyse the repercussions of that sentiment next week in a special report but for now my thoughts are with the DFS family on the ground in Changi, many of whom will hopefully secure employment with the incoming concessionaire, certain to run a quality operation in its own right.

Key to the DFS Changi family is Regional Merchandising Manager Patricia Sim Meng Chai, simply Pat to her colleagues, suppliers and airport partners. Pat has worked with DFS in Singapore for an incredible 39 years. Incredible not just in duration but in quality and loyalty of service.

Pat was on hand constantly during the Grand Cru launch this week, checking that everything was just so, offering help at every turn. At one point I needed to replace the batteries in my digital recorder. Pat escorted me down to the excellent Sprint-Cass technology store nearby. Not surprisingly, she knew the young man who served us. Pat, I suspect, knows just about everyone at Changi. It turned out the problem was not the batteries but the recorder. It was as dead as the parrott in that famous Monty Python sketch. Crisis? No, this is Changi. Of course Sprint-Cass sells digital recorders.

Yesterday, Pat took me on a tour not only of the brilliant Terminal 4, from where I was flying to Hong Kong, but also, via bus, to T2 and on to T3 to preview another exciting installation (more of that in a few days). Nothing was too much trouble. Even when she noted an ‘m’ had fallen off a Shilla Duty Free White Tea promotion, she stopped to fix it.

Oh oh, not quite a White Tea moment…
No need to worry, the woman of the moment, Patricia Sim, is on hand to fix it

Along the three-terminal journey, I met Product Sales Manager Ho Yoke Ling, another dedicated long-serving DFS employee, in her case since early 2004. As Pat pointed out, Yoke Ling has the Terminal 4 shop in absolute tip-top shape, its merchandising, promotions and sense of innovation of the highest order.

(Left to right) Ho Yoke Ling, Brand Ambassador Mathilda, Patricia Sim and Team Leader Helena at the T4 mini-version of the Glenfiddich Grand Cru pop-boutique in T3
Brand Ambassadors Vivian (left) and Mathilda (right) with Team Leader Helena team showcase the latest T4 high-profile promotion

Seal of approval: This innovative Maker’s Mark promotion sees branded glasses hand-dipped into hot red wax to mirror the Beam Suntory bourbon brand’s familiar red wax seal – a tradition that dates back to 1958. Not an easy promotion to have approved in a safety-conscious airport environment but the DFS team managed it.

Selling tobacco products, already banned in arrivals, will soon get a lot harder in departures
High-quality training has been key to the success of DFS in selling premium spirits such as Legent bourbon from Beam Suntory
Not sure about the ‘truly unique’ tag (a pet hate tautology -Ed) but the juice is very good indeed

In another innovation, DFS has transitioned from plain generic units above…
… to offering the classy branded fixtures below

It was my first visit to T4 since my preview tour in July 2017, a few months before it opened. Too many undeserved superlatives are dished out in the airport world. But T4 warrants every one of them. The ambience is so calming, the commercial offer so diverse, the Sense of Place so vibrant, the efficiency so reassuring.

The standout is the Heritage Zone, a place of such wonder that it’s hard to believe you are in an airport. Inspired by Peranakan shophouses nestled around Singapore, the area houses familiar local and traditional brands, while heritage-themed façades and furnishings evoke a poignant sense of nostalgia.

And then there’s a love story. A Peranakan Love Story to be precise. This sublimely beautiful six-minute theatrical performance (watch on my video below) is screened on the central shophouse façade at intervals, giving travellers a glimpse of life in 1930s Singapore.

Played out to the melodious Bunga SayangPeranakan Love Stor, it tells the story of a blossoming romance between two passionate musicians living next to each other. It’s almost as much a pleasure to watch the travellers sitting back to watch the show as to view the performance itself. Reinforcing the notion that an airport can be a great showcase for local culture, I looked up the song on YouTube and noted just how many people had discovered this romantic tune at Changi Airport.

I sent photos of this zone and the lovely Peranakan Gallery nearby from my phone to my Design Director Kiran Ghattaura back in London and asked her to guess where I was. She thought I was in a museum. She was not far wrong. For indeed that’s what it’s like. What an air terminal. I have always adored T3 but T4’s combination of serenity, light and atmosphere puts it right up there among my favourite airport terminals in the world.

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  • Martin, many thanks for taking your time to cover our beautiful & efficient Changi Airport.
    More importantly to grace our official launch of Glenfiddich Grand Cru Champagne Cask aged 23 yrs bottle.
    Your generous compliments about our family spirit at DFS & in Changi is well appreciated by all of us.

    Cheers