Play on, invisible harps, unto Love,
Whose way in heaven is aglow
At that hour when soft lights come and go,
Soft sweet music in the air above
And in the earth below
– James Joyce, At that hour
It is just before Christmas 1987. Moscow in winter is a bitterly cold place. If you’re holed up in an abject airport transit hotel, it’s also a pretty lonely place. The rooms are riddled with cockroaches, the heating barely works, the hot water doesn’t and the hotel food – well, just forget it.
I recall the scene well. I was working for a drinks magazine called Impact International the year that I arrived in the UK from my native New Zealand. That December I was invited out to Moscow to view the new Moscow Duty Free store at Sheremetyevo Airport, a partnership between Aeroflot and Aer Rianta International. It sounded like a glamorous assignment. After all, Moscow was one of the great cities of the world and rumour had it that the store was state-of-the-art.
After running the gauntlet of Sheremetyevo immigration – the officer’s demeanour was a cross between a KGB agent and a nightclub bouncer – I was met by David Hope, Moscow Duty Free’s first General Manger, who escorted me to the Sheremetyevo transit hotel where he and the ARI team were staying. I have no idea if the hotel is still standing (it barely was then), but it quickly became clear that these men and women of Ireland were going through plenty of hardship to achieve the near-impossible task of creating a world-class duty free store in a run-down airport strangled by bureaucracy.
That night David and his colleagues invited me for a drink in one of their rooms. It was replete with a tiny kitchen and they were eating food out of tins from Ireland rather than face the hotel fare.
The next night was the staff party and the Aer Rianta International team had ordered a keg of Guinness in from Ireland for the occasion. There was just one problem – it was stuck in customs and getting it released was proving typical of the logistical nightmares the company faced. That night we drank cans of beer, ate heated tinned food and sang Irish songs. They were all surprised I knew the words until I explained my Irish heritage. David was my perfect host over the next two days though even he could not achieve the impossible and get the Guinness released in time for the party.
In our book The World Rovers, published in 2007, which documents the Irish influence on global travel retail, David described just what it was like back then. “We lived in terrible conditions. We moved into two floors of a hotel that was being renovated and the dust was extreme. The cold was too, although we worked in that as well. One time I was out in winter in my shoes, not my boots, and by the time I got home my feet were so frozen that I couldn’t feel them, even after sitting in a hot bath. Eventually the feeling did come back, but I was pretty close to frostbite.
“Finding food was no easier: I lost two and a half stone in six months. I remember people hanging used teabags from the curtain rails to dry them out, so they could use them more than once. And I recall two of our shopfitters, two brothers, going into town to forage for food; they spent all day in town and finally came across some eggs. Having bought heaps of eggs, they travelled home on the busy Metro at rush-hour protecting these eggs as if they were the last items of food on the planet, thinking only of the beautiful omelettes they’d make on their return.
“After finally getting back to base, and after the stress of making sure the eggs didn’t break, they were triumphant: ‘Here we go, omelettes all around lads,’ they shouted, and started getting out the pans to cook. Until, that was, someone picked up an egg and tapped it, and found they were all hard boiled!”
David’s story (click here to read), also included being part of the original Aer Rianta team that went to Dubai in 1983 on a six-month consultancy alongside such other industry stalwarts as Colm McLoughlin (still going strong there in charge of the operation), George Horan, John Sutcliffe, Maurice Burke and Michael Hanrahan.
“We worked very hard,” he recalled. “In Dubai we were in a hole of a basement in the old airport working in dreadful conditions, yet again we got the job done. And unlike some other nationalities that go in and demand that the local authorities uphold their end of the bargain, we never made demands or tried to bully people. We cajoled, we asked, we appealed, we persuaded, but we were never high-handed in doing so.”
They’re important insights, important memories. Newcomers to the industry see the swish Dubai Duty Free shops and the multiplicity of modern stores at Sheremetyevo Airport and have little idea either that they were set up as recently as the 1980s or of the human endeavour and sacrifices involved.
I’ve very sad to hear then of David’s passing this week. His health had been uncertain for a little while now, but whenever I caught up with him at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby each year, he was full of sparkle, his eyes twinkling as we talked and chuckled about the old days.
David Hope was a fine man and in the purest sense of a sometimes overused term, a pioneer of our industry. I and many others shall miss this good soul who wandered the travel retail world for ARI and for Ireland so long and so well. Slán abhaile (safe home) David. May you rest in peace.
[Our deepest sympathies go to David’s wife Margaret, sons Tony and David, daughter Suzanne, grandchildren Lauren, Amy and Zack, brothers and sisters and other relatives and friends.]