A heavenly view in Ystradgynlais and a 365 view of TFWA

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Greetings from The Moodie Davitt Report Interim Ystradgynlais Bureau.

Ystradgynlais? Let me help you out. I’m in South Wales, staying in a converted barn on a farm a few miles from the small town of Pontardawe. This is just about as quiet an interim bureau as I have ever inhabited during the past 19 years, especially as it is one of those rare places in the UK that has no wi-fi signal, perhaps a sign from someone on high telling me I need to slow down.

I’m here in Wales to see my daughter Sinead, her husband Adrian and my lovely granddaughter Carys, who turns 1 on Tuesday. Until this trip my last meeting with them was in late July last year when Carys was just three weeks old. Since then the travel constraints imposed by the pandemic have limited us to virtual catch-ups. More of those in a moment.

Story of my life…
When in Wales there can only be one choice of dram to keep the creative juices flowing, the great Welsh whisky Penderyn. The distiller produces award-winning single malt whiskies  in the foothills of the magnificent Brecon Beacons in South Wales, not far from The Moodie Davitt Report Interim Ystradgynlais Bureau.
Or is it The Moo-die Davitt Report? Meet my new neighbour.

Those travel constraints continue to change with bewildering regularity. This week the Hong Kong authorities announced that they were shutting the border to UK flights, due to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant here. Fortunately for my wife Yulim and me, our next stop (via Doha) is her home country of South Korea, which should allow a return to Hong Kong late next month, albeit with 14 days of hotel quarantine.

My home country of New Zealand has also imposed a border constraint, in this case suspending the travel bubble with Australia due to the latest outbreak there. Where next for many countries in Europe too, especially after scenes of mass, unmasked supporters attending the Euros football championship over the past couple of weeks? This damned disease is going to keep rearing its head and all of us, in the travel business or otherwise, must learn to live with that fact.

My final few days in the UK have offered the welcome chance to catch up with a number of people who have been important to my story and that of The Moodie Davitt Report.

As I have said many times over our 19-year history, it may be me and Dermot Davitt that by dint of the company name and our very public roles are most associated with the title. But several outstanding individuals have played critical roles in building our company from a one-man operation back in 2002 to what it is today as we approach our 20th anniversary year in strong and vibrant shape.

I had the pleasure of catching up with two of them last Friday: Bob Wilby, our long-time Chief Operating Officer (and my first colleague at the company), who rejoined us in 2020 in a part-time but key finance and administration role, and Richard Jell, my boss way back in the days when I ran Duty-Free News International in the 1990s.

Richard continues to oversee our finances, patiently coaching me on the nuances of accruals, and fulfilling the valuable foil role of CDA (Chief Devil’s Advocate). He has played a crucial role in steering us through the treacherous waters of the pandemic.

Friends, mentors and key influences during my 19-year journey with The Moodie Davitt Report, Richard Jell (centre) and Bob Wilby

Both are ideal foils to my more mercurial (some would say chaotic) traits; both can spot something (or someone) untoward a million miles away. Both are also great company over a glass or two of good wine as I experienced at Italian restaurant La Rosetta, practically the company’s staff canteen during our many years of being based in Brentford, just outside West London.

Those days are long gone of course. The office closed last year; I moved to Hong Kong; Dermot Davitt remains in Galway; and Chief Technology Officer Matt Willey has relocated to Yorkshire. Publisher Irene Revilla and Digital Content Creator Declan Moodie are still in London but the rest of our full-time and freelance team are scattered far and wide across geographies, all working from home.

Like many companies these days, our staff meetings are conducted via Microsoft Teams and many of our interviews via that platform, Zoom or Voov Meeting (Tencent).

There are some drawbacks of course but also numerous benefits. I suppose we were more prepared for this pandemic-shaped existence than most, given that we have operated on a largely virtual model throughout our history, albeit one underpinned by a physical headquarters. I have operated out of a myriad interim bureaux down the years, from hotel rooms to onboard ferries to cafes and of course from 35,000sq ft flying around the globe.

In fact I wrote parts of this Blog in an Interim Uber Bureau, en route to a lunch with the ‘Godfather of Inflight Retail’, Rakhita Jayawardena in central London. On Tuesday, I continued it in the waiting room of a dental surgery in Kingston while awaiting the delights of a four and a half hour treatment. And I will finally post it from my daughter’s home in Pontardawe.

“I’m going to make you a lunch offer you can’t refuse.” With the ‘Godfather of Inflight Retail’, Rakhita Jayawardena

Virtual was certainly the name of the game for TFWA as it hosted its much-heralded Asia Pacific Hainan Special Edition show and TFWA 365 digital platform last week. When I say much-heralded, I am talking TFWA’s own publicity machine which moved into overdrive in the lead-up to the event. So did the event and the new platform live up to all the hype?

I consider myself to be in a pretty good position to answer that question given my knowledge of the subject matter and of running virtual events. Last year the TFWA executive team, Board and Management Committee ran a detailed and sometimes critical SWOT analysis of our highly successful Virtual Travel Retail Expo and TRB’s rather less fruitful Travel Retail Marketplace. “Sometimes it’s better to be second in something new,” was one of the comments I heard from that analysis that stuck with me.

I’m not so sure about that. Being first takes courage and while you don’t get everything right you do get learnings forged through identifying and overcoming challenges. You also get – in our case – the ability to build something even better, which is what we have done for 2021 with a new software platform that addresses some of those learnings. The biggest, we think, is how to maximise human engagement within a digital context. Not easy.

TFWA was, of course, correct to conduct such a debriefing, both from a view of developing their own digital offer but also underlining the advantages of a physical show.

The association is pressing ahead with its plans to host such an event in Cannes this October, health situation permitting. TFWA is understandably determined to keep its flag flying and effectively build a bridge back to an eventual full-blown physical show. Let’s hope it succeeds on both levels. The return of such events – and face-to-face meetings in general – and the reunions they will bring promise to be very special indeed.

If it happens, the Cannes show is likely to be a very European (and perhaps Middle East) affair given ongoing travel restraints, concerns, sensibilities and cost constraints in Asia Pacific, Africa and the Americas.

TFWA says it will back its physical presence with a virtual one, via the new TFWA 365 platform. We saw the first incarnation of the latter at the TFWA Asia Pacific Hainan ‘Special Edition’ last week. It was a curious event, which in part felt like a rerun of the association’s ‘China Reborn’ conference from last November, although much of the content, the chat and the timing (each day started 9am Paris time, 3pm Hainan time) gave it a very European feel.

The graphics, interface and green screen studio setting for the conference looked slick and expensive but the significant technical issues underlined one of the many challenges virtual event organisers face. There are few more lonely roles to play than conference moderator when such hiccups occur (I speak from experience at physical events) and TFWA Managing Director John Rimmer coped with them admirably. Some serious back-room work-ons though are required.

There is no doubt more to come but on first impression the platform’s virtual exhibitor credentials were basic at best. The ‘Brands’ section within the ‘Discovery’ module featured 66 brands presented in a catalogue format offering a key visual, some videos, social media references and some images. Retailers clicking on an image were invited to ‘Leave your business card’ with the stand representative.

The platform will certainly be fine-tuned but for now it feels neither immersive nor engaging. TFWA has unrivalled capabilities in terms of putting on physical exhibitions. But the jury remains out on its virtual ones.

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