Discovering excellence and (triple) entrepreneurship in Hong Kong, tenacity in Thailand

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Visiting the Airport Authority Hong Kong commercial leadership team is always as pleasurable as it is enlightening. And it’s often the promise of a good lunch too, given the impressive depth and diversity of offer available at Hong Kong International Airport.

This week was no exception as I caught up with Executive Director, Commercial, Cissy Chan (one of The Moodie Davitt Report’s People of the Year for 2023); Head of Retail & Advertising Alby Tsang; and General Manager of Retail Experience Kitty Lo for lunch.

We dined at Intervals Sky Bar, run by Plaza Premium Group and judged Best Airport Food and Beverage Opening of the Year (jointly with Qatar Duty Free’s Louis Vuitton Lounge by Yannick Alléno at Hamad International Airport) at the 2023 Airport Food & Beverage (FAB) + Hospitality Awards.

(Left to right) Cissy Chan, me, Alby Tsang and Kitty Lo enjoy the Intervals experience

Room with a view: Flashback to last August as I chatted with Plaza Premium Group’s dynamic Director of Global Brands and Transformation Mei Mei Song, co-creator of Intervals
I love this ‘Photo Quest for Flight Tickets’ campaign at Hong Kong International Airport whereby passengers or meeters & greeters have the chance to win flight tickets if they take photos at selected spots and post them to social media. You can guarantee that plenty are being taken at the jaw-dropping Waterfall Garden (North).

This, as I’ve written before, is both a figurative and literal elevating of the airport experience. The quality of the food, drink, environment and – arguably, most of all – views certainly does that. As for literal elevation, well the venue is a thrilling 28 metres above the ground on the spectacular new Sky Bridge.

To me this is a definitive example of the airport becoming an integral and enjoyable part of the travel journey, not a process to be got through en route to the destination.

Cissy and Alby told me, as always, about multiple exciting plans for the year ahead across the shopping, services and food & beverage sectors. And we saw a fun example of that newness when we visited the Garrett Popcorn store opened that very morning.

Garrett Popcorn Shops (the full brand identity) is a big name in the snacking industry. The concept was founded in Chicago by Gladys Otto Garrett in 1949, who besides an intriguing middle name had a knack for creating delicious recipes in her family kitchen.

That first store sold CaramelCrisp, CheeseCorn, Buttery and Plain popcorn for five cents a bag alongside homemade fudge and roasted nuts. Kernels were hot-air popped, CaramelCrisp was cooked in copper kettles, and finished recipes were hand scooped right before customers’ eyes. Just like this week at Hong Kong International Airport.

Kernel of truth: Now this is what you call a real pop-up store
Retail and food converge at the pop-up which offers ready-to-munch options and gift or self-consumption packs

I wouldn’t be surprised to see more, ahem, pop-ups for this great brand in months to come, so suitable is it for just about any location across the vast terminal space here or at any airport (you can also find Garrett Popcorn Shops at Kuala Lumpur International, Changi and Don Mueang International airports in Asia and multiple US gateways).

I may just have the world’s most mobile business. Having arrived early at the airport for my lunch rendezvous, I set up an Interim Bureau at Root 98 in landside arrivals, another Plaza Premium Group offer.

That evening I had the equally great pleasure of dining with two of our industry’s newer entrepreneurs, both classic encapsulations of the pride, passion and perseverance that goes into not only getting a business off the ground but also sustaining and growing it.

One was Lukas Coates, Founder of Jaidee Duty Free, which runs a trio of land border stores on Thailand’s borders with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, all  traditionally high international road passenger traffic locations along the Mekong River region.

I emphasise ‘traditionally’, because traffic was anything but high during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the government’s closure of the country’s borders.

As I wrote in an introduction piece about Jaidee a couple of years back, it takes bad luck – a lot of it – to launch a duty free retail company just weeks before a global pandemic sweeps the world and devastates the tourism sector. And it takes courage, resilience and no little business acumen to keep that company going through 26 months of subsequent border closures.

Lukas certainly displayed all those qualities and I am glad to report that the Michigan-raised owner’s business  is now thriving.

As is that of one Harry Kartasis, the Founder of Hong Kong warehousing, logistics and distribution company Global Drinks Ltd, a venture he set up in early 2020 having worked for years with a variety of multinational players in the sector.

Click on the image to read my interview with Harry from early 2021 (turn to page 220)

In the intervening years, Harry’s business has thrived, underpinned by operational efficiency, outstanding business relationships and great personal integrity.

Lukas Coates (right), Harry Kartasis (centre) and me after a great night out at El Gordo Tacos & Grill Factory

It might have taken Harry a while to go down the entrepreneurial road but once he started there was no stopping him. Just over a year ago he and a partner opened El Gordo Tacos & Grill Factory in Lockhart Road, Hong Kong. The casual Mexican restaurant, right in the heart of the Wan Chai hubbub, has also flourished, in the process attracting plenty of custom from local and visiting travel retail executives as well as tourists and locals.

So when the three of us decided to meet for dinner in Hong Kong last week, there could only be one choice of venue. El Gordo it was.

If the cap fits: Like most Aussies, Harry secretly aspires to being a Kiwi

Over some delicious tacos, Harry introduced us to his third entrepreneurial venture – a Japanese Pure Malt whisky called Misaka, which he has just launched. The name comes from the Misaka mountain range nestled in the Yamanashi prefecture between the Japanese resort town of Fujiwakaguchiko in the northern foothills of Mount Fuji and Kofu and Fuefuki to the south.

The first entry level expression (some aged variations will follow soon) is beautifully presented in a sumptuous, shimmering blue box and an evocative bottle label. The whisky lives up to that promise with delicious fruit cake and vanilla notes on the nose and a honeyed, viscous, surprisingly silky texture on the palate.

With Japanese whisky in high demand all around the travel retail planet, this looks a surefire hit to me. I can’t wait to try the next expressions. If they’re as engaging as Harry’s and aging similarly well, then they’ll do just fine. ✈