Flying a virtual A380 through a pandemic

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

I apologise for the lack of Blogs in recent days, I have been a tad busy with running our inaugural Virtual Travel Retail Expo. Well let me correct the ‘tad’. This has been an all-consuming experience, a day and night labour of love (and occasional self-loathing).

What a journey it has been. It’s less than seven months since we announced the Expo on 27 March, reasoning that our ‘physical’ events, The Airport Food & Beverage (FAB) Conference & Awards and The Trinity Forum, respectively set for June and September would not happen.

The Virtual Expo offered anytime, anywhere access without having to leave one’s office or home

We believed the same would be the case with the TFWA World Exhibition, due to take place in late September through early October. After all, on 3 March the Duty Free & Travel Retail Summit of the Americas (30 March-2 April in Orlando) had been cancelled, followed two days later by TFWA making a similar call over the TFWA Asia Pacific Exhibition & Conference. With the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March, the writing was written very large on the wall.

To protect our business, we had to move fast. On 7 April we announced the appointment of Singapore and London-based integrated retail, marketing and design agency FILTR as our Virtual Stand & Experience Partner – what turned out to be a crucial decision in ensuring the ultimate quality of the event. FILTR brought critical expertise, resource, and extraordinary commitment.

It’s incredible to look back over the past few months, a period that has coincided with an escalating global health crisis and the worst slump in travel retail history.

It has been an awful period to chronicle as a travel retail commentator and dreadful from a business perspective (ours and just about everyone’s in the travel retail sector). Due to the demand for rapid information, we have been busier than ever with our publishing business while saddled with fast-shrinking revenues. Not a good combination. The latter has meant tough human resource decisions and we are now operating with a much-reduced team from those seemingly halcyon days pre-COVID-19.

So factoring in a project as daunting as an unprecedented virtual (and deeply ambitious) trade show on top might have qualified for an episode of popular 60s and 70s TV series Mission Impossible (“Your mission, Mr Moodie, should you choose to accept it…).

However, the combination of two great teams at Moodie Davitt and FILTR, an astounding number of man and woman hours, and the extraordinary support of business partners (exhibitors and visitors) meant that mission did indeed become possible.

What a curious feeling it was when kick-off time arrived at noon Hong Kong time on Monday 12 October. There was the home page in all its glory, now not just a digital rendering but the gateway to an Exhibition Hub, Knowledge Hub and Experience Hub. One click and I’m inside the Atrium. Two more, and I’m inside (say) the Beauty & Wellbeing Hall. One more and I’m viewing the Tony Moly stand.

Under three hours later the first Knowledge Hub session (my interview with China Duty Free Group President Charles Chen) was under way, preceded by a grand opening that included the Expo’s official tune (Passcode, the new hit single by Jannine Weigel on RedRecords, the AirAsia/Universal Music Group jv label). It would be the first of 41 sessions across five days. No looking back.

Speaking from China Duty Free Group headquarters in Beijing, President Charles Chen delivered a typically insightful view of the Chinese travel retail market’s recovery. China Duty Free was one of three Diamond Partners at the Expo. Click here to watch his interview.

Simplicity was key (heck, I have to understand it, after all). Despite being derided in the build-up by a belated Expo competitor for a “computer game-style virtual world’, our chosen platform was instantly understandable and navigable for all. And our pricing model (“extortionate” screamed the same rival) – a combination of highly attractive rates for exhibitors (as seen in the take-up of stands) and free access to visitors –  proved highly attractive.

We chose to ignore the cheap shots and simply focused on delivering. And while we’re happy with the result, we’ll let both the support and the reaction of our partners do our talking and be the ultimate judge of success.

We ignored rival noise and just got on with business

No event is perfect and nor was ours. It’s been interesting and encouraging, though, to hear exhibitor and visitor reaction to the reality of the virtual experience. I visited the offices of one brand company in Hong Kong this week and they were still holding retailer meetings during the one-month post-show ‘encore’ period. And members of the team were still catching up with some of the many Knowledge Hub and Engagement Lounge presentations via the On Demand folder.

An audience with Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive His Excellency Akbar Al Baker is always compelling and my live interview with him on Monday did not disappoint. Click here to view.
Diamond Partner Qatar Duty Free was an ever-present supporter of the event right from the early days. The QDF Factor, a competition to win a complimentary six-month listing and high-profile promotion with Qatar Duty Free at Hamad International Airport was a standout of the Expo. Here, Vice President Operations Thabet Musleh reveals the ten finalists (all of whom, thanks to the generosity of Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, received a free six-month listing).

I was delighted to read (via Hibah Noor’s excellent Duty Free & Travel Retail Magazine) the reaction of Mohit Lal, CEO of Pernod Ricard Global Travel Retail: “It’s been an extremely good experience. The Cannes event is an important event for us to meet key customers in a setting as a group. You don’t get that opportunity all the time. But everyone is beginning to participate in the Expo, so it’s become a meeting ground for people.

“It’s very busy just like Cannes would have been in terms of meeting with customers, meeting with press, other things that we normally do at Cannes. In a way, the rhythm of meetings and conversations in partnerships with different constituents of the travel retail ecosystem… has become a rallying time because everyone is involved in the Expo.”

LinkedIn was full of similarly positive reaction as has been the direct feedback to us. Naturally there are some work-ons – the level of engagement can be increased on some virtual stands and, though understandable, it was a pity that access to some of the most ambitious Platinum Suites was by invitation only.

[The House of Somrus, represented in travel retail by Duty Free Global, brought coffee breaks with a difference to the Virtual Expo, courtesy of the amazing Sadekar sisters]

For me, it was a week spent not in one but two Interim Moodie Davitt Bureaus. Poor internet reception at my hotel apartment meant a rapid-fire switch early in the week to the nearby Intercontinental Stamford.

From there it was like being the captain of the just relaunched Singapore Airlines A380 flight from New York to Singapore (9,536.5 miles from JFK to Changi), switching over occasionally to my excellent Irish co-pilot Dermot Davitt on the Knowledge Hub sessions; wandering down the plane occasionally to see how the rest of the crew and the passengers were getting on; stopping for meal breaks (Deliveroo all week); and changing in and out of my Captain’s Zoom suit (smart shirt and jacket on top, shorts and slippers out of sight below). Even, I confess, partaking of the odd glass of nice Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in between the late night sessions by which time the stress was running high and the energy low.

This is your Captain speaking…
An audience with a legend: Speaking to Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin on day one. Click here to watch the session.

The results are encouraging and, thanks to the encore period, are getting better by the way.

  • 4,373 unique visitors across the 5 days
    • 50% visitor traffic retention from day 1 to day 5
    • 124 stands and suites, with over 183,611 impressions
    • 165,000 stand content clicks.
    • 42 Knowledge Hub sessions with 30,051 views
    • 32 Experience Hub sessions with 9,147 views

* As at 17 October 2020; the one-month, post-event ‘encore’ of the Expo will see all those figures boosted considerably.

[Our third Diamond Partner, The SEVA Group, underlined its global ambitions in spectacular style]

While we monitor the encore month, assemble the latest analytics for each exhibitor, and generally evaluate the event, it’s time to look forward. Yesterday we announced that the event will be repeated in the second half of 2021. Precisely when will depend on the outcome of discussions with our exhibitors, partners and other industry stakeholders.

I believe strongly that the ideal future model is a hybrid of face-to-face and virtual. Physical event organisers might want to put the virtual model back in its box once the COVID-10 crisis is over. That won’t happen. The reach and cost-effectiveness of the virtual template means it is here to stay.

The Engagement Lounge in the Experience Hub featured some wonderful sessions, such as this one on the legendary Kweichow Moutai. Entitled Spirit of China, it was led by Judal (Jingyi) Zhao, Global Director – Chinese Spirits at Camus Wines & Spirits. Click here to view.

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