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Day 12 of the world tour.
In less than two weeks I have been through more security checks, boarded more flights and stayed in more hotels than I had done in the previous 30 months or so. As I write, I am onboard Emirates (EK) 817 on the short two-hour flight from Dubai to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Since my last Blog, I’ve been to Zürich, Basel, Zürich again and Dubai. Now I’m poised to set foot on Saudi Arabian turf for the first time in my life, an inexcusable gap in my travelling career given the wonders this country has to offer and its enormous aviation, tourism and travel retail potential.
Over the next week or so, I plan to make up for lost time. Tomorrow I am meeting Riyadh Airports Company (RAC) Commercial Group Acting VP Abdulaziz Al Asaker and RAC Senior Commercial Advisor Neil McLeod to learn about their exciting plans for the Terminal 3 and Terminal 4 openings in coming months and I suspect much else besides.
The facilities will offer a “step change” in the passenger experience and the commercial offer will be a “masterpiece”, Abdulaziz promised me last time we talked, with over three times more retail and F&B space on offer. I am looking forward to discovering more. Watch this space.
I’m staying on for next week’s Future Hospitality Summit in Riyadh (24-25 May), a blockbuster event featuring over 100 hospitality sector executives. There I will be interviewing some of the key figures in the development of the Kingdom’s hospitality, airport, tourism and travel sectors.
In earlier Blogs, I had only mentioned Zürich as my Swiss destination, not Basel, and for good reason. That’s because the purpose of my Basel visit was top-secret. At least from one man. A man whom it is very difficult to keep secrets from – Dufry CEO Julián Díaz.
At the end of this month, Julián steps down from his role after 18 extraordinary years and the team at Dufry were not going to let him go without an appropriate farewell. I was honoured to be asked to speak about Julián’s extraordinary contribution to the industry and his qualities as a man, joining Dufry Chairman of the Board Juan Carlos Torres and Julian’s success Xavier Rossinyol who also delivered fulsome tributes.
The event was held at the Reithalle Wenkenhof, nestled in the beautiful Wenkenpark a short drive from the city.
“It is no overstatement to say that Julián – and the company he has led so well – has reshaped the travel retail channel through much of the 21st century,” I said.
“What ensued was the most extraordinary acquisitional drive that the then-fragmented travel retail channel had ever witnessed. Julián saw it. Julián drove it. Julián, backed by a great board and team, delivered it.
“Dufry went from a bit player to the industry powerhouse. And did it in the comparative blink of an eye. Extraordinary.
“Julián has been a quietly charismatic, personable and deeply driven leader. He has been the standout individual in our industry through the 21st century to date and he leaves a legacy of outstanding transformation and achievement.
“A personal insight. When I was ill – very ill – across many months in 2010 and 2011 he called me every month without fail to check how I was doing. A mark of the man. Tal Vez Sea Verdad: Que un Corazón Es lo Que Mueve el Mundo. The words of Spanish poet Dámaso Alonso ring true. Perhaps It Is True: It Is a Heart Which Moves the World.
“Finally, of course, he has captained the ship through a storm. Through the most tumultuous, sustained and severe storm in our industry’s history. He has done it with a trademark determination and a remarkable calm. Al Mal Tiempo, Buena Cara – when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
From Basel it was back by train to Zürich Airport, with just enough time to pay a first, albeit fleeting, visit to The Circle – a delightful airport ‘district’ opened in November 2020 that features stores, restaurants, bars, two hotels, a convention centre, medical services from the University Hospital, and even a park. It’s open, tranquil, elegant and very, very Swiss.
The same can be said for the retail and food & beverage offer inside the airport. It’s always been one of my favourite gateways for the ambience, openness and variety of that offer. Some of my favourite stores are shown below.
From Zürich it was all the way back to Dubai for one night before heading to DXB Terminal 3 today for my Riyadh flight. There I caught up with Patrick Dorais, Sales Director at Dubai camel milk chocolate producer Al Nassma, who showed me some of the now familiar camel fixtures as well as the company’s successful Samha dates range.
Al Nassma is an excellent example of genuine destination merchandise, a high-quality, premium-priced product with a distinct point of difference. Sales at DXB are picking up steadily as the tourist business grows but the real boom will come when the Chinese return.
Given that I won’t be sipping on any Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc during my time in Riyadh, I said farewell to Patrick over a glass of decent Soave Classico at the Bottega Prosecco & Craft Beer bar, a welcome recent reopening after the dark days of the crisis.
Immigration and customs was smooth at Riyadh Airport Terminal 1 and within minutes I was through and taking the short taxi ride to my Interim Riyadh Bureau at the Marriott Riyadh Airport.
Having packed and unpacked my suitcases in a different hotel for the past four days, it’s a relief to hunker down here for a while. The world tour –and the Sauvignon Blanc – can be put on hold.