Getting the alignment, sequencing and timing right at Dubai Duty Free

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I’m back home in Hong Kong, temporarily at least, after a hectic sweep around Brisbane, Bengaluru and Dubai that took in three great airports, each with exciting development plans. A few days breathing space here before heading off this Friday via Taipei to Ontario International Airport in southern California for our annual Airport Food & Beverage (FAB) + Hospitality Conference Conference & Awards.

I was in Dubai to catch up with Ramesh Cidambi, the new man at the helm of Dubai Duty Free, the world’s leading travel retailer by sales in a single airport.

Well, I say new, but Ramesh has actually worked with the organisation since 1987 (the same year I joined the industry by coincidence, though he’s wearing it a whole lot better), initially as a consultant before joining the senior management in October 1988.

Ramesh guides me on a tour of the new-look Dubai Duty Free liquor & tobacco stores in Concourse B at Dubai International Airport

Ramesh has stepped into very big boots indeed, those worn by his predecessor Colm McLoughlin with such distinction since 1983, the year Dubai Duty Free was formed (you can read my tribute and those of others here).

“It’s an extremely significant moment for the organisation, because we have been led by Colm since December of 1983 until May of 2024. So the organisation has effectively known only one leader for over 41 years. For me, it’s both a privilege and a responsibility to take over the role from the first of June,” Ramesh told me.

That responsibility excites rather than daunts him and rightly so. Ramesh is very much his own man and anyone who has heard him interviewed on stage at The Trinity Forum or other industry events will realise full well his intellect and his insight.

I always relish my interviews with Ramesh (click here for what I think was the best of them all as Dubai Duty Free emerged bruised, battered but not defeated by the pandemic) and last week was no exception. Those newly fitted boots are made for walking and that’s precisely how they were deployed during my visit.

Ramesh was keen not only to tell me about some of the retailer’s best recent developments at Dubai International Airport Concourse B but to show them to me. The revamped liquor & tobacco shops in the East and West zones aren’t a case of reinventing the wheel but instead fine tuning what Dubai Duty Free always does so well, offering an impressively eclectic product range in bright, well-merchandised stores.

The Concourse B East shop is bright and inviting, enhanced by the striking use of digital to draw in consumers

The revamped stores take that approach to an enhanced level. Summing up the key changes in the East store (largely mirrored in the West equivalent), Ramesh told me: “The shop is absolutely beautiful. We have made very good use of digital – the whole fascia is digital.

“We have lightened the colours in the shop in terms of the flooring, backwalls and furniture… and have given greater freedom and flexibility to the brands in expressing themselves.

“Even though the area did not change when we did the renovation, you have a greater feeling of space, with better lighting, lighter colours, improved circulation areas and enhanced opportunities for the brands in terms of more promotional areas. There is also better organisation in terms of the cash registers, including self-service options.”

There’s good reason behind such changes. Firstly, these stores generate big business – collectively about AED1 million (US$272,000) a day, he pointed out, each of them doing around 1,500 daily transactions.

Secondly, spending has been softer than Dubai Duty Free would like and Ramesh is not going to sit idly by and allow that situation to prevail as you will discover in my interview with him (in words and film) coming soon.

The Concourse B West liquor & tobacco store has a similarly vibrant feel

The next night I had dinner with Ramesh and his wife Alpana at Rockfish in Jumeirah Al Naseem, which offers fabulous views of the Burj Al Arab and even more fabulous food. A top of your bucket list stop on your next visit to Dubai if there was ever one.

As revealed in my blog from September 2022, Alpana and Ramesh practice and teach Iyengar yoga, a form that focuses on three critical aspects: alignment, sequencing and timing. In a very different way, those three factors could describe a very well-managed succession at Dubai Duty Free as the highest-profile travel retailer on the planet moves seamlessly into a new era. ✈

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