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Lenrianta Director General Anatoly Shashin (second from left) is my kind of social companion. “Never drink vodka in even numbers,” he told me on Monday night as I tried to make my excuses after dinner (and two large vodka shots) in St Petersburg to head to my room and complete my ferocious feature writing schedule for our Singapore print edition.
But hey, when the vodka’s as ice-cold, viscous and high-quality as this, three is not such a bad number. The danger with Anatoly though, is that before you can say “’Nah zdahrohvye” three can quickly become four. And you know of course that four is an even number…
[After my St Petserburg experience, I believe this statistic may be understated]
Anatoly is a veteran of the Russian duty free business, having been with Lenrianta ever since the then-Aer Rianta led partnership began operations in St Petersburg in the late 1980s. He’s an engaging and influential man with a deadpan sense of humour that manifests itself in some great stories and an infectious chuckle. He’s also a proud Russian and determined to see the city of St Petersburg well showcased at the country’s most popular tourist destination.
Thanks to the new stores launched by The Nuance Group (now 80% shareholder of Lenrianta), he’s seen exactly that. On Tuesday the new retail offer was officially inaugurated and there’s little question that Nuance has done the city (and Anatoly) proud.
[Anatoly Shashin,Martin Moodie, Andrea Belardini and Kevin Rozario]
This may rank as the best retail offer in a small airport in the world. Overall (and particularly with premium spirits and wine, tobacco, confectionery and beauty), it’s right up there with the best in the Nuance portfolio – at times it is the best.
The specialist offer is pretty good too, and I particularly liked the Master of Time watches outlet; the Paper Plane children’s clothing shop; and the Travel Star store (how refreshing to actually not be in danger of falling over the suitcases in a travel accessories shop).
The interactivity in spirits and beauty is excellent and the opening high profile promotion as eye-catching (below) as any I’ve seen.
It’s not every duty free offer that features Russian dolls; a motorcycle (a P&G promotion, pictured above); ultra-premium fragrances; a connoisseur’s wines & spirits lounge replete with leather armchairs; a walk-in humidor; upscale boutiques from the likes of Michael Kors, Versace and Burberry; a gift-wrapping/boxing service; and a strong masstige offer. Yet the whole thing hangs together, thanks to a main store design (courtesy of The Design Solution) that is very easy on the eye, an excellent differentiation by category (contrasting flooring does the trick nicely), a gentle curved flow, and the sheer vibrancy of the merchandising and shop fitting.
Far too often small airports (Pulkovo will handle around 14 million passengers this year, half of them international including CIS destinations) get second-class treatment in retail terms. Last week I flew through Verona Airport which has to rank, I think, among the poorest duty free shops I have seen. Certainly it’s not Dufry, which has raised its standards considerably in recent time, at its best. That’s anything but the case in St Petersburg.
After our tour, Nuance Group CEO EMEA and Global Chief Commercial Officer Andrea Belardini, Northern Capital Gateway Commercial Director Evgeniy Ilin, Anatoly, I and Kevin Rozario of Travel Retail Business took lunch at the airport. Anatoly was in fine form and was determined that we should celebrate the moment in style.
Knowing Andrea’s taste for fine Italian wine – and the fact that I have been known to consume the odd glass (as in 3, 5 or 7, he’d be pleased to know) – Anatoly proudly arranged to have a bottle of Antinori Solaia, one of the great wines of Tuscany (a so-called ‘Super Tuscan’) served. I can promise you that it wasn’t on the wine list but that was never going to stop our man.
The wine (glorious ruby red hue; powerful yet full of finesse, and as velvety as a Vivien Leigh dress in Gone with the Wind) was duly (and, one has to say, quickly) consumed. It was time to go and take some more pictures and shoot a quick video of the stores.
Oh no it wasn’t. Anatoly must also have a rule that you only drink wine in even numbers. “Are you ready for a Sassicaia?”
Now asking me that is a little bit like asking would I like egg in my omelette. Sassicaia (pictured above centre in the Nuance store), from Tenuta san Guido, is the greatest – and certainly the most famous – of the Super Tuscans. I have only drunk it once before in my life; on that occasion a few years earlier with the great Harry Diehl, wine aficionado and bon viveur extraordinaire. In troubled moments of stress I still like to recall the texture (of the wine, not Harry) and all becomes well with the world.
And so, again it was. Although a little more ‘closed’, as wine people say, than the Solaia – and with Anatoly around the wine’s chance to breathe was never going to be great – it too was glorious. They say it is the country’s leading Bordeaux-style wine but I always think that rather denigrates Sassicaia’s own very Italian glory. It has power, of course, but it’s the elegance that sets this wine apart, the soaring, sensational black cherry fruit underpinned by a complexity that sets this as far apart from some modern day New World fruit monsters as Tuscany is from the Napa Valley.
The Sassicaia was duly and gratefully depleted. With departure time beckoning, it was time to rush back to shoot my video. So, now you know; if you discern the slightest hint of a slur on my commentary, you may just be right. But if you’re going to slur, make it a Sassicaia slur, I say.
I bade my fond farewell to St Petersburg and to Anatoly, a great pioneer of Russian duty free and a man who has the best way of interpreting odd and even numbers that I know.