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Stories of positivity, of investment and of faith in the future are not easy to find in travel retail after almost 18 months of the COVID-19 crisis, with uncertainty about travel persisting in many markets, and variants causing governments to impose fresh restrictions on the movement of people.
In our coverage, while reporting the bad news we have also focused on those welcome points of light, from China domestic airports to the offshore duty free sector in Hainan Island; from domestic duty free in Jeju to Macau, buoyed by the return of Mainland China visitors as well as the US domestic aviation market, now roaring back.
To that list we can emphatically add Hamad International Airport (HIA), the Qatar Airways hub. In the world of international airports, you could make a very good case that this is the leading hotspot in our business, even if passenger traffic is lagging 2019 levels by around -50%.
There is investment in infrastructure and commercial expansion that surely dwarfs what is happening at any other international airport in the world right now. At Qatar Duty Free, sales are tracking at around 90% of 2019 levels in recent weeks, a stellar performance that speaks to the power of pent-up consumer demand and the quality of new and upgraded facilities. [See also Martin Moodie’s recent on location Blog for more on this theme.]
None of this comes by accident. The airline, led by Group Chief Executive H.E Akbar Al Baker, made a firm decision at the onset of crisis that it would continue to fly, that it would remain a reliable route home for stranded passengers, and that it would rebuild its global network quicker than anyone else. The approach was publicised relentlessly and has proved a brilliant marketing strategy. As travel returns, Qatar Airways isn’t relying on discounted tickets to fill its planes, but is leaning on the reputation it has built before the crisis began, and reinforced throughout.
And with ownership of airline, airport and all of the services that go with this activity, whether you’re arriving or departing, it’s little wonder that there’s an energy about Hamad International that is all too rare elsewhere – and to which we hope other airports can return soon.
Pay a visit as we have (twice in recent weeks) and see for yourself. What struck me on landing in Doha last Sunday was just how much activity there was right across the airfield, with rows of planes in taxi formation heading out to fly and most gates taken up (we even had to park remotely). It was a marked a contrast to the airport I had left behind, Dublin, with its rows of empty gates, aircraft sitting idle and usually busy zones airside now almost at a standstill.
Inside, how wonderful it was to see Hamad International busy with people, the flight display boards reeling off a long list of destinations from Baghdad to Berlin, and shops bustling with activity.
There is a series of new openings this Summer and building behind the scenes that promises much more to come. We reported this week on the grand opening of luxury avenue Viale di Lusso – one of the most impressive opening events we have seen in the airport world – but there is much more happening.
QDF’s in-house casual fashion concept Q-Denim has just opened, with new stores from Hugo Boss and adidas nearby. In coming weeks we’ll see the Big Value concept unveiled – as the group makes good on its pledge to offer diversity across the offer, in ranges and in price points – with a food court that targets travellers on a budget in the same area to follow.
Close by, a new women’s fashion area is under development, with a range of new brands alongside a further clustering of related services to create a feel of distinct ‘zones’.
Beyond that again, a brand new food hall will take shape in coming months, with new partner HMSHost, as QDF introduces an updated range of dining brands. We’ll see luxury further developed with several landmark openings promised, along with the completion of the central beauty zone to include further new brand partners.
And that’s just in the existing areas; there is huge excitement at QDF and among supplier partners about the North Node expansion that will really take shape in 2022, which we will report on extensively.
To spend time with the QDF team – led by Vice President Operations Thabet Musleh – is to see the strategy borne out with vigour. Energy and creativity abound here. Virtually every conversation with the team is interrupted by calls to and from designers, consultants, brands as new space is planned, built, opened, and as problems are solved fast and decisively.
We see from our coverage of QDF activity lately – and Viale di Lusso most recently – that the industry is also excited. Leading beauty brands are seeing numbers that no other airport is delivering, and that probably only Hainan’s offshore duty free market can currently beat. Suppliers in other categories have similar stories, with luxury a particular highlight as traffic has built back.
Some big announcements will follow soon that will reinforce Hamad International’s status and reputation within the airport world. Having been among the early industry visitors to come to Doha since travel markets reopened, we can see that reputation building further in the months and years ahead. With the prize at Hamad International shaping us as a huge one – especially in the context of an industry in recovery – we strongly encourage others to follow.