New York blues

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And the papers love to say
It’s the meanest town in the USA
But I think it’s okay
It’s the town I’ve made my home

– New York City Blues, Neil Sedaka

Things you don’t want to read when you’re stranded abroad (1): “The last recorded eruption of Eyjafjallajokull lasted over a year (1821-1823) but we don’t know if it was as intense as this eruption.” – Volcanology expert professor Chris MacLeod, Cardiff University.

Things you don’t want to read when you’re stranded abroad (2): “The danger remains that an eruption of the neighbouring volcano Katla could be triggered. This has happened during each of the only three historic eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull.” – Dr John Stevenson

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Another night in New York – and no sign of improved prospects for getting home. My travel agent has secured a seat (the last) on a British Airways flight out of JFK to Heathrow on Wednesday night but there is little cause for confidence that flights will be back to normal by then.

My colleague Dermot Davitt is about to join me – he has been advised to take a flight from banked-up Hong Kong (where several travel retail executives are stranded) to New York as the best route home to Ireland. The Moodie Report’s New York bureau is now our fastest-growing division. We may be here for some time.

Reporting on a crisis like this is a tricky balancing act. One must absolutely not be alarmist but at the same time our responsibility is to assess the impact of the situation on our industry. And so far, the news is all bad.

Four days of trading have been hit (the past three severely for many retailers). One seasoned observer of the business noted that Northern Europeans are among travel retail’s best spenders and estimated the losses to date as representing around 1% of European sales (factoring in seasonality). “If you are trying to show +5% growth year-on-year you just lost a big chunk of it,” he commented.

 One of the industry’s most senior retail executives told me today: “This is (another) disaster for retailers. We have shops closed all over Europe and reduced pax all over the world. Just when things were starting to improve…”

The head of a medium-sized European distributor estimated his company’s current losses at around £10,000 (US$15,400), a serious situation for him, especially with days – and perhaps even weeks – of the same ahead.

Here in New York I have truly slipped into Bill Murray ‘Lost in Translation’ mood – apart from meeting Scarlett Johansson.  I suspect I’m feeling the same sense of alienation and isolation as scores of other industry executives stranded around the world. You don’t feel like sightseeing and it’s difficult to focus on work.

We’re all used to travel and to being away but there’s something fundamentally destabilising about simply being prevented from getting home. One doesn’t know how or when the route homewards will emerge. You simply have to get on with it.

Which is what I’ve done. The crazy work backlog is being worked through, and I’ve slipped into New York mode with my baseball cap, my big American breakfasts, and my adopted Italian restaurant (run, curiously, by a Spaniard from Tenerife called Isacco) ‘Tratttoria Casa di Isacco’ where you can watch old Frank Sinatra performances in black and white while relaxing over a glass of Pinot Grigio and some of Isacco’s great veal and pasta.

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But after a glass or two of wine, and when a sad Italian song plays, it’s hard not to feel a twang of the melancholy that I am sure many of my industry colleagues around the globe have also felt in recent days. How long will this thing last?

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[The way things are going, I may need to take up that ‘2 suits for US$125 offer picture above]

Still, I’m one of the lucky ones. There are many younger people stranded who can’t afford to stay in a decent hotel even if they could find one. People are missing weddings, funerals, and family reunions.

I feel sorry for them. And I feel sorry for so many people in our trade whose businesses were bouncing back from a desperately difficult 2009. Now many of those same businesses, not just in Europe but around the world, are running up huge daily losses. Because of a volcano in Iceland for god’s sake.

I feel sorry for the industry’s entrepreneurs (a group I have personal empathy with) whose own livelihoods are on the line. And I feel sorry for the airline industry, which is sometimes its own worst enemy but simply didn’t deserve this.

There’s a huge cloud, literal and metaphorical, hanging over our industry. It can’t clear soon enough.

  • hey Martin…..really hope Scarlett Johansson shows up just so you can report what she did actually say in that closing scene to Bill Murray.

  • My sympathies. I’m stuck in Sydney, where at least the sun is shining and the sky is blue, I have my laptop, my blackberry, credit cards and a suitcase full of (albeit dirty) clothes. I have everything I need…. I really feel for those people who have missed important family events – weddings, funerals. And those who dont have access to sufficient funds to see them through this. So I’m feeling lucky.

    My own home from home is a cafe called Waldemere’s with free wifi attached to the Sheraton hotel on Darling Harbour. I have my own sofa, underneath a lovingly painted portrait of the owner’s mother and featuring a curious mix of Austrian and Chinese bric-a-brac. Go figure! Sydney really is a melting pot…

    Martin, I think ahead of your FAB Awards you should have some ASH Awards – ‘Abandoned, Stranded, Hopefuls’ Awards (or something). Prizes for 1) Most inventive journey home, 2) Most expensive journey home, 3) Most bizarre location to be stuck, etc, etc…The list is endless, really… !!

  • Martin: Andrew and I were also stranded in Italy, flew into Bologna and went to meet our reading glasses supplier Nannini. Must admit we didn’t see this coming, excuse the pun! So with all hire cars booked, trains already fully booked and the possibility of a French rail strike, no tickets with Eurostar and P&O full we put on our travel thinking caps….

    We eventually went by taxi on Friday at 12.30 noon, 165 kms an hour to the Italian border cost 500 euros …. ( this driver was as mad as a hatter and cut up two artics, three cars and a motorbike while fumbling for his phone at 165 km per hour!!)

    Our good friend Taxi Marc from Cannes met us at Ventimiglia an hour from Cannes at 5.30 pm. Taxi Marc took us to Cannes, where we picked up Dennis his co pilot for the 1200 km drive to Caen in Normandy. We arrived in Caen at 5.35 am Saturday morning … ost 2400 euros

    Our very good friends from Britanny Ferries on hearing our plight kindly offered us a place on the 8.10 am Ferry with a lovely cabin cost free of charge arrived Portsmouth at 13.10 pm Saturday

    Collection from Portsmouth for me and Gatwick for Andrew … cost £100

    All I can say thank goodness for Mastercard ….

    Safe journey back from New York and lets hope the dust settles !!!!

  • Martin; anticipate being stuck in Bologna from tomorrow!. Great blog. If I were home I’d host you at chez Tillman. But with the wife away in the US on biz and me here, Christ, what a mess!! Great cap. Go Yankees.

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