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It’s slightly surreal to be having a week’s long-delayed holiday in Dubai and be enjoying the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships amid the greatest crisis that travel retail has ever faced.
The COVID-19 outbreak is on the brink of growing from a Chinese epidemic to a global pandemic, aggravated by extensive outbreaks in South Korea, Italy and Iran. ‘World battles coronavirus outbreak’ screams the BBC’s lead story and those four words sum it all up. Put ‘travel retail’ in front of them and you have our industry’s living nightmare as the disease spreads its highly infectious footprint around the world.
“I hate having to ask you for store updates but it is my job. I am seeing a very harsh impact on my business as well so I do this reporting with both sympathy and insight,” I wrote to DFS Group Vice President, Head of Corporate Communications Jay Frame, who is doing an outstanding job like her colleagues in managing a business through a crisis.
My inquiry had related to DFS’s magnificent T Fondaco dei Tedeschi store in Venice, which like many businesses in northern Italy, is being hit by a COVID-19 related slump in tourism (the store is still open but for reduced trading hours).
In covering this evolving situation day and night over recent weeks, I have been touched by how it has affected so many lives of those I know; and of the many very fine human qualities that shine in times of crisis. I spoke at length to China Duty Free Group President Charles Chen last week and his focus – like all his industry peers such as Jay and many others – was on staff and customer safety. Many Asia-based travel retail executives I know are working from home and all are anxiously monitoring the impact of the crisis on their business.
As one retailer told me last night, this is no longer just about the downturn in China or at travel retail locations frequented by a lot of Chinese travellers. It has become much more than that and if predictions of a global pandemic are borne out, then the situation will get a lot worse before it gets better.
As a result of the crisis, I have spent much of my holiday in my hotel room at the brilliant Dubai Duty Free-run Jumeirah Creekside Hotel updating our coverage and working with my team back in London and Galway.
As mentioned to Jay Frame, my business is no different to any other pure play travel retail enterprise and I feel the anxiety and pain of a situation that is almost bewildering in the speed and magnitude with which it has enveloped our industry. Last night, though, I managed to get a break and attend the Players’ Party at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Besides being a great opportunity to relax with the retailer’s management team, I was able to meet the great Novak Djokovic, the world number one and top seed here.
Novak was a host’s and sponsor’s dream, making time for what seemed like a million photos, taking part in the party fun, and generally showing what an outstanding ambassador he has become for the sport. The night was a fun and welcome diversion from the reality that grips our industry – and is set to for months ahead.