Only three more sleeps until Christmas

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There’s something that’s goin’ round, that’s shutting our borders down
It’s a bad time for our sick and our old
CNN’s nightly lullaby tells of hundreds more that’ve died
I shut off the TV and think all alone, how long can this go on? – Jeff Orson, Pray

Just before daybreak in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong and the first week of 2022 is done and dusted. A weary world – and a particularly weary travel community – buckle down to a third year of living with the pandemic. Where did all that time go? It’ll be Christmas before you know it.

I confess to a particular weariness myself. Days, nights and weekends of work with just a smattering of non-sleep hours (more of that in a moment) off over more than two years is not the ideal recipe for prime mental health. Business owners tend to wake in the middle of the night worrying about things even during the best of times. Overlay the severity and duration of a crisis on this scale and you are staring insomnia in its maddening face.

When I talk with my team at our weekly Monday morning (UK and Ireland) staff meetings, I find it startling to consider that I have not seen most of them in person for two years; that our London office is now a thing of the past; and that – directly as a result of this crisis – I am now living some 6,000 miles from the place I called home for the previous 33 years.

As with just about any enterprise you care to name in the travel retail community, my company looks a lot different than it did in those halcyon days of late 2019 when the only times the term coronavirus was used was in reference to the SARS crisis of 2003. The team is smaller, the portfolio is different, the geographic focus altered.

We’ve held no physical conferences since The Trinity Forum in Doha in late October 2019. Our last in-person Airport Food & Beverage (FAB) Conference & Awards was in Dallas in June that year. Who would have possibly believed back then that most of the photos of people working in the travel retail community less than two years later would show them in masks? Colm McLoughlin in a mask, Akbar Al Baker in a mask? Heck, even me in a mask (albeit to the considerable improvement of my looks). Now you’d find it odd to see any of us without one.

The modern face of travel retail: Colm McLoughlin with masked members of the Dubai Duty Free management team
That rarest of 2021 sightings, me in an airport, in this case Hamad International Airport with a masked Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive, His Excellency Mr. Akbar Al Baker

In February 2020 I commissioned Canadian duty free executive and professional singer-songwriter Jeff Orson to write a song themed on the COVID-19 pandemic. He responded magnificently. Funds raised were donated to the UN COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The song’s opening words, which also begin today’s Blog, featured on a popular Podcast I ran during 2020 called ‘In Crisis: Travel Retail Voices’, the last of them in June of that year. The lyrics are just as apposite today but their birth feels from another epoch.

Three of my team have had COVID, one of them has lost a parent to it. And whether you or your family have suffered from it, the wretched disease has laid some form of claim to all our lives.

Each day seems to bring more troubling news. Today The South China Morning Post reports that Hong Kong health officials are warning of exponential growth in COVID-19 cases and invisible transmission chains spreading in the community, after the alarming spread of the city’s first Omicron cluster.

Just as the opening of the border with the Mainland seemed imminent, all has turned sour in Hong Kong. Click to read The South China Morning Post article.

We all cope in different ways. Keeping things in perspective is key. I banish those early morning insomniac blues with lots of strong coffee and a few moments of reflection while looking out over Discovery Bay from my apartment rooftop. There are far worse places to be than Hong Kong. I work out on my rusty old exercise bike which, like me, pre-dates the Penny Farthing, and which, like my current travel schedule, takes me precisely nowhere. Later in the day I might do a few kilometres on the equally symbolic treadmill or pretend I’m playing Chopin rather than Chopsticks on my keyboard. But mostly I just write.

For decades, Reader’s Digest – still, impressively, going strong; now reborn as a digital-first multi-media brand – has run a column called ‘Laughter is the best medicine’. For me, words – albeit sometimes filled with humour – are the most effective prescription. Sometime the words of others (I’m reading ‘Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line’, the exquisitely detailed, deeply moving debut novel by Indian author Deepa Anappara) but more often than not ones that I have composed.

Goodness knows how many words I have written since I typed the word ‘coronavirus’ on my keyboard for the first time in 16 years on 16 January 2020. Thousands of words every week. News stories, interviews, features, Blog posts, even the final chapters of a soon to be published biography. Some of those words yesterday featured Clive Jones, the admirably forward-thinking CEO of inflight retail and buy-onboard specialist Tourvest Retail Services. “COVID-19 is not in our control. What is in our control is the manner in which we react,” he said, referring to how Tourvest has proactively responded to protecting the safety of its teams and customers onboard, largely through a digital-first policy.

Clive is right. After two years of commentating on this damn crisis, I know very well we cannot control just about any aspect of the disease except our protection from it and our response to it. We were already digital-first (having launched as a digital-only publication in September 2002) but we have adapted that digital offer considerably (including virtual events, WeChat, video podcasts, curated and company-specific eZines and enewsletters) as the pandemic has evolved.

All of those products are, of course, based around words. Words, alas, that for a long time yet are going to tell the tale, as Jeff Orson did so beautifully, of something that’s goin’ round, that’s shutting our borders down. That spells more insomnia, I guess. No matter. As the old joke has it, only three more sleeps until Christmas.