Running across the world with the Delta (variant) blues

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

I’ve got the key to the highway
Billed out and bound to go
I’m gonna leave here, runnin’
Because walkin’ is most too slow
– Key to the Highway, Charles ‘Chas’ Segar and Big Bill Broonzy (Delta blues artists)

With early September temperatures in Hong Kong still averaging in the low 30s and daily humidity hovering in the high 70s, I’ve been forced to bring my treadmill down from the rooftop and into the Moodie Davitt Asia office.

As you can see, I have a giant wall map of the world alongside me, courtesy of my landlord who is a Cathay Pacific pilot. Every morning to alleviate the stress and get my remaining mental and physical faculties working, I do a few kilometres while glancing frequently at the map to remind myself of the work I do and the places I would like to travel when this is all over.

This, of course, being the damned global curse of COVID-19. Long before I hit the treadmill, my first job over morning coffee is to pore over various mainstream news sites for the overnight latest on the pandemic. My current most regular stops are the BBC (UK), France 24, Global Times (China), CNN (USA), Macau Daily Times, The Korea Herald, The South China Morning Post, The Straits Times (Singapore), and the curiously named Stuff (to keep in touch with events in my native New Zealand). Those titles give me a pretty good snapshot of the pandemic’s state-of-play in markets that for various reasons are particularly relevant to me and my work or personal.

Snapshot, yes. Succour, no. At least not in most cases. The titles closest to home for me – Global Times, Macau Daily Times and The South China Morning Post – have been exceptions, at least of late. Global Times maintains relentlessly impressive – and candid – coverage of the pandemic, not being afraid to call out shortcomings in the crisis response where they occur and providing up to the minute details of the situation across the vast Chinese nation.

On Tuesday, the title published the welcome news that travel agencies and online travel firms could resume operations of cross-provincial group tours, and ticketing and hotel services in provinces where medium- and high-risk areas for COVID-19 have been cleared. From 26 August to 3 September, there were just four locally transmitted cases across Mainland China.

Click on the image to read the full Global Times article

In low-risk areas (such as Hainan province), there are no unified limits in areas such as theatre capacity, and local authorities can decide according to the local situation, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said. With the peak October holidays just around the corner, the resumption of near-normal service is welcome news indeed for the travel retail sector, not just in Hainan but across all Chinese domestic airports.

But in our COVID-shaped world, any normality is fragile. Just ask the Australian, New Zealand, Vietnamese or Thai authorities. COVID can be suppressed (much less easily in the case of the Delta variant) but once that is achieved any opening of international borders prompts a very different scenario. Across the whole global response spectrum from the Bolsonaro “minor flu” madness to China’s zero local infection drive there are a myriad of different national and regional responses.

New Zealand did so well for so long by keeping its borders shut. But the Delta variant sneaked through a defence that had hitherto been tighter than that of the country’s mighty All Blacks rugby team. Earlier this week, Stuff reported 75 new locally transmitted cases, noting that the country’s biggest city, Auckland, remained in Level 4 lockdown. Thanks to prompt action the situation appears to be easing but no-one in New Zealand is taking the situation for granted, which is as it should be.

New Zealand media Stuff reports on the latest developments (above) and the still modest national vaccination rate (below). Click on the image above to read the full update.

That fragility, that vulnerability to a sudden outbreak or escalation or new variant (Japan’s NKH World reported this week that a new Delta variant mutation had been found locally) means our world – and, parochially, our business sector – are a long, long way off any semblance of normality.

This week, I attended the online TFWA media conference in which association President Jaya Singh announced “The show will go on”. Backed by members of the TFWA Board and Managing Director John Rimmer, Singh said,We have had unanimous support from the Management Committee, a lot of hard work from the permanent team at TFWA, and pledges to attend from retailers large and small. We look forward to joining hands once more in Cannes and to bringing our industry together physically.”

TFWA says it has signed up 250 exhibitors, roughly half of 2019 levels. That’s a pretty impressive statistic given the severity of the crisis, reflecting a solidarity with the association and its work; a widespread desire for a return to face to face meetings; a public relations blitz; and the end result of intense lobbying – some subtle, some not – to convince brand companies to exhibit.

But trade shows cannot simply be statements of solidarity. They are there for business to be done and the acid test of the wisdom to persist with a physical show in a COVID-ravaged world and industry will come with the retailer/buyer attendance on the one hand, and the completion of a safe and healthy show on the other.

TFWA was vague, on the subject of retailer numbers at this week’s conference. Asked by my colleague Dermot Davitt for an update, TFWA Managing Director John Rimmer said: “The figure happily is growing every day. So it’s difficult to give you. I would rather not give you an exact figure because what’s right today is not going to be right tomorrow, however… if you look at your top 20 operators, the vast majority of those are committing to sending delegations.”

I speak to all those retailers regularly. All are supportive of TFWA (many strongly so), all see a role for physical trade shows, in general, and Cannes in particular. But, again, that is sentiment more than reality. The horrible reality is that travel out of (and, just as importantly, back into) many countries, alllied to the associated costs, quarantine measures and health sensitivities will make for a modest retailer attendance this year, acutely so in terms of the Asia Pacific region.

TFWA knows that but believes the holding of a “mini-Cannes” (President Jaya Singh’s term) is important from both an association funding and relevance point of view and also as an aid to travel retail’s recovery. Cannes 2021 will therefore be a mix of a solidarity demonstration, a ‘bridge’ back to normality, and an opportunity for those who can meet (and hopefully do business) to rekindle some industry fire.

My team, led by Dermot Davitt, will be there to support it and add their own spark. Alas, the prospect of a 21-day quarantine on return combined with my distinctly dodgy health track record mean that I have opted to miss the show for only the third time in 33 years.

France is at about 11 o’clock as I pace my daily routine; Hainan pretty much straight ahead. Stopping off at the former will have to wait until next year, the latter will be my next destination in, I hope, six to eight weeks. For now, the treadmill alongside my map, while listening to the Delta blues of a different kind, will be the closest I get to crossing the world.

When the moon
Peep over the mountain
Honey, I’ll be on my way
I’m gonna walk this highway
Until the break of day

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