Latest posts by Martin Moodie (see all)
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With a skilled driver like this at the wheel, how could I possibly go wrong? But while the ride ahead will be safe, it is also sure to be thrilling for here is a man who seems to only go at top speed.
“Come on Martin, jump in.”
Meet Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive H.E. Mr. Akbar Al Baker as you have never seen him before, at the wheel of a buggy leading me on a tour of Hamad International Airport and some of its most exciting projects. The back-seat drivers? Well you probably know them too, Hamad International Airport Chief Operating Officer Engr. Badr Mohammed Al Meer (rear left) and Qatar Duty Free Vice President Operations Thabet Musleh.
“At Qatar Airways and at Hamad International, we will never stop investing. Investment is what will give you the returns”
You couldn’t find a better airport guide than H.E. Mr Al Baker, the man they refer to here as ‘Chief’. As we race around the vast expanse of the modern-day aviation wonder that is Hamad International, his attention to detail is astounding. It seems that he knows every inch of this place, stopping to point out a roof tile in an area under development that he notices needs replacement. As we visit an additional airport lounge under construction, he spots a small metal door plate that he thinks does not look right for the premium image he and the airport company pride themselves on conveying.
“Change it,” he says.
We take a rickety mechanical hoist to the construction site of a second airport hotel. Not a ride for the faint-hearted but then Al Baker was never that. It’s dusty, noisy and there are wires and workmen everywhere but the Chief roams the place eagerly and respectfully, observing the minutest detail with interest and insight.
His sense of pride and purpose is deeper than that of anyone I have met in 34 years of covering the aviation and travel retail sectors. Later when we do an interview in the magnificent Al Safwa First Class Lounge, the Chief spells out his glorious obsession with quality and a sustained commitment to innovation and imagination.
“At Qatar Airways and at Hamad International, we will never stop investing. Investment is what will give you the returns,” he says. “If you just stay stagnant, people will get bored of you, people will not give you the kind of investment return that you are looking for.
“As the leader of a major airline in the world, I have to see beyond the end of my nose. I need to make sure that we are ready for the long term and not just the short term. This is why we are making all these investments, not only investment in the duty free, but also investment in the building. To go to the second level, making sure constantly that as people copy us, we are two steps ahead of them.”
But here’s another thing, there’s no sense of elitism in Al Baker’s view of what an airport should be. Yes, there’s luxury shopping of the highest order. Yes, there are Business and First Class Lounges of refinement that almost takes the breath away. But all the time the needs of economy passengers and sub-continent workers are also front of mind.
“We will have something for everybody,” says Al Baker of the current development plans, including the exciting ‘21 in 21 project’, which will see 21 new stores or F&B outlets opened this year to celebrate the airport’s 21st anniversary.
“We don’t only want people who are affluent to come here. We want people from every level of society to come and to feel that there is something for them,” he says.
A prime example is a planned ‘Big Value’ duty free shop (see renderings below) offering products tailored to a budget-conscious consumer. Another hugely commendable initiative came with the introduction of a dedicated Mariner Lounge earlier this year, open to seafarers and offshore workers, many of whom have suffered greatly during the pandemic by being stranded abroad.
The Chief gave me nearly two hours of his time, constantly pointing out things as he drove and making occasional notes of snags he wanted fixing. He didn’t intend it that way but it was a masterclass in airport and retail leadership.
I also spent some quality hours with Thabet Musleh, who lives and breathes his role as head of retail and who has conceived some superb innovations over recent times. Here is a man who has developed impressively in the role and now ranks as one of the world’s most dynamic airport commercial executives.
“I’m really proud of what we are creating here,” Thabet told me over coffee at the splendid Harrods Tea Room. “I am so, so passionate about what I do.”
That emotion – and the results it is producing – are plain to see. Thabet is particularly excited about Viale di Lusso – a soon to be opened upscale shopping and dining avenue that will incorporate luxury labels with a heady selection of ready-to-wear fashion items and accessories.
Dubbed ‘A new world of luxury’, Viale di Lusso features Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Valentino, Jimmy Choo, Pucci and Chloé; plus a debut Emporio Armani Ristorante concept and a bold and vibrant latest-design Starbucks, both offering brilliant views onto the airfield.
Equally, though, the core category liquor, tobacco and confectionery offer – a lovely new-look store with some nice digital touches that was a building site on my last visit a year ago – has him purring.
Perhaps some of the predictions of a lurch towards a consumer desire for contactless shopping have been overblown?
The same goes for the latest enhancements to the perfumes & cosmetics offer, as good Thabet insists as any department store in the world. “You wouldn’t know you’re in an airport when you walk in here,” he says proudly as we wander the shop floor, including some high-visibility outposts and high-profile promotion areas.
Visiting Hamad International Airport and Qatar Duty Free is like taking an elixir for those COVID blues. For a start there are a lot of passengers here. Yesterday morning the airport was jampacked as Qatar Airways continues to operate – and spread – its vast global route network. And there’s a lot of spending. ATVs are really encouraging, Thabet says (I did my best to contribute by purchasing a bottle of Royal Salute 21 Year Old on the way out) and what I found really interesting was the in-store behaviour of consumers.
Apart from the fact that they and the shop staff were wearing masks, you would not otherwise have noted anything different from, say, two years ago. Although off-peak when I flew out, business was brisk and those shoppers looked very relaxed about the whole experience. Perhaps some of the predictions of a lurch towards a consumer desire for contactless shopping have been overblown?
Qatar Duty Free must currently rank as one of the world’s busiest airport retailers. It is also one of the best, driven by a passion for excellence that starts at the top and flows rather than trickles all the way down. To this point, I haven’t even talked about the hugely ambitious airport expansion due to open in September 2022 nor about some of the other well-advanced store openings, details of which remain under wraps for now but which we can preview with the renderings below.
This then is a story that is going to run and run. And in an industry still traumatised by the impact of a pandemic that has far from finished its course, it is the most welcome of tales.