Pivoting fast and turning virtual in the Lockdown Bureau

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04.23 in The Moodie Davitt Lockdown Bureau and my working day has been underway for almost an hour. Sleep and I have been only occasional companions since the COVID-19 crisis began and once I wake, the mind’s ability to race faster than a thoroughbread champion entering the home strait at the Kentucky Derby takes over.

It is what it is, and I must say that everything always seems more manageable once I start hitting the buttons on the mental control tower that is my laptop.

It is just 4 months (22 weeks and 2 days to be precise) since we first featured the word coronavirus on our website, ten days after we reported a mysterious pneumonia outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

In those 22 weeks our world has changed, my company’s world has changed, my own world has changed. It’s 9 weeks tomorrow since I last saw my office (‘My Wilson moment in the Moodie Davitt Castaway Bureau’) and in the interim period I, like all of you, have transitioned into a working world dominated by Zoom, Microsoft Teams and online engagement. In common with many readers, I wonder if I will ever bother with the resource, cost, and time-loss drawbacks of office space again.

The day I placed ‘Wilson’ in command at Moodie Davitt HQ in London, which has sat unoccupied for nine weeks

Thanks to what the medics call ‘underlying health conditions’ (lack of a spleen and therefore compromised immunity), my accompanying personal world has largely been one of household isolation, a Groundhog Day routine punctuated by the weekly highlight of a supermarket home delivery from Morrisons, an event that has taken on all the excitement of a child’s day out at the seaside.

The closest I have got to take-off since January

And you know what? I am blessed. What an enriching 22 weeks and 2 days it has been. I have had hundreds upon hundreds of email, phone and WeChat conversations with people in our industry all around the world; I have shared glasses of wine (virtually at least) with friends old and new via Zoom. I have been able to watch winter transition into spring and marvel at the rebirth of my back garden just metres away from where I write these words.

Catching up for a virtual drink with Jonathan and Eleen Holland

Never before have I been so entranced by the rich hue of my roses, the yellows, whites, pinks and dramatic blood reds. Never before have I watched with such wonder and quiet joy the daily routine of the birds taking their morning sustenance from the feeders I hang from a Rowan tree outside the door; or the magnificently acrobatic routines of the squirrels trying to access those same feeders built specifically to keep them out.

Sometimes, just to break the monotony, and after the greens have been watered, I get out for a game of golf on my local course

After the Queen’s speech in early April, in which Her Majesty evoked the words of the classic Vera Lynn war song ‘We’ll meet again’ by saying “We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again”, I wrote ‘It feels a bit like war doesn’t it?’

I was rightly chided for my choice of words by a long-time friend in the industry, a man I respect very much, former Oettinger Davidoff CEO (and now Calida Group Chairman) Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard. He reminded me that our grandparents and parents were asked to fight in the trenches, while we were being asked to “sit it out on the couch”.

Not quite sitting on the couch in the case of almost 340,000 deceased and the bereaved they have left behind but the point about not bemoaning your lot is valid. I decided that very early on about my business too. It’s not much use wringing your hands about the disastrous effect of a global pandemic on your company when you could be actually doing something to offset that impact. And in that sense, again, I am blessed. I control my business. I can make quick decisions, scale down, pivot, reinvent, scale up again. And I have a job, thousands upon thousands in the aviation, tourism and travel retail sectors – many of them well-known to me – no longer do.

Pivot and reinvent is precisely what I and we have done. On 9 March, just ten weeks ago today, and seeing the writing not just on the wall for our physical events – The Trinity Forum (October) and the Airport Food & Beverage (FAB) Conference & Awards (September) – I suggested to my colleague and Chief Technology Officer Matt Willey that we should replace them with a ‘virtual’ conference. It was a word that would soon take a life form of its own. Matt responded the next day by asking me to look at a virtual exhibition concept he had researched.

Within hours the Moodie Davitt Virtual Travel Retail Expo was born. On 27 March it was announced, a fully-fledged exhibition and symposium. Not one, as I state repeatedly in the face of those who would try to create mischief, designed to replace TFWA World Exhibition (although that event’s recent cancellation means it will do so this year) but to ensure my business’s survival and to achieve things that a physical show cannot – just as a physical event can deliver things its virtual counterpart cannot.

But you can’t just invent a trade show, especially if you are a small team (with four of them by now on furlough), all overrun maintaining an information service that while bleeding revenue was experiencing unprecedented demand and off-the-scale web traffic. I needed an army. I found one in the form of Singapore-based integrated retail, marketing and design agency FILTR.

I had dealt with the company, owned by Alex Cook and Nick Sutton, for some years. Having seen many of their brand campaigns, activations and pop-ups, I knew precisely the quality, professionalism and commitment they would bring to the party. By 7 April we had announced FILTR as our Virtual Stand & Experience Partner for the event.

Now we needed support. I found it in people who believed in the concept and believed in me. Such as Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin, to whom I so often turn for mentorship and who never fails to give it, whether it’s in agreement with what I propose or otherwise. I found it in ‘the father of inflight duty free’, Rakhita Jayawardena, who applauded the notion and committed his organisation to it.

I found it in 3Sixty Duty Free (formerly DFASS) Founder & Chairman Benny Klepach who said “We’re in; we’re bringing the whole team” (and they are). I found it in Severino Pušić and Roger Jackson (ex-Diageo) at The SEVA Group, who listened, guided and immediately supported. I found it in Beam Suntory Global Head Of Marketing – Travel Retail Ed Stening, who not only became our first Platinum Partner but pushed us to stretch far beyond the boundaries of our original imagination.

I found it in Charles Chen, President of China Duty Free Group, a man I have known ever since we both entered the travel retail community way back in 1987, who committed his dynamic organisation to becoming our first Diamond partner. And I have found it in so many individuals and companies ever since, to whom I owe my enduring thanks.

So far have we come down the road in our thinking and – largely thanks to FILTR – our execution of the architecture, design and conceptual vision of the Expo – that five days ago on 18 May we announced the creation of a new entity, The Moodie Davitt Virtual Expo Company.

That company will not only manage the Virtual Travel Retail Expo as it evolves this year and beyond but also a range of new events outside the travel retail channel. These start with Wellbeing World, Beauty Inclusive, and World of Spirits in Q4 2020 through Q1 2021 and a full 2021 programme is currently being finalised. And they won’t simply be trade Expos, but also for the consumer. We are pouring investment and creativity into these ventures in equal measure.

Pivot? We have, in fact, completely reimagined our company in ten weeks. And it’s working. This week we brought back to work one of our ‘Furlough Four’, Senior Editor Liam Coleman, and it was a joyous gathering indeed as I announced the fact to the team via, you guessed it, Zoom. We’re working our (Happy) socks off to bring the others back too.

Working my Happy Socks off in the Lockdown Bureau

We’re also doing our best to get other people in the industry back to work. Last Sunday we launched the Travel Retail Talent Retention Scheme, which will serve as a central database from which employers can recruit candidates (full-time, part-time, project/consultancy basis etc) once the recovery starts, without having to pay headhunters’ fees, thus benefiting all parties. Not a single cent will be levied by The Moodie Davitt Report. In fact it’s a significant cost as we have to administer it properly but it’s simply the right thing to do. Already we have placed two people in project work and one with a promised full-time role from July.

In travel retail, we’ve also created The Trinity Institute, a community of networking, engagement and thought leadership.  It will host events big and small; become a haven for quality research; and be a one-stop shop for those wanting to discover more about our industry. It will be a permanent year-round seat of knowledge, expos (global, national, company and sector-specific), workshops, seminars and B2B and B2C experiences. It will embrace travel-related commercial services across multiple channels such as airports, airlines, cruise and ferry companies and ecommerce, including retail, food & beverage, hospitality, advertising, and other sectors.

It’s now 6.03, almost two hours since I started writing this Blog. Two coffees and two chamomile teas in, the pitch blackness of the early hour has given way to a bright sunny day and it’s the finchs’ turn at the Moodie Lockdown Bureau morning buffet. I use three different seed mixes to attract a variety of birds and as I write I have just witnessed the first morning appearance of a robin redbreast – the nation’s most loved bird, almost as popular as the Queen.

So, no, this is anything but war. But neither is it good nor easy out there for the bereaved, the sick, the jobless. We are living through a crisis that will define a generation. My blessings are many, and every day here in the Lockdown Bureau I try to count each one.