Sad-eyed loner of the (Siberian) lowlands

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

Why is it, I wonder, that I end up writing so many Blogs over Novosibirsk?

I’m 38,000 feet up on British Airways 22 from Hong Kong to London, and after sleeping like a log for the first six hours of the flight I’m suddenly raring to go again.

According to British Airways’ inflight journey map, Novosobirsk is located on the Western Siberian lowlands and on many a journey home from Asia I have sat here Blogging and wondering what Russia’s third most populous location below has to offer. Heck, I must count as one of its most regular visitors, the way I’m going this year I may soon be granted the freedom of the city.

These are my favourite hours on a long-haul flight. Most other passengers are sleeping; those who cannot are tuned into the latest movie; otherwise the dark of the cabin is illuminated only by a few reading spotlights and the odd sad person like me on their laptops.

I can listen to my favourite sounds on iTunes (currently a blend of Davy Arthur, Lucinda Williams and my constant travel companion Warren Zevon) while pondering eternal dilemmas, such as why melancholy music makes me feel happy…

On the purely legitimate basis that it’s around 8.40p.m in London, I’ve ordered a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (from Waimea, Nelson, rather than nearby Marlborough but equally good) and am settling into the task of catching up with e-mails and a workload that is as backed-up as much as the buses I saw outside DFS Galleria Chinachem last night.

Like many others I know in this business, I find clarity in these moments and do some of my best thinking. One reflects on life on the road, the week gone by, the challenges ahead, the people in your life (“I thought of my friends, and the troubles they’ve had, to keep me from thinking of mine” as the late, great Zevon put it).

It’s a sort of suspended moment in time, when you’re caught between one place and another, hurtling at 892k per hour towards your destination (I’ve now left Novosirbirsk far behind by the way and am headed past the good citizens of Omsk).

It’s been a strange old week, enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure. I flew to the China Travel Retail conference in Shanghai with much trepidation, knowing that my close colleague Dermot Davitt and I would me moderating proceedings at someone else’s event over which we had little control.

That’s very different to, say, The Trinity Forum, where we control proceedings (and the quality) throughout, from the selection of the speakers to the on-stage facilitation. It can be a lonely place up there if things go wrong (and given the high number and often low quality of conferences in the aviation-related sector, boy do they go wrong).

In fact, it was a far better event than Dermot or I, and perhaps many others, predicted. In parts it was outstanding. Apart from a few ‘commercials’ (and even they, eventually, led to a point), the quality of the presentations was first-rate, notably from all the Chinese speakers, buoyed by informative, insightful addresses from international retailers, led by Dubai Duty Free’s Sean Staunton (below) and The Shilla Duty Free’s Jeong-Ho Cha.

It was telling indeed to watch how many of the Chinese delegates took photos of the powerpoint presentations of the international speakers. Here’s a sector in profound and irresistible change, driven by surging demand, a nigh unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a real desire to bring international standards to a still nascent but profoundly important market.

The organisers, UK company Ink and Shanghai-based GIS Events, will feel well pleased but they face a big challenge going forward as trade supplier association TFWA prepares to launch its own event next March in Beijing (Ink/GIS have said their event will be annual but have given no hint of 2013 timing).

Is there the room let alone the need for two China conferences? No and no are probably the logical answers but that won’t stop it happening. It’s a free market and delegates will choose with their feet (and budgets). Ink, untied to any TFWA pressure, is something of a maverick, while the Paris-based supplier association is powerful and well connected. It will be an interesting contest. Given the importance of China to The Moodie Report, we’ll attend and support both events. I suspect that will place us in the minority.

And the frustration? Well, as documented in my last Blog, at one stage I wondered whether I would ever get out of Shanghai. My initial love affair with Hong Kong Airlines is cooling fast as flight after flight was hopelessly delayed in recent days while other carriers reached Hong Kong from Shanghai as normal.

The airline’s communication was disastrous. If I had known (as they did) upon check-in yesterday that the flight to Hong Kong would be delayed for several hours, I would have just given up and jumped on the next London-bound flight.

Once we finally boarded we were then stranded on the runway for around two and a half hours, punctuated by a (too) few announcements from the Captain blaming air traffic control.

An 11-hour door-to-door journey for such a short hop was not what I had in mind though in the end I’m glad I made it. Not only did I stop off to see the great team at the Hotel Icon, (which has with incredible generosity donated its Ballroom and a five-star dinner free of charge for The Moodie Report’s 10th anniversary Charity Ball on 5 October) but I also got to walk the DFS Galleria at Chinachem just across the road.

Over recent days the Chinese newspapers have been full of foreboding news of a major slowdown in the national economy. You wouldn’t know it from the shopping scenes at Sunrise Duty Free at Shanghai Pudong Airport or those inside Chinachem in Hong Kong. At Sunrise, the shopping scene at Estée Lauder’s in-store boutique (pictured) was little short of a consumer feeding frenzy, Chanel was not much different.

I have a soft spot for Sunrise, whose driving force, Madam Zhang Feng Yi, is one of the most dynamic and generous individuals in this industry but who modestly avoids the public limelight. She may have a low public profile but she is a key influence on China’s fast-evolving travel retail channel.

I shopped in the Sunrise store yesterday, receiving great service in the Shanghai Tang and Montblanc boutiques from staff members Elin and Cathy respectively, whose grace and smiles were as important to both transactions as the carefully adorned gift wrapping they delivered with flair and care.

At DFS Chinachem, the scenes of consumerism were equally intense. Tour buses lined up outside; yellow-stickered Chinese group tourists of all ages wandered from one star-studded brand department to another. The fine watches department was doing roaring business; so was the sunglasses boutique; while the Lauder boutique was practically overwhelmed.

Witnessing such scenes helps hugely in nurturing one’s understanding of the business. As the China Travel Retail conference and my subsequent in-store experiences confirm, we are living through one of the two most profound consumer ground-shifts in our industry’s history (the other being the great Japanese travel explosion of the 1960s and ‘70s).

Talking of ground-shifting, I’ve left the good folks of Novosibirsk far behind. Currently I’m flying over the Ural mountains towards Moscow… another journey among many. Travel delays or not, I wouldn’t have missed any of them for the world. To badly misquote one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, I’ll remain a Sad-eyed loner of the (Siberian) lowlands for a while yet.

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