Singing nightingales, big steel birds and flying Kiwis as Dubai Duty Free turns 40

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Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back no more
What you say?
– Hit the road Jack, Ray Charles

So there were Jack and I shooting the breeze at the excellent new-look Jack’s Bar & Grill at Dubai International Airport Terminal 3 just before I took my final flight of a year in which I reckon I have spent almost as much time in the sky as looking up at it.

“Reckon y’all better be gettin’ to your gate. Don’t go missin’ your flight,” said Jack – full name Jasper Newton ‘Jack’ Daniel, associated since the 1860s with the whiskey and distillery in/from Lynchburg, Tennessee that carries his name. Roughly my age, then.

“Aye, you’re right, it’s time to hit the road Jack,” I replied. “Good talking with you. Take care now.”

Brown-Forman Global Travel Retail and Emirates Leisure Retail unveiled the splendidly revamped Jack’s Bar & Grill at Dubai International Airport, Terminal 3 Concourse A earlier this month. There’s Jack himself sitting on the bench at the front of the restaurant, just before I interrupted his musings.

And with that passing shot – of farewell, not of Tennessee whiskey – I headed off to my gate to board EK003 to London Heathrow Airport.

Jack didn’t really talk to me – bronze casts of historic figures don’t tend to be very chatty– but I had indeed sat with him awhile reflecting on a year like no other in the 21 I have been running The Moodie Davitt Report (until 2015 The Moodie Report).

Flying Kiwi meets big steel bird, aka an Emirates A380 on my last air trip of the year

After the pandemic-ravaged 2020 and 2021 and an unsteady lurch back towards normality in 2022, 2023 has been full on, inflight maps a constant and necessary reminder of where I am on this planet.

I have been to the Middle East and back three times in the past five weeks (Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai, respectively), also sandwiching in visits to Kansai, Busan and Macau since November. And now, as I said, London, although this time it’s for family rather than work reasons.

Those trips have focused on some of the most memorable moments and projects in our industry you could ever imagine.

A first sight of the wondrous new Terminal A at Abu Dhabi International; the opening of the superbly authentic Souq Al Matar at Hamad International; the inauguration of the splendid Kansai International Terminal 1 airside departures zone, replete with the fine 2,500sq ft KIX Duty Free walk-through store. And Masters of Time in Macau, an astonishing assemblage of fine watches and jewellery pieces curated in a manner only DFS can do.

I am proud and privileged to have reported on all those events and places first-hand. In some cases like Terminal A and Masters of Time, I am still working on more extensive publications. Such visits are an honour. As was the purpose of my most recent assignment – live coverage of Dubai Duty Free’s 40th anniversary celebrations at DXB.

They bake very big cakes at Dubai Duty Free and even bigger ones when talking sales

What a mighty landmark that is. What an astonishing four-decade story. On 20 December 1983, Dubai Duty Free opened for business at a very different looking Dubai International Airport. Day one sales reached US$44,000, a decent sum back then and the forerunner of US$20 million in revenues for the retailer’s first full year, 1984.

Roll forward 40 years and sales on 20 December 2023 surged to AED54.2 million (US$14.8 million), supported by a special -25% discount on a wide range of merchandise over the 24 hours. The figure leapt +53% compared to the same day a year ago and – get this – represented 74% of 1984’s entire revenues. In one day.

The man at the helm on December 20 1983 was the very same man still there 40 years later. The one, the only, the remarkable Colm McLoughlin.

At 80 years of age he is still able to reel off statistic after statistic with uncanny accuracy, as I discovered while we chatted over a coffee (take a listen to the podcast below) at his office following a few euphoric hours touring T3. There he was treated like a rock star by his adoring staff and in a way that is exactly what he is.

It’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas: I caught up with the man who started it all, Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin, and the other great constant over those years, his wife Breeda, on the eve of the 40th anniversary celebrations
I have covered Dubai Duty Free for the past 36 years. Pity to have missed the first four but the man next to me certainly did not.

Amid all the euphoria, cake-cutting, flash mobs and Christmas carols (take a bow the brilliant Dubai Duty Free Nightingales), I took time out to watch (and to talk to) some of those staff – part of a 54-country employee base. Lives changed (theirs and their families back home) by working with this retailing tour de force.

These two managers have 67 years’ of service to Dubai Duty Free between them, equivalent (alas) to my age. Sanjay (left) has been doing an outstanding job for 33 years and Shafrique 34. They helped me out while I was doing some duty free shopping in the liquor department (a Longmorn 18 Year Old single malt and a 2021 Hunter’s Chardonnay from Marlborough). The latter replaced the one I had dropped upon arrival at the Dubai Duty Free-run Jumeirah Creekside Hotel on day one, turning it instantly into a Hunter’s Shard-onnay).
These three Dubai Duty Free superstars have 47 years of service between them: Samson 23 years, Kamal 17 and Mejo 7
I am greeted like an old friend by members of the Dubai Duty Free whom I have met many times down the years. I love the fact they can all access our website thanks to our ‘fast, factual, free’ motto we adopted from day one.

The pride they have, individually and collectively in working for such a successful national institution is a priceless asset, one that manifests itself in the excellence of service with which Dubai Duty Free is synonymous.

The sublimely talented Dubai Duty Free Nightingales asked me to join them for a photo. Fortunately for all airport passsengers, they did not ask me to join in their performance.

In fact, the tagline for this year’s landmark celebrations was ‘Celebrating 40 Years of Retailing Service’. Never was a party more richly deserved. And what a party it was.

No more flights for me in 2023. Tomorrow I head by train to Wales and the tiny town of Ystradgynlais (I need a couple of glasses of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to even get close to pronouncing it) for a family Christmas. Time to hit the track Jack. ✈

What a way to close out such a memorable day in Dubai Duty Free’s history as the retailer’s ‘Dream Team’ – its Executive Board – and partners gather at the Dubai Duty Free-run Jumeirah Creekside Hotel for a celebratory dinner. I was honoured to be asked to join this gathering of outstanding business leaders on a special night in all their careers.
Poor Jihad el Sibai, Regional Business Director for leading agency Universal McCann Worldwide and husband of Dubai Duty Free Senior Vice President Marketing Sinead El Sibai (left), is still recovering from a broken leg and partly wheelchair-bound for a few more weeks. But, hey,  with Dubai Duty Free Senior Vice President Finance Dr. Bernard Creed equally well cast in the role of his chauffeur, Jihad is in good hands.