Sunshine through the fragrant harbour (and COVID-19) haze

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

Daybreak at my new Moodie Davitt Report Interim Hunghom Bureau and Victoria Harbour is cloaked in haze. The blaze of an anticipated 32°C morning will burn that off soon enough, allowing a clearer view of the breath-taking ever-changing vista offered by the famed waterway that splits Kowloon, where I am, and Hong Kong island (the Cantonese words 香港 heung gong, from which the phoenetic translation Hong Kong is drawn, literally means ‘fragrant harbour’).

We’re into a new month but the narrative remains similar to that of the past few months as COVID-19 continues to rage in much of the world, notably India where cases are surging at an alarming rate. The country now ranks third in both deaths (over 66,000) and total cases (3.8 million). As I wrote in my last Blog, one of those infected, alas, is Wild Tiger Beverages Founder and ‘Top Cat’ Gautom Menon, a man who did so much in raising consciousness about our industry last year (and about tiger conservation) in his famed Kerala to Cannes Roar Trip. A year on and he’s confined to his bed dosed up with medication.

All our lives have changed profoundly in that year haven’t they? At this point in 2019 many in the travel retail sector, like Gautom, were making plans to arrive in the French riviera city of Cannes for the TFWA World Exhibition in late September. That event and all its associated celebrations, expense and optimism seems like something from a different lifetime.

I continue to get many emails and LinkedIn notifications each week of those who have lost their roles and from some who have lost their companies. In numerous cases travel retail divisions are being scaled down in the face of 2020’s prolonged shutdown of traffic and trade, from which the recent stuttering revival has not been enough to save the livelihoods of many.

My own company has no immunity to such downturns; in fact it has a worrying level of exposure. We too have had to let good people go, nothing that any boss should do without losing a lot of sleep and marrying it with a determination to drive recovery and ultimate reemployment. We have chosen to couple that with a sustained innovation and diversification programme, which thankfully shows signs of paying off; more of that in coming days.

And yet, both as a private businessman and as industry commentator, I am increasingly (though cautiously) confident of the evolving industry landscape. This week I spoke to Eugene Barry, Executive Vice President, Commercial at Dubai Airports, operator of what has been for some time the world’s busiest international airport, DXB (Dubai International).

I always like speaking to Eugene, he looks forward constantly; he thinks, breathes and probably dreams innovation; and always but always considers the airport operation through the eyes of the traveller. “We’re in recovery mode, not crisis mode,” Eugene affirmed as we talked through his presentation at next month’s Virtual Travel Retail Expo, something I promise you will be near-mandatory viewing as we see how this outstanding airport company has adapted to – and anticipated – change.

My optimism is similarly buoyed as I take my now regular walks through T Galleria by DFS, Tsimshatsui East, which is close by my Interim Bureau. Even yesterday, a week day, the store had plenty of shoppers and while they represent a bare modicum of previous year’s levels, each and every one of them represents an example of how consumers will return to our stores if they feel safe in the locale and in the shop. Hong Kong has done marvellously in getting its latest COVID-19 spike under control. Yesterday there were just a dozen new cases, the day before nine.

Space management Clarins-style at DFS: Is travel retail set for an early 2021 lift-off?   Take a look at the pictures below I snapped outside the Gucci, Chanel and Hermès stores in Tsimshatsui. The images of queues snaking down the street and shoppers being let in one by one tell their own encouraging story.

On the Mainland, it’s a similar story. No cases at all on Hainan Island since April; no local transmissions across the vast territory and population of Mainland China for nearly three weeks. Stop and think about that for a moment. Macau hasn’t seen a case since 25 June and even that solitary example was the first in 78 days.

Whether by edict or by choice – and it’s actually a combination – people in China wear masks and take personal and social responsibility seriously. Responsibility is not the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of many western countries, either in terms of politicians or many elements of the population, in terms of how to deal with the worst pandemic in a century. The most-abused term of 2020? Freedom.

And what of the long-touted holy grail of a vaccine? Again, look to China, where no fewer than four COVID-19 vaccine candidates have started international phase-3 clinical trials (with some expected to complete the first round of vaccinations in early September and preliminary data expected as early as November). With other potential breakthrough vaccine and/or treatment work happening at speed in various countries including the US, UK, Germany, India, Israel and Russia, it is reasonable to expect that better days lie ahead, not on some distant and perhaps mirage-like horizon but in the relative near term.

Couple that prospect with the excellent health and safety work being done by aviation sector stakeholders and suddenly you start to see beyond the darkness. Heathrow is sharing results from trials of three rapid point of care testing solutions with the British government. Israel Airports Authority yesterday awarded a tender to operate a COVID-19 laboratory at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport).

Geneme, being trialed at Heathrow, offers a rapid RT-LAMP test which uses a nasal or throat swab sample to provide results within 30 minutes

As I finish this blog, the sun is forcing its way through the fragrant harbour haze. I feel like that too about travel retail and COVID-19.

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