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This Blog begins at Incheon International Airport, as I head home after a long but exhilirating week in South Korea. This is one of my favourite airports and that of many others, as underlined by it so consistently topping the ACI ASQ rankings in recent years.
Along with Dubai International, it is also one of the world’s top two airports by duty free sales and this week’s news of the forthcoming duty free tender – and particularly the way it is being structured – has electrified the trade here.
[The superb Korea Traditional Cultural Center at Incheon International Airport]
Since speaking at the inaugural IDutyFree Conference in Incheon early in the week, I have had the chance to catch up with several leading travel retailers and other key industry figures, and it’s no surprise what the major topic of conversation was.
On Wednesday night I dined with The Shilla Duty Free boss Jason Cha (below left) and Vice President Administration Team Tae Ho Kim at Shilla Hotel’s superb new Korean restaurant Rayeon. Shilla has its hands full right now (notably with brand negotiations) in launching its new overseas operations at Changi and Macau airports but it also, like rival Lotte Duty Free, faces a massive challenge at home in retaining its grip on the Incheon business.
I’ll bring you a full report on what the splitting of the Incheon tender into two groups (big retailers and small/medium enterprises) means for Korean travel retail next week but let’s just say for now that the government’s moves to curb the influence of the giants represents the biggest upheaval in the industry’s history here.
On Thursday evening I hosted two outstanding dinner companions at the Grand Hyatt in Seoul: YS Choi, the former Lotte Duty Free President and great pioneer of Korean duty free and Regina Hahm, a brilliant young analyst specialising in the sector for KB Daewoo Securities.
What an excellent evening, one in which we talked about the past, present and future of Korean travel retail, drank some good wine (Hunter’s by the wonderful Jane Hunter in Marlborough, New Zealand) and heard many of Mr Choi’s often hilarious, always insightful reminiscences of his three decades in the business.
Earlier that day I had the very great pleasure of meeting another pivotal influence in Korean travel retail over many years, Bluebell Korea President & CEO Daniel Mayran (top picture below), together with Duty Free Division Development Director Jin Mo Kim (next picture below) and Leathergoods & Accessories Director Guillaume Durdan.
An ebullient Frenchman, Daniel has been driving the success of powerful ‘brand behind the brands’, Bluebell, for the past 12 years. Bluebell, founded in 1960 by Pierre Goemans (and still in the hands of Michel and Catherine Goemans), represents a star-studded line-up of the world’s most illustrious brands in Korean travel retail, including the LVMH portfolio (including flagship Louis Vuitton, Clarins, L’Occitane and others.
He also created (and heads as President) the newly formed Seoul Luxury Business Institute, which aims to provide know-how to the luxury market’s key players in order to help them implement the highest standards of service.
Despite the structural changes to the market, Daniel remains very confident about Korean travel retail prospects, provided the market doesn’t focus only on high-end products. As more and more Chinese travellers come to Korea (there are now 280 flights a day to China), the mid-range is also important, he says.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that in travel retail terms at least, the Land of the Morning Calm is in tumult. Time to catch my Korean Air flight to London and maybe to contribute to an amazing US$200 million business run by the dynamic Heather Cho. Korean Air is probably the only travel retailer in the country feeling relaxed right now about the year ahead.
[Above and below: Korean Air’s superb Sky Shop inflight shopping magazine enjoys extensive distribution, in the airline lounges as well as the buses that bring passengers from Seoul to Incheon]
I’m nearly seven hours out of Incheon, suddenly wide awake after a much-needed few hours sleep, a few hundred miles north of my old blogging haunts of Novosibirsk and Omsk.
It’s been a tough few weeks, three out of four on the road, and after the next few days at home, three out of the ensuing four. But personal contact is everything in this business. With it comes many things – access, insight, knowledge, and often friendship. Korea is a case in point. I’ve been travelling there for a quarter of a century and I know the lie of the land, even when (as is the case in Korean travel retail today) it’s moving under you.