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Sometimes you just have to forget the superlatives and simply say ‘Wow’. In fact, I probably heard the expression more on a single day, 1 September, than I have in the past decade, as brand executives reacted to the stunning new CDF Mall at Haitang Bay on Hainan Island, China.
As the sole industry media representative at the March 2013 China Duty Free Group (CDF) Vendors’ Conference, when the project was outlined in detail and the construction site toured, and September 2014’s Grand Opening, I am in a unique position to commentate on what by any standards ranks as one of the great moments in travel retail history.
On the former occasion we heard CDFG Vice President Charles Chen (pictured below with me at this week’s opening) expound the vision behind the shopping complex with conviction and clarity. But the project was of such a scale and the timeline to a 2015 opening so tight that one wondered, especially after a visit to what amounted to little more than a vast construction site (above), how it all could be done.
Brands – including the biggest, most demanding names in the business – had to be convinced, space agreed, terms signed, stores built. Could CDF really pull it off?
The answer, shouted from the roof-tops of this architectural wonder at the Grand Opening, was an emphatic, defiant, resounding ‘Yes’. Somehow, against what CDF executives and brand representatives told me were at times overwhelming odds, this vast, two-building, multi-story retail-to-food & beverage extravaganza got over the line.
The story of how it got there could fill a book the size of War & Peace. I’ve known men such as Charles Chen and Luke Chang (Director Beauty & Fashion Department, pictured below) for many years. I got to know their amazing work ethic and passion for the business very well through the China Travel Retail Summit of 2002 (in The Moodie Report’s first year), an event I co-organised with CDF and King Power Group.
The conference component was held in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, the Gala Dinner at the Great Wall. Never was there such an event; never did I see such hard work behind the scenes to overcome the odds (we weren’t even allowed into the revered Hall with all our audio-visual set-up until just one hour before the conference opening; and remember CDF was a much smaller, more fledgling organisation back then); never did I see more pride in an organisation determined to show that it could match the best.
Twelve years on, all those qualities and more shone like a giant Chinese lantern in the night as CDF strove to be ready for opening. Just days before, the task had seemed nigh impossible, with many of the boutiques hardly in place let alone completed (there are barely any generic offers; other than categories such as sunglasses, the lion’s share of brands are stand-alone propositions).
Together with the local team, a large CDF contingent seconded from head office in Beijing worked around the clock (and I don’t use the term lightly) on several occasions to ensure that the deadline would be hit.
CDF Chairman Peng Hui (pictured below after our interview on Monday) told me: “As long as we had set the opening target, we had to make it.” No ifs, buts or maybes. But can you imagine the huge pressures that placed on the team as they tried to create not only the world’s biggest duty free complex but also one of its very best?
“The spirit of our company, from the top management to more junior levels, is that we are willing to take on challenges,” Peng continued. “If I had to sum up that spirit it would be in the words ‘Not afraid of difficulties’.”
What an elegant way to express the spirit of a company that has transformed itself beyond recognition over the past decade. A company that used to be a mix of wholesale business and some acceptable but never inspiring retail has challenged itself to be great; by setting itself a goal so high, so beyond anything it – or the industry – had done in terms of scale (and great quality) that only by reaching that goal could it ultimately define what it stood for. A company that made an industry utter a collective ‘Wow’.