Action not reaction, urges new ETRC Secretary General

By Luke Barras-hill |

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ETRC Secretary General Julie Lassaigne has targeted beauty brands and stakeholders in the maritime trade as she seeks to bolster the association’s membership this year.

Newly appointed European Travel Retail Confederation [ETRC] Secretary General Julie Lassaigne tells TRBusiness in her first in-depth interview since taking the role that the industry needs to be more proactive rather than reactive in dealing with regulatory hurdles. This is particularly important as the association juggles a number of policy areas in defence of duty free on key issues such as Brexit, the provision of information for consumers and air passenger rights, many of which stand at critical junctures. 

Firstly, congratulations on the your new role. You must be delighted to succeed *Keith Spinks…

I am really excited about this new opportunity. I have been in travel retail almost a decade, with ETRC since 2013 and before that with Hume Brophy. ETRC is a great organisation. Keith and the managing board have run it to a level where it is very respected, efficient and I am really excited now to take the organisation into the next chapter of its successful life.

Keith was in the role a long time and no doubt you’ll have differences in how you approach certain regulatory issues, of which there are many facing duty free. Can you provide our readers with a flavour of your early plans to shape the ETRC’s strategic agenda?

There are several things I’d like to see happening in my first year with ETRC. Having worked now in this organisation for several years, what I see common across all the categories is we tend to be very reactive when we have to tackle issues, so I think we need to be much more proactive in defending each category, but also the industry as a whole. There is a lot to be gained by talking as an industry and being responsible in the way we behave. That is my key driver for the first year; how we can better work together across each category but also with all out partners – airports, ferry companies and everyone part of that microsystem.

How does your approach differ from that of your predecessor and what steps will you take to ensure the ETRC strengthens the way it serves its membership and the industry as a whole moving forward?

My profile is very different from Keith – he was one of a kind, with a particular background in taxation and tobacco in particular. I am a trained public affairs professional. That gives me a very different perspective on how to address issues. My job is to talk to policy makers and influence the way we can operate. In that sense, the backgrounds are very different but I will bring my own assets, ways of doing things, and as in the past I have already been responsible for the Alcohol Working Group and Confectionery Working Group so I already have very close relationships with our members in a number of core categories. I am trying to now emulate that throughout the whole membership.

You mention the importance of the industry being more proactive as opposed to reactive on issues that concern it. That aside, do you have any set policy objectives you want to achieve for the association in year one?

We are still thinking about how best to develop those, but there are for instance a number of things we are doing such as working with the Duty Free World Council (DFWC) on the ‘Alcohol Code of Conduct’, which is a great way of being very proactive and anticipating issues we see in the future. We’ve seen that has being very effective in a number of countries where we’ve had issues concerning that particular category – Ireland being a recent example – of being interactive with policy makers at an early stage and promoting things in a responsible way to prevent legislation against duty free.

In the UK, the ‘One Too Many’ campaign [Backed by the International Air Transport Association, Airlines UK, Airport Operators Association and the UK Travel Retail Forum to address excessive drinking on flights – Ed] is a great way of tackling an issue. We know the government is looking at legislation but they’ve endorsed the campaign and think it’s a great way of working. In my new role, it’s about how can I promote best practices and great examples of campaigns implemented by parts of our membership, or within the region that serve the purpose of the industry in Europe but also across the globe.

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Lassaigne was appointed Deputy Secretary General in 2017 and has moved on to take the Secretary-General mantle, replacing Keith Spinks, now Senior Counsel.

Indeed, the government consultation recommending the revocation of licence exemptions for airside pubs, bars and shops in airports has come to an end. Where does ETRC stand on this issue?

As ETRC we submitted a contribution to the consultation. Our role is to support the UK Travel Retail Forum (UKTRF) as they are leading on that and have done a fantastic job in convincing the airports, retailers and airlines to work together to tackle this issue. They have been incredibly successful in the campaign, with summer and winter campaigns with airports including Heathrow.

It is a taste of how successful this approach has been. Regarding disruptive passengers, we see it as a cultural issue that can be solved through education and better passenger awareness instead of applying legislation that would penalise the rest of travellers. We see it would not solve the issue of disruptive passengers and it is much broader than that. Disruptive passengers don’t start in duty free shops and therefore by forbidding early sales or restricting retailers’ ability to sell alcohol at airports (airside) you would just be penalising the vast majority of travellers who legitimately buy alcohol as souvenirs or gifts.

The ETRC held another successful business forum in Amsterdam last month with more than 150 attendees, including a number of new companies. How do you see the forum evolving as a platform not only for ETRC but to foster wider industry engagement?

The first edition of the forum I believe was 12 years ago and since then it has changed tremendously. It has been a key project for me.  When I joined ETRC we had around 50 people in the room and this year we had 150. For me, the development of this as a forum is where all our members can meet together for an update on the issues we’re working on, but also learn from each other, promoting best practices from some of the categories, companies and regions.

Every year we learn from each forum to make it bigger and more interesting for each of our members across all the categories. We see it as a must-attend annual event. It is one-of-a-kind in a sense as it is for members – and members’ members – only, so it means you get big companies but also smaller ones from some of our national associations. They have different objectives but the same appetite for growth, so you have a very interesting mix. In the years to come, the objective is to try to emulate that participation across all our membership and all the regions and continue to be the place where people understand where the industry is going. Hopefully, we will hit a new attendance record next year.

Which retail channels would you like to see better represented in ETRC’s membership base?

There is two sides to this, from the brand and retailer perspective. On brands, we still have a number of important ones that are still not members. One duty for me this year is to talk to these brands, explain the benefits of ETRC and why they should join. We have about 40 corporate members at present, but this number should be much bigger if you look at the size of some of the companies operating in European travel retail, especially in beauty.

We have some big numbers missing there and I’ll be looking at getting those brands onboard. From the retailers side, we have the big five in Europe, but maritime for example is a section of the membership we are not covering though direct corporate memberships. However, we do have a very big Nordic travel retail group. We see the maritime sector is thriving and is very promising. We will be targeting new members there for sure.

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The ETRC Business Forum held in Amsterdam last month attracted more than 150 attendees made up of ETRC members representing around 90 companies. New corporate members such as Flemingo Europe (including Harding Retail & Baltona), Furla, Godiva, L’Oréal Travel Retail, Beam Suntory GTR, Bottega, Campari, La Prairie and Lindt & Sprüngli supported the event.

The ETRC last year piloted an off-label digital solution addressing concerns contained within the Food Information for Consumers (FIC) regulation. Bring us up to date on the implementation and adoption of the solution by retailers and are you any closer to convincing European policymakers that this should be enshrined into law?

Since our presentation in the European Parliament last year, we’ve undertaken consumer research at Hamburg Airport in December, the objective being to collect information and feedback from travellers in a real-life environment to address strengths and weaknesses in the system. We had a more than 70% acceptance level from travellers for it and we were able to identify that in a real-life environment we had to work a bit harder on the technological impacts. Our first priority is to address these and I’m hopeful these will be solved in the coming months. With new elections for the European Parliament coming this year, it is important we keep this momentum going and the commission is aware of what we are doing. We will also be going directly to member states to test their appetite for new legislation to allow for digital labelling. At the moment, it can be done on a voluntary basis, but it has no legal value.

Our objective has always been to enshrine it into European legislation. There will be a roadshow with between eight to ten member states to present the objectives of the platform and assess when the future of digital labelling might be, as the regulatory future on digital labelling may not be aligned with ours. We want to assess when this will happen and this will drive our investment and future implementation. For the cosmetics category, a consultation is due to be launched around April or May this year on the possibility to provide allergen information via digital labelling. That will be a very important step for us to show what we have been doing and push the solution for one of our core product categories.

In alcohol, last year the industry made a voluntary commitment in Europe to provide nutrition and ingredient listings and we understand our membership is keen to be active in this to show the regulators they are serious in making that voluntary commitment using our platform to provide that information. The work we are doing on alcohol and cosmetics is a way then to go back to confectionery – the first pilot. There are a number of on-going initiatives that keep digital labelling on the agenda. For our managing board, it is one of the key priorities in the years to come.

[Separately, the UKTRF and ETRC is rallying its members in view of making a submission to a UK consultation that seeks to ban ‘unhealthy’ HFSS (high in fat, salt and sugar) confectionery promotions such as multi-buy products and restricts retail visibility instore at areas including entrances, at checkout and end-aisles. Travel retail lobbyists will be stressing the unique nature of the industry by way of response. The consultation is due to conclude in April – Ed]

It remains to be seen whether there will be any legally-binding concessions made to the Brexit backstop under UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s current withdrawal agreement, but that picture is changing all the time. Is the industry mobilised for a ‘hard Brexit’ with 51 days remaining if Britain does not enter the proposed transition period through a deal?

There are many issues with Brexit, but strictly concerning the return of duty free from the EU we had a very strong and clear response in November that EU travellers to the UK will be able to buy tax and duty free on 30 March. [While the EU position is more clear cut with duty free sales for EU-UK travellers activated under third country status, the UK Parliament is still required to react to two pieces of key legislation to enable duty free sales to be granted to UK-EU travellers under customs arrangements, TRBusiness understands]. 

There is recognition from the UK side that there’s needs to be reciprocity; it would be bad publicity if you can buy duty free in the EU but not the reverse on day one. The clock is ticking, but we know that we are not the only ones in a position waiting for a decision. For us, the message to our members has been, ‘prepare for the worst, hope for the best’. It is very difficult at this stage to say where things are going. Our members, while certainly hoping for more clarity, are perfectly aware of the situation. From the retailers side, I think they know what a no-deal scenario means and are preparing for it, and I believe they will be ready on 30 March.

Finally, what will be your immediate focuses in the coming months and year?

There are a number of initiatives we are actively working on such as air transport security rules. New technologies are emerging at airports that will hopefully allow for much smoother passenger journeys in the future. Regarding air passenger rights, it remains one of our objectives to enable passengers to buy their duty free shopping and carry it onboard free of charge with their hand baggage. That legislation was being stalled at Council level owing to an argument between the UK and Spain over Gibraltar Airport.

One of our objectives is to work with the Council to enshrine legislation that makes duty free, free of charge for passengers. At the moment, airlines such as Ryanair and Wizz Air allow duty free purchases onboard free of charge, but they could reverse that rule as there is nothing in legislation. It is really important to advocate for that legislation to be changed.

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Refining a digital solution enabling consumers across categories including cosmetics, alcohol and confectionery to access mandatory product information off-label remains high on the list of ETRC’s priorities this year.

*At the time Lassaigne’s appointment was announced last month, ETRC President Frank O’Connell paid tribute to her commitment to the industry and voiced on behalf of the ETRC managing board their collective confidence in her ability to build on the association’s achievements to date. 

As part of a joint announcement, Keith Spinks – Secretary General of ETRC since its establishment in 2004 and prior to that Director General of the then International Travel Retail Confederation – was named as Senior Counsel, ETRC. 

In a separate interview, Spinks offered his comment on the promotion of Lassaigne, who served under him for many years. TRBusiness is happy to publish this here:

“I am very pleased for Julie and it was time for her to move up. In her role as Deputy Secretary General she has been managing a number of key policy areas for us, not least on security and labelling. We had a very successful forum this year that Julie leads in terms of organisation.”

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